Everything about the heart-rending story of Yannick Nizhanga, an African student who was attacked by local youths in Jalandhar in April and who now lies in a coma in a Patiala hospital, should be a cause for national outrage. The vicious attack on the 24-year-old from Burundi was unprovoked. That affluent youngsters could indulge in such violence, that too against a foreign student, for next to no reason is a matter for concern, but what calls for serious national introspection is the story that unfolded subsequently. The police took a long time to take action against the attackers, one of whom was the son of a police officer. In the days and weeks following the attack, Yannick’s father, Nestor Ntibateganya, was left struggling to meet medical expenses, and for ways to take his son, who may never recover, back to Burundi. Last week, more than two months after the attack, the Punjab government ordered a probe and financial aid and the Ministry of External Affairs began the process of assisting Mr. Ntibateganya to take his son home.
Indian officialdom and civil society are quick to cry hoarse and demand immediate action when Indian students come under attack in Australia or other countries. But when it comes to offering help to foreign students in a similar situation in India, the official machinery is depressingly slow to act. Sadly, the situation is worse when the students are from Africa or poorer Asian countries. Like the shabby prevarication we saw in Australia earlier, the Punjab administration would like us to believe racism was not a factor in the attack on the young Burundian. Even if it wasn’t, it is hard to believe Yannick’s race and African origin were not factors in the tardy response of the system. Indeed, the Central and State governments woke up to the issue only after wide coverage in the media. The callous attitude of government authorities in such cases betrays a mindset that concerns itself only with the concerns of the rich and the powerful. All projections of a rising India count for nothing if the country cannot ensure the rule of law and the safety and security of its citizens and residents, including overseas visitors and students. India is becoming an attractive destination for higher education, especially for students from countries in the global south. If a repeat of the Jalandhar-type attack is to be avoided, the authorities will have to learn to be responsive and quick. And universities and colleges, whether private or State-funded, will have to work with the government to strive to create a welcoming and nurturing environment for foreign students.