Exclusive: Indian students in US universities in fear after 2 deaths in days - Hindustan Times
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Exclusive: Indian students in US universities living in fear after 2 deaths in a week, ‘Scared to travel alone’

BySumanti Sen
Feb 08, 2024 01:26 PM IST

Some of the deaths this year include the murder of Vivek Saini, the suicide of Sameer Kamath, and the deaths of Neel Acharya and and Akul Dhawan

The Indian community in the US is reeling from the recent string of sudden deaths among Indian students across American universities this month. The circumstances surrounding these tragic events vary, with one student losing his life in a shocking murder, another succumbing to suicide, and several deaths remaining unexplained. Numerous questions linger, leaving the community grappling with uncertainty and seeking answers.

(L-R) Vivek Saini, Neel Acharya and Sameer Kamath were among other Indian students who died in the US this year (@HinduAmericans/X, Neel Acharya/LinkedIn, Purdue Exponent)
(L-R) Vivek Saini, Neel Acharya and Sameer Kamath were among other Indian students who died in the US this year (@HinduAmericans/X, Neel Acharya/LinkedIn, Purdue Exponent)

Some of the deaths this year include the brutal murder of Vivek Saini, the suicide of Sameer Kamath, the mysterious demise of Neel Acharya, and Akul Dhawan’s death due to hypothermia.

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‘You always have to be situationally aware’

In the aftermath of the recent deaths, Indian students studying in the US spoke with Hindustan Times about their concerns.

Kajari Saha, 28, from the University of California, Santa Barbara, said she felt a “sense of alienation” after learning about the incidents. “You always have to be situationally aware and surround yourself with people who feel safe to you,” she said. “I live in California, a very liberal state compared to others. However, there is a bit of racial profiling, no matter where you go.”

“Although I am mostly surrounded by friends, I can imagine how threatening it must feel for someone who lives by themselves and in the vicinity of where these incidents happened,” she added.

‘There were occasions when I felt scared to travel alone'

Vivek Saini, an MBA student in Georgia's Lithonia, was brutally attacked and killed by a homeless man named Julian Faulkner. The gut-wrenching incident was caught on camera.

Faulkner reportedly hit Saini about 50 times on the head with a hammer. The incident took place at the Chevron Food Mart at Snapfinger and Cleveland Road.

“I first came across the news on X and it shook me to the core. I think over the past year, there has been a growing number of crimes, including some hate crimes, among different communities and unfortunately sometimes students are on the receiving end of it,” Anukta Datta, 28, also from the University of California, Santa Barbara, said.

On being asked whether Indian students in the US have reasons to feel threatened, she added, “Having lived in Michigan and California over the last six years, I think this is very subjective. Although Ann Arbor is a very buzzing and rather safe college town in the Midwest, there were still occasions when I felt scared to travel alone. These incidents can be very worrying for Indian students, mostly based on where they live and their surrounding community.”

Anukta said that Southern California has appeared to be a relatively safer place to her. “However, over the course of the last winter break, we did get some news about sporadic thefts and robberies here, which did take me aback,” she said, adding that “there is an added concern about security given the not-so-stringent gun control laws in the country.”

‘I feel threatened when I read reports of increasing gun violence’

Indian-American student Akul Dhawan was found dead outside the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in January. His father later criticised the police for inaction. The initial findings of the autopsy suggested he died from hypothermia, according to the Champaign County Coroner.

“It is terrible, of course, and somewhat scary,” Aritra Basu, 29, from University of Massachusetts Amherst, said of all the recent deaths. “However, these incidents are not necessarily connected by a common thread, apart from a gradually worsening social climate.”

“I do not really think Indian students in particular are being targeted, or are victims of hate crimes on a wide scale. But I do feel threatened when I read reports of increasing gun violence, and white supremacist political movements. Increasing socio-economic inequality has spillover effects too.”

Aritra added that many international students face difficulties of different kinds in the US. “I personally know students in multiple campuses, including UMass, who have been targeted within campus and beyond for participating in non-violent and democratic protests against Israel recently,” he said.

The Purdue deaths

In just a month, two Indian students of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, have lost their lives. Neel Acharya, a student who went missing days ago, was later found dead on the Purdue campus. An autopsy conducted on January 29 revealed that there were no signs of trauma on his body. The cause and manner of death are under investigation.

Indian-origin doctoral student Sameer Kamath, who studied at Purdue too, was found dead at a nature preserve this week. The 23-year-old reportedly died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

The deaths have sent shockwaves across Purdue. A student of the university expressed his fear, saying on the condition of anonymity, “It sent a wave of disbelief and concern among the Indian student community. Neel’s death, especially, has heightened my sense of concern about safety on campus. It makes me question the overall security measures and prompts us to consider what more can be done to ensure the well-being of students.”

Acharya and Kamath’s deaths are not the only ones to have rocked Purdue. In 2022, a 20-year-old Indian-origin student studying at the university, Varun Manish Chheda, was murdered by his 22-year-old Korean student Ji Min ‘Jimmy’ Sha, who was later arrested.

Elsewhere in the US, in January this year, two 22-year-old Telugu students were found dead in their room in Hartford town of Connecticut. Gattu Dinesh from Wanaparthy district of Telangana, and R Nikesh from Palakonda of Parvathipuram Manyam district, were found dead on January 14 after inhaling carbon monoxide emitted by a room heater.

Among other recent deaths is that of Jaahnavi Kandula, who lost her life last year after being hit by a police cruiser. A Seattle PD union leader was later heard on body camera footage saying her life had “limited value” and the city should “write a check.”

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