A culture of tolerance towards xenophobia is making many foreign students, especially Africans, feel insecure in India. Will the winds of change blow after the shocking attack on the Burundian student ?
It was in May 2011 that Nestor Ntibateganya first heard about Lovely Professional University (LPU) in Jalandhar on the radio in his hometown of Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital city.
“Lovely University put up advertisements in Rwanda and Burundi on the radio and on television to promote the University,” says the 59-year-old economist, sitting in a restaurant in Patiala, completely unmindful that the colour of his skin was the object of curiosity among restaurant staffers and locals.
Across the road in Columbia Asia Hospital, his 23-year-old son Yannick Nihangaza lies in a coma after he was assaulted on the night of April 21 in a locality in Jalandhar city. “His brain is so severely damaged that I don’t think he will ever be able to study again,” says Nestor. “I really do not know what is going to happen to him.”
At LPU, Yannick was enrolled in a degree course in Computer Sciences, a decision that his father agreed with, going by India’s skills in the field. Attracted by the “international edge” advertised in LPU’s brochures and websites, Yannick and others from African countries enrolled in Computer Application and Business Administration courses.
Yannick’s friends who came to the hospital on Thursday, however, spoke of a world quite different from the one promoted by LPU on its website. The university talks of an international environment that “fosters inter-cultural understanding” and promotes “respect and tolerance among people.”
Edgard Niyomuhoza, a second year BBA student, also from Burundi, says that problems related to food have forced almost all African students to find private off-campus accommodation, essentially putting them in harm’s way.
Rough estimates suggest that 400 to 500 African students study at LPU from countries such as Congo, Nigeria, Tanzania, Sudan and Rwanda. “Despite complaints about the spice levels and of the unavailability of any other kind of food, the University refuses to change the menu. This means we have to stay off-campus and cook our own food,” he says.
Naturally, as Edgard puts it, “the community of black people is close-knit” and socialises outside campus. It was during such an evening that Yannick fell prey to a mob made up of an “unspecified number” of people, as the First Information Report puts it. “Yannick was running late for the party and was attacked on his way there. There was no reason why,” says Yvan Butare from Rwanda. “We are all very angry. India is a peaceful country, so how can people be so hostile?”
Lovely Professional University maintains that the incident happened almost 30 km outside campus and disclaims any responsibility. LPU’s Deputy Director Aman Mittal claims Yannick was beaten up in a group clash involving African students and Indians who had nothing to do with the University.
“Yannick would never provoke anyone. If anyone tried to provoke him, he is the kind that usually walks away,” says Mr. Ntibateganya. “When I read in the paper that Yannick was part of a group fighting with Indians, I was shocked.”
While Mr. Mittal calls the campus among the “safest in India” with reports of student clashes “never ever” having taken place, a former Indian student at LPU who completed his B.Tech in Computer Science last year said he witnessed gangs clashing in the heart of the campus, with security guards bearing witness.
“Quarrels usually spark a full-blown fight. Each party would provoke the other asking ‘Why did you come to Punjab’ for instance,” says the student, who requested anonymity. “Once, I saw African students and Indians using iron rods to beat each other. The guards were just standing around.”
In Yannick’s case, it has been tardy responses or no response from the authorities even after his father wrote twice for help with the medical treatment and to get him repatriated to Burundi. It was only last week, more than two months after the attack, that the Punjab government ordered a probe and provided financial aid of Rs. 5 lakh towards his medical expenses.
Yet, no official from the State machinery or his University has visited the hospital. “I want my son to recover and then I want justice for what happened to him,” says Mr. Nestor, in a soft voice. “I am still finding it difficult to understand how this happened. Perhaps, more African students go to South India to study and not many come to Delhi or Punjab areas. Maybe, that is why…”