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Petersburg and the wolves

Victims of racist attacks are getting tired of the apathy from both Russia and India, writes Nandita Sengupta.

india Updated: Oct 05, 2006 03:30 IST

On Sunday, October 1, more than 500 foreign students gathered in St Petersburg’s Ploshchad Lenina to protest against the killing of Indian medical student Nitesh Singh on September 26. This followed an earlier protest at Singh’s university the day after his death, which was attended mainly by Indian students and teachers from all medical universities in St Petersburg.

This beautiful city, the capital of the cosmopolitan Peter the Great, is no stranger to racist violence, especially against foreign graduate  students. The stabbing of Singh, a student in his sixth year at the Mechnikov Medical Academy, close to the entrance to his hostel is the fourth such murder this year. On April 20, Adolf Hitler’s birthday, another Indian student, Anjangi Kishore Kumar, was stabbed in the neck almost at the same location. He had returned to India to recuperate but came back to St Petersburg this semester. For non-White students, being a victim of racism seems like an occupational hazard.

“It is the first thing that seniors tell us when we land here,” says a second-year Indian medical student at St Petersburg’s State Paediatric Medical Academy (SPSPMA). First-year students are strictly told not to go out alone, travel only in groups and not to step out of campus in the evening. These aren’t just guidelines; they’re rules for protection. “You face it every day. In front of my eyes, I have seen an African student pushed off a bus. Nobody came forward to help. That’s how they are,” adds a Namibian girl in the same class. “We lie to our parents. Why would anyone pay for their child to get attacked?” the St. Petersburg Times quoted a student from Mali.

But the college authorities and locals rubbish any such claim. “There’s no racism here. It’s a case of hooliganism,” is the choral response. “Such things happen, even in New Delhi, in New York, anywhere.” A student responds, “But when a foreigner is raped in New Delhi, it is big news. Political leaders get involved. What happens here? Nothing. And we all know they are skinheads.”

The Indian students at SPSPMA, most of whom are from  Maharashtra, are comfortable on the campus. But once outside, listening to jeers and anti-India spiel is common.

Apparently, Singh had stepped out to buy a loaf of bread. As he approached his hostel, about eight masked men attacked him. He ran into the hostel with stab wounds on his back and side. Hostellers, all overseas students, called an ambulance, which reportedly took more than half-an-hour to reach. Singh died on the way.

But authorities feed reporters a story on ‘hooliganism’ and the ‘bad ways’ of some foreign students in St Petersburg. The ‘official’ line of investigations runs something like this: Singh wanted to sell his car. He had fixed a deal with some people who he was supposed to meet in the evening. Apparently, witnesses saw him in his car with some young men in the evening. This was followed by a tussle and Singh ran out of the car into his hostel. The students tried to bandage his wounds, which delayed them in calling the ambulance that, once called, reached in 20 minutes. The men weren’t masked — “they were wearing monkey caps”. The images were caught on a surveillance camera and the culprits should be identified soon. Till today, no one has been identified.

“Some overseas students work, which they are allowed to beyond college hours, in pubs etc. They dance and sometimes get drunk. They go after Russian girls. When drunk young men get into a brawl, who do you blame? Whose fault is it?” asks Avbakar Nutsalov, General Director of the Russian-Asian Centre for University Services (Racus), the association that coordinates the admission of foreign students in 21 universities across Russia. “Indian students prefer to work in souvenir shops or restaurants.”

The emphasis is consistent: fears of racism lie in the minds of the foreign student. A May 2006 Amnesty International report, however, gives a different picture. The report warned that “racism in Russia is going out of control”. The human rights watchdog criticised Russian prosecutors for recording racially motivated attacks as “hooliganism”, a charge that carries lighter sentences. Amnesty International condemned the failure of authorities to investigate racist crimes.

Nutsalov, who does not recruit students for Mechnikov university, is more confident about the protection provided at universities he is associated with. In Moscow’s People’s Friendship University of Russia, where more than 4,000 foreign students from 160 countries study, there is a special campus police force under the Interior Ministry.

Is the situation that bad? “It is for the students’ protection,” says the Dean, Victor Frolov. “They are there to help the students.” So do the foreigners on this campus feel safe? “They check our papers. There’s a lot of checking,” says an Afghan student.

But the Indian medical students in Moscow and St Petersburg are more upset about Indian apathy than Russian discrimination. “We called the Indian counsel and asked him to come down to the protest rally. He refused, saying that they didn’t want to get involved, they were busy,” says a SPSPMA student. They want to know what India is doing for their protection. They also want to know if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will talk about their protection to President Vladimir Putin if and when the latter visits India in January 2007 as a State guest for Republic Day.

Back in India, you want to know how the meeting that was scheduled for October 3 between the SPSPMA faculty in charge of foreign students and the students went, and you are told with a smile, “What meeting? They fooled you with that, didn’t they? We weren’t expecting it anyway.”