For nine long months, as a Burundi father watched helplessly over his 24-year-old comatose son, Yannick Ntibateganya, reduced to that state by a vicious attack on him by nine Punjabi young men in April last year, he believed it was a hate crime. That his son was mauled almost to death because of his colour, his foreignness, his social mores. So it came as a surprise to the 60-year-old soft-spoken Nestor, that the attack is sought to be projected as the outcome of a drunken brawl — a commonly accepted feature of Punjabi society.
“A 100-page police report that was shown to me said very clearly that the attackers wanted to ‘punish the black.’ They stopped beating him with stones and bricks only when they thought he was dead,” said a bewildered Nestor, when told by The Hindu that the Jalandhar police, where the attack took place, did not see it as racist attack. “If it was one or two attackers I could understand that it was a drunken brawl, but there were nine of them, all very determined to kill him. I can’t figure this out,” he says despondently.
But Nestor, who is at the mercy of an insensitive official machinery which reluctantly offered to pay for Yannick’s medical expenses following a media furore, has also learnt not to tread on powerful toes. Even as he grapples with the information, he is quick to say, “There are good people in India and the country is not racist. But I read in the report….”
Yannick, a first year student of computer science at Lovely Professional University (LPU) in Jalandhar, was attacked on April 21 by nine boys following an altercation.
Negotiating his way through the maze of caste and money driven power strata of Punjab, that is working the influence chain to go soft on the accused, though, is just one of Nestor’s worries. A few days ago, when Yannick opened his eyes, doctors told Nestor that the boy may never speak or be able to move his limbs, because his brain has been severely damaged in the attack.
“I am lost. Have no idea what to do next, even though it is the wish of my family and friends back in Burundi to shift him to a hospital there,” he told The Hindu at the Columbia Asia Hospital in Patiala, where his son lies virtually motionless in the ICU. “I sometimes feel as if he can see me with those vacant eyes. I have told the court, I want justice for my son.”
Yannick was among the 1500 foreign students at LPU, which in the last decade of its existence has been instrumental in bringing foreign students mainly from Third World countries to the Punjab hinterland. Around 40% of its foreign students are from Africa and it is common knowledge that the foreigners live and party in rented ghettoes in the town, often creating resentment among the local residents with their drinking and partying. “No Punjabi girl or boy is invited to their parties,” said an investigating official.
The Jalandhar police as well as LPU insist that it would be incorrect to call this a racist attack, because it took place near a liquor vend where there was an altercation between the two. At one stage during the investigations, the police also followed a line that Yannick was the victim of a mistaken identity and that the attackers were actually looking for another African boy. But when the media wanted to know the identity of the other African, the theory was abandoned.
Of the nine accused, two are still absconding and have been declared proclaimed offenders by the trial court in Jalandhar. One of them, Jaskaran Singh, flew to Australia on a student visa, and the police are now trying to get him extradited with the help of the Ministry of External Affairs. Two of the seven who were arrested have been granted bail in the last few days. One of them is Romi Uppal, the son of a senior Punjab police officer, who was suspended last year, for threatening the witnesses. All have been booked for attempt to murder.
Nestor’s other worry is whether the Punjab government will honour its promise to pay the hospital dues amounting to Rs. 30 lakh. Following a media furore and intervention by the Burundi embassy, the government announced that it would foot the bill for Yannick’s treatment and gave Rs. 5 lakh to the hospital. Nestor says that Burundi nationals in Delhi and elsewhere gave him some financial help, but without his regular job with an NGO in Burundi, which he was forced to leave, it is a tough haul. Students and staff of LPU also collected Rs. 6 lakh and gave it to the government for Yannick’s treatment.