Vienna killing sullied our image, say Indians in Austria

By Kul Bhushan, IANS,

The good image of Indians in Austria has been damaged by the killing of a Sikh leader in Vienna, say members of the 15,000 strong community in the European nation.

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“Sikhs, and Indians in general, who have been to date viewed favourably – as willing to integrate, friendly and peaceful, have now lost the general goodwill of most Austrians. Their image has suffered immense damage and will take ages to recover,” said an Indian professional settled in Vienna on condition of anonymity.

Vienna has about 2,000 Sikhs and another 1,000 or so live in other parts of Austria. Unlike Canada or the US, Sikhs in Austria are poor and do menial jobs – as roadside garment sellers, pizza cooks, drivers, newspaper sellers – and have a very low level of education, he said.

Sant Rama Nand, the second-in-command of the Sikh sect Dera Sachh Khand, died in a hospital in Vienna Monday after a clash between rival Sikh groups at a gurdwara. Sunday’s attack also left at least 16 people injured. The incident sparked violent protests in Punjab by followers of the sect, mostly Dalit Sikhs, killing three.

The Indian professional said there were three gurdwaras – and not two as many reports said – in Vienna. A new one is being built by upper caste Sikhs. In fact, the Austrian government has even given free land and some money to build the new gurdwara.

“There have been long-standing conflicts within the Sikh community, mostly over the misuse of donations but also over personal and family/clan rivalries,” he said.

The older generation of Sikhs, which runs these gurdwaras, is given to intrigues, rivalry and corruption, he said. They don’t speak English, Hindi or German while the younger generation that grew up in Vienna is more professional and some of them have jobs in Austrian companies or their own businesses.

“These youngsters have tried to reform things but have always had to bow to the elders and have given up now,” he said.

The majority of the estimated 15,000 Indians settled in Austria are Christian Keralites. They have three well managed community organisations in Vienna and work mostly as nurses in the healthcare sector and in church organisations and projects.

Hindus used to hold a prayer meeting every Sunday morning in part of a Chinese restaurant about 10 years ago, then they shifted to a large basement for a more permanent place of worship but have not built a temple despite many plans, as they are divided, said a Hindu settled in Vienna.

“The earlier leaders were educated people, though conservative, impractical dreamers, but the newer ones are shopkeepers without vision,” he said.

Their biggest annual event is Diwali celebrated in Lugner City, a city centre shopping mall where Hindus and Sikhs come together for the occasion. Special stalls are set up to sell Indian food and snacks, gifts and services for this daylong festival.

The Hindu religious organisations present Indian cultural songs and dances and the event is usually attended by the Indian ambassador as the guest of honour.

Indians from many Indian states work at the United Nations headquarters in Vienna and mostly interact among themselves socially. A number of them have settled in Vienna after their retirement.

A former United Nations consultant from India now settled in Vienna said: “This is all most distressing. Like many Viennese, I had no idea that there was a Sikh temple near the West railway station where this appalling incident occurred. It has taken most non-Indians by surprise. Interestingly, a doctor was flown in from London to treat the severely injured Sikh religious leader.”

Up to now, Indians have not been involved in any major scandal but the killing of the Sikh religious leader could fuel the debate over stricter policies for minorities and asylum seekers in Austria by the political right wingers of the Freedom Party of Austria led by the firebrand Heinz-Christian Strache. With elections for the European Parliament just two weeks away, Strache will certainly talk about this incident in his public speeches.

“I think that if Strache were to ever hold any office, such as mayor or chancellor, Vienna would quickly depopulate and be truly ostracised within the EU,” said the former UN consultant.

“There is no way that a small country like Austria – dependent on tourism and inward investment – can afford this sort of incendiary electioneering and we all hope that common sense and decency will prevail.”

(29.05.2009 – Kul Bhushan can be contacted at [email protected])