Vaiju Naravane

Paris: A 35-year-old Indian national, Navtej Singh Siddhu continued to hover between life and death in an Italian hospital after he was severely beaten, sprayed with metallic paint, sprinkled with petrol and set on fire as he lay asleep on a bench in Nettuno station some 60 km from Rome. The three young men who carried out the attack were reportedly high on drugs and alcohol when they committed the barbaric act “for fun” in the early hours of Sunday morning. They have since been arrested.

The incident described as yet another criminal act with racist overtones had given rise to outrage in Italy. There has been a growing incidence of racist violence directed at Roma gypsies and persons of colour. Observers say this wave of hatred has been fuelled by the government’s openly anti immigrant and xenophobic policies. The small Indian community in Italy says it is badly shaken, especially since the incident is not the first such event of its kind. Bharat Gupta, a Ph.D. student, was attacked by three or four young persons while returning home at night last September and had to be hospitalised. He lodged a complaint with the police but the outcome of the case is not known.

“I was the first person to visit Mr. Singh in hospital. His condition remains critical according to Dr. Veradri who is attending to him. He was conscious when I met him and he was able to give us his aunt’s telephone number in a village in Moga district,” Susmit Biswar, First Secretary Consular at the Indian Embassy in Rome told The Hindu over the phone. “Mr. Singh’s condition continues to be critical. The first operation will be carried out on Friday but the doctors have told us the recovery will be very long and the first positive results will be visible only after three months. The Mayor of Rome Gianni Alemanno visited the victim in hospital and assured the embassy he would receive the best possible treatment.”

Navtej Siddhu comes from a very modest background. His family sold all its property so he could come to the West in search of work. Until three months ago he was working as construction labourer. But with the onset of winter, the work dried up and penniless, he was forced to sleep on a bench in the railway station. Tragedy seems to have haunted the family. His parents passed away a few years ago followed by his brother and sister-in-law who left behind two children who Navtej Singh was reportedly supporting.

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano warned in a statement against “any display and risk of xenophobia, racism and violence.” Statements of horror and outrage and sympathy for the victim also poured in from Left wing and centrist parties such as Walter Veltroni’s Democratic Party. Police said the suspects in the Nettuno attack include a 16-year-old and a 19-year-old. The third suspect is 29.

Balraj Singh, who has been living in Italy for the past 20 years and describes himself as a “community leader”, said he was shocked by the attitude of the parents of two of the boys. Only the parents of the 16-year-old have criticised what their son has done. The other two families have tried to shield the barbarous act.

“I find that outrageous. There is growing insecurity amongst the immigrant community. The Italian government should either deport illegal immigrants they do not want or regularise them all. I can tell you there will be a huge crisis in Italian agriculture if Indian illegal farm labour is thrown out. Who will work for 20 euros per hour for such backbreaking work? Siddhu worked in construction for a pittance. The Italian government should stop pointing its finger at immigrants as if they were a threat,” he told The Hindu.