Print edition : August 24, 2012

The attack on an African student points to Punjabs new culture of intolerance and money power.

in Jalandhar and Patiala

Nestor Ntibateganya at the side of his comatose son Yannick Nihangaza in a hospital in Patiala on July 12.-AKHILESH KUMAR

DOABA, the region between the rivers Beas and Sutlej in Punjab, has historically been a cosmopolitan place owing to its environmental prosperity. Because of this, the population is a healthy mix of Hindu Banias, who flourish because of the many business centres in the region; Sikhs, who rely on the fertile soil for cultivation; and a large number of migrants, who sustain themselves on the belts industrial prosperity.

Despite occasional tensions between the communities, by and large harmony has prevailed because of their economic dependence on each other. But one recent incident in Jalandhar, in the heart of Doaba, has shown how fragile this harmony is.

On April 22, a group of youngsters belonging to the Sikh and Hindu communities beat up Yannick Nihangaza, a student from the African country of Burundi. In the brutal attack, his head was smashed with a boulder, which sent him into a state of coma. For about three months, he lay in a hospital in Patiala on life support. The police and the rest of the State administration did not take any action despite several police complaints, and no arrests were made.

Yannicks father, Nestor Ntibateganya, even wrote two letters to the Punjab Chief Minister, Prakash Singh Badal, seeking justice and also permission to take his son to Burundi as there was little hope for his sons recovery.

It was only in early July, when the national media highlighted the plight of the African student, that the Punjab government took note of the case and urged the police to take the guilty to task. After the media reported the story for a week, the State government announced a compensation of Rs.5 lakh to the victim and promised to extend all necessary help. But even then State authorities did not care to enquire about the reasons for the attack, which the media alleged was racist.

Since then nine persons have been suspected of involvement in the attack, most of them coming from influential families. Seven of them have been arrested. They include the son of a Superintendent of Police in the State and three others who are sons of rich businessmen of Jalandhar. The high-profile arrests have given some prominence to the case, which highlights the increasing intolerance towards outsiders in the State and shows how feudal power and money power collude to manipulate the democratic system.

This is evident from the way the police handled the case and the reaction of the middle class to the incident. The first information report (FIR) states that there are nine accused in the case but names only eight of them and refuses to name the ninth accused despite demands by the media.

One of Yannicks friends, Abagbe, told Frontline that that there was an altercation between Yannick and one of the accused at a liquor shop on the evening of April 22. Yannick left for his residence after that, but the other person decided to follow him and call his friends for assistance. All the assailants were drunk and they attacked the Burundian with iron rods and stones. We were inside the house and did not hear anything, Abagbe said. An autorickshaw driver, who was passing by, took the motionless Yannick to hospital.

However, the police have a different version. The FIR says that there was an altercation at the liquor shop between an African student and Sahildeep Singh, son of a high-ranking official in a bank. When Sahildeep returned with his friends, they saw Yannick, who was going to a party, and mistook him for their target and attacked him. The police are making it out to be a case of mistaken identity, which goes with the regional prejudice that all African students look the same. But some political analysts in the State allege that the mistaken identity case has been brought up to reduce the punishment for the guilty. This may not be off the mark as the police have not even tried to identify the African who is believed to have been involved in the broil. Neither have they made enquiries with Yannicks friends.

A journalist from Doaba pointed out that the attackers were in a party to celebrate the grant of an Australian visa to one of the accused, Jaskaran Singh Jassa, who is still absconding. When Sahildeep called them, they arrived in three vehicles to beat up the African student. A few other journalists, in their reports, dismissed the event as a minor, routine scuffle. In other words, the racist colour given to the incident is denied.

Migrant labour

Scuffles involving migrant labourers are common in Doaba. The shortage of agricultural and industrial workers in Punjab had created a huge demand for labourers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar who are willing to work on meagre wages. For the past 20 years, these labourers have been exploited not just by their employers but by the Punjabi elite as a whole.

Police taking one of the accused, Ramneek Singh Uppal, son of a police officer, to a court in Jalandhar on July 9.-

Regular beatings, insults and police torture have become part of the lives of the migrant population in Doaba.

The migrant labourers have a place in Punjabi society thanks to the craze in Doaba for immigration to foreign countries. Almost every family in Doaba has at least one member who has migrated abroad and sends home money. Prosperity in Doaba can be attributed to foreign remittances.

A university in Jalandhar

There was a small change in this scenario when a private university called Lovely Professional University came up a decade ago in the suburbs of Jalandhar. LPU is the biggest private university in India and has attracted foreign students, especially Africans. Yannick was a first-year degree student of computer sciences at LPU.

Aman Mittal, head of media relations at LPU, said they had a separate division to handle the problems of international students. Around 2 per cent of our students are from Africa. There is a lot of harmony among students. The attack on Yannick was not a racial one. We could not do anything as he stayed outside the campus, he told Frontline. It is estimated that 400 to 500 African students of LPU are from countries such as Congo, Nigeria, Tanzania, Sudan and Rwanda.

Most of the African students prefer to stay in Jalandhar city, which is about 30 kilometres from the campus. As a result, a few colonies in the city have become small ghettoes for international students. The landlords are a happy lot as the surge has pushed up rents.

It is not out of choice that we travel 30 km to the campus every day. It is a matter of compulsion. Despite repeated requests, the college hostels do not provide African or any kind of international food. We find Indian food very spicy. We rent apartments in the city so that we can cook our own food, Achube, another friend of Yannick, told Frontline.

Dashmesh Nagar is one of the colonies where African students stay. Its residents almost approve of the attack on Yannick. They [the Africans] party a lot. They drink, and live with women. They have vitiated the environment of the colony. Somebody had to beat them up, a resident said. Incidentally, he, too, has given his flat on rent to African students.

Achube said that the residents of Dashmesh Nagar do not mingle with the African students and generally look down upon them. Consequently, the students are forced to move only with fellow African students.

In 2010, another African student was beaten up in Jalandhar, but the attack was not as brutal as the one on Yannick.

A fathers agony

In the Patiala hospital, Yannicks father, who is an economist, is repenting having sent his son to India for higher education. I first heard of LPU on Burundi Radio and thought it was a good university. LPU claimed that it had an international reputation and environment, Nestor Ntibateganya said. He has left everything behind to look after his son but has little hope now that he will recover. He said Yannick was too docile a person and would not have picked a fight with anyone.

Yannick, who will turn 24 on August 14, has remained in a comatose condition since the attack. Even if he opens his eyes, doctors attending to him say that there are chances that 90 per cent of his brain has suffered acute damage and he may remain in a vegetative state for the rest of his life.

The political scientist Randheer Singh feels that unequal development as a result of the capitalistic Green Revolution has created new forms of oppression in Punjab. He writes: It is well to remember that the Green Revolution, as an integral part of Indian capitalist development, has meant not only economic growth but also sharpened economic disparities, class divisions and social tensions. And in its progress, it turned Punjab into a chicken-and-whisky land, giving rise to an extraordinary corruption and vulgarity of life and culture in the State.

The attack on Yannick Nihangaza points to a situation where money received from expatriate Punjabis has given the local populace the authority to exert feudal power over its immigrant population.

The names of Yannicks friends have been changed.

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