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'When confronted by a mugger, don't try to be a hero'

May 09, 2012 23:51 IST

The murders of Indian students in the United States in the last few years hasĀ been a reason of worry for not only students but also their parents in India. Arthur J Pais reports

The day the news of Boston University student Kanagala Seshadri Rao's murder went viral, an Indian student who worked late into the night on the New Jersey Institute of Technology campus in Newark decided to carry at least $25 in his pocket every evening.

"I take a school bus from a gas station near my apartment building around 8 pm," said the computer science graduate student, who has lived in Harrison, New Jersey, for nearly a year. "But anything can happen in the five minutes I take to reach the bus. God forbid, if I am mugged, I can at least say, 'Look, take all the money from my pocket.' I am afraid if I have a small amount, the mugger may get angry and harm me."

Harrison, a big town with little crime, is situated across a bridge from the crime-prone city of Newark. It has about 300 Indian students, sharing private homes and apartment building like Julia Gardens -- where five or six students occupy two-bedroom apartments, most of them sleeping on a floor. On at least two nights a week, between 11 and 1 am, you find groups of them at coffee shops or partying. A large number of the students are from Andhra Pradesh; some even estimate more than half of them are Telugus.

"Don't publish our names, we don't want our parents back home to get worried," said a young woman from Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh. "We haven't even told them that we have classes till 10 pm. And if they find out we go out with boys around midnight, they will freak out. We can't go on our own to Duncan's at midnight, right?"

Discussing the murders of Indian students in the United States in the last few years, one student from Chennai said, "We always try to go out in groups but everyone cannot afford the luxury. A friend works in the night shift and he is the only one in our building complex to do that kind of work. He has to come home early in the morning. We have been telling him to look for another job."

A police officer said, "The worst thing anyone can do in the middle of the night is to walk alone, and equally dangerous thing many students do is to walk alone talking all the time on the cell phone. For someone who is thinking of robbing you, this is a heavenly opportunity."

Safety in numbers is not a guarantee that your apartment may not be burglarised or you are mugged when you happen to be alone. In the apartment building I live, there have been more than six burglaries in the last three years. The building super suspects that the burglars know the students fail to lock the front door. Their rooms are open for most part as they go from room to room, talking with their friends. One of them said: "We do not have much with us; who would want to rob us?"

A week later, he was almost mugged when he was stepping out of the building for a smoke around 2 in the morning. He was soon gone from Harrison, to live with his cousins in Brooklyn.

At times, danger can meet you unexpectedly outside a well-known university. Students from India often do not realise that some of the best-known schools -- like Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, Columbia in New York, Yale in New Haven, Connecticut, University of Chicago and Temple in Pennsylvania, and Boston University -- are situated close to high-crime areas.

Last summer, Penn State University student Mohan Varughese, 23, was shot and killed while visiting his girlfriend, a Temple University student, at her house near the school's main campus. A man, later identified by the police to be Jeffrey Little, 19, demanded Varughese hand over the keys to his motorcycle around 5 pm. When Varughese resisted, the man shot him three times in the face and chest. Varughese was rushed to the Temple University Hospital, where he died 45 minutes later. He was to graduate with a degree in psychology and the hope of working with inner-city students.

Little, who fled the scene without taking the bike, was arrested thanks to a tip the police received following the announcement of a $10,000 award. The suspect is a bald black man, about 6-foot tall, and was wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and black nylon sweatpants, according to a Temple press release.

Richard Rys, a columnist for Philadelphia Weekly, weighed in on the murder in a column headlined 'How to Avoid Becoming a Philly Crime Statistic'. There is an important lesson in Varughese's murder, he wrote.

'I hope that if I was in Varughese's shoes, I'd give up those keys without a thought,' he wrote. 'Want my wallet, too? Take everything. I know I wouldn't try to pull a Jack Bauer and disarm the guy. But I worry that I'd hesitate for just a second, like Varughese did. His death serves as another reminder that, for all our caution, the decisions we make in those perilous moments have life-changing results. Better to think now about Varughese and how to react in a situation like his than be unprepared when that gun is pointed at you.'

When confronted by a robber or mugger, student counselors, police and students repeatedly say, do not try to be a hero. At the same time, victims should not hesitate to call the police when they have reached someplace safe. If the police do not know about the robberies and muggings, don't expect them to increase patrolling an area.

"Some of us are ashamed to tell others, even the police, that we have been mugged," said a Rutgers University student from India who said he has known dozens of immigrant students from all over the world who have been robbed at gunpoint or knifepoint. "We even think that if the word spreads of us being vulnerable, there could be more robberies. Sometimes we keep quiet because we were doing something foolish, like chatting on the phone in the middle of night, when we were beaten up and robbed. And we don't want our parents in India to know."

Students who take the subway at night say one should not isolate oneself, anywhere, anytime, and the warning holds good for anyone. If you're in a subway car and you're the only one in there, move, one counselor said at New York University.

One night, absentmindedly I entered an F train subway car in Queens, New York that had three men sitting quite far from each other. Soon after the train started moving, two guarded the doors leading to adjacent cars, while the third one robbed me at knifepoint, repeatedly telling me that the $20 I had on me was peanuts.

"We are three hardworking men and you want to give us only $20," he said, slapping me. He might have slapped me more or worse but the next station came, and the three casually walked away with scowling faces.

People who take the same walking route home or office late in the evening can invite trouble, too. Be unpredictable. And if there are other, brightly lit streets you can take, walk through them instead.

Arthur J Pais