Gethin Chamberlain, in Pune, for The Sunday Mirror, 1 January 2012
NEHAL Sonawane sits on the bed of the neat little middle class house in the Indian city of Pune, waiting anxiously for news from England of investigation into the racist murder of her little brother Anuj.
Her husband Rakesh is talking urgently into the phone to the police in Manchester, trying to find out when the body will be flown home. That is what the family wants most now: that and to understand what was in the mind of the gunman.
“The guy who shot him laughed at him before he ran off,” says Rakesh, shaking his head in disbelief. “This was a sadistic attack,” says Nehal.
The extended family is crammed into the house, sitting on the floor, on the sofas, on the beds, stunned by what has befallen their golden child, the boy who was going to change the world, who was already the source of so much pride. Every now and then, a woman starts crying. His mother, Yogini Bidve, sits mute, still stunned by her loss.
Anuj Bidve was a gentle boy, an innocent abroad. He was 23; the whole family had gone to Mumbai to see him off on the flight to the UK, his first trip outside India. They had sent him to a country they thought would be safe, to complete his education at Lancaster University before returning to serve his home country.
He was studying for an MSc in micro-electronics, following in his father’s’ footsteps. Now he is dead, shot in the head, for no obvious reason, by a gunman in the early hours of Boxing Day in far away Salford, and they cannot make sense of it.
“Anuj was pretty excited about the UK. It was a very highly ranked college and we thought he was going to pursue an education in one of the best places in the world,” says Rakesh.
“But we were a bit hesitant in terms of sending to the UK and unfortunately our concerns proved to be correct. In my opinion the atmosphere in the UK is one where Indians are probably not welcomed there easily.
“Are we accepted there? This is the question coming again and again to our minds and I think we have got the answer with what has happened to Anuj.
“We could have accepted an accident, but how can we accept this fact of someone in the UK killing him there.”
The trip to Manchester was Anuj’s first time off the campus. He and a group of eight friends, all fellow Indian students, had planned to see the Etihad stadium and stay up all night to go to the Boxing Day sales. Then it was meant to be back to university, to get on with his project. His tutors had high hopes of him, the family say; he was working on a computer chip to monitor the human pulse.
The family cannot understand how people in the UK could tolerate an area in their cities which is regarded as dangerous to visit at night.
“You can’t just say this street is dangerous and leave it at that,” says Anuj’s father, Subhash, a former Indian Air Force officer.
“If it is dangerous there should be more security, some alarms, some warnings. It should be indicated very clearly so that visitors to the city would know.
“This kind of incident is going to hamper the image of the UK. Your inner cities have problems.”
Last year more than 300 students from Pune alone went to the UK. This killing will change all that, he says.
“It will be reduced drastically next year. We are very emotional people, very sentimental, we care about our families. All our people will think now about whether to go to the UK for our studies.”
The family had debated sending Anuj to Australia instead, but were put off by a spate of racist attacks on Indian students.
“We chose the UK because it was safer. All we wanted was to get him educated and then call him back to India to serve the nation,” says Rakesh.
It was Anuj’s first encounter with racism, says 27-year-old Nehal; his first encounter with anything outside the campus.
“He was enjoying his time, he was enjoying the first snowfall that he had seen,” she says.
He sent them a picture of himself standing outside as the snow came down. He was smiling broadly, wrapped up against the alien cold.
“It was the first time he had come off the campus, and this happened,” she says.
“We had dreamed of his life. The whole family had been talking about going to the UK next year for his convocation but now we will be going to get his body back.”
Anuj loved to travel and had been all over India without a problem, but this was his first trip outside India. The whole family went to see Anuj off from Mumbai on September 30.
“He was very excited. It was his first foreign trip,” says Nehal.
The family had deliberated long and hard before deciding to send him to England.
“This course is rarely available and he was very excited,” Subhash says.
They were nervous, like all parents sending their child away.
“They were hesitant because he is the only son,” says Nehal. “They that he could study it in India. but he was ambitious which is why he was keen on going there and studying.
“He said it was just a matter of one year he would be away.”
He had been excited when he called them on Christmas Eve on Skype, the online phone and video calling network, and again by phone on Christmas morning.
“He said he was in Manchester and moving around. He said he was going back to university on the morning of the 27th,” his father says.
The university was closed, Subhash says, but Anuj wanted to get back to work on his project, a silicon chip to measure the human pulse.
“It was an important project and his tutors were very pleased with him,” he said.
It was 4.15pm on Boxing Day afternoon in India when the family first found out that Anuj was dead.
This is a family at ease with the internet: they learned of the killing through Facebook, when his friends started to get in touch, then tracked down numbers for the Manchester police using Google. Rakesh called the Manchester police control room, four or five times. Nehal, who works as a translator for Volkswagen, was also calling.
“I spoke to people but they had no idea what I was talking about,” she says.
“All they could tell me was that Manchester was a large place and I needed to give them more details about what had happened. It was strange to us that it should be like that.”
Finally the family received a call back from a female officer, who confirmed what had happened.
He had been shot at 1.34am, she says. He was with eight friends though: she does not understand how it could have taken the police so long to identify him. To add to their frustration, they say they were unable to speak to his friends because they were with the police.
Since the killing, the family have pieced together some of the details of what happened.
Nehal says the group was supposed to go to the Etihad stadium and then to the sales; the plan was to stay up all night. They were going to a McDonald’s, or had just been: she is not clear.
“Anuj was using the GPS on his phone to navigate and was behind the group when the men came up and asked the time. One member of the group answered and the next moment he pulled out a gun and shot him. And then he laughed.”
There was no reason anyone would want to kill Anuj, the family agree. “He would never have harmed anyone,” says Rakesh. “He had a lot of friends.”
The family flick through piles of photographs and family albums.
“He was always an intelligent boy,” says his father. “I put him into a technical school and he continued his studies in engineering institutes. I’m an electronics graduate and he was an obedient boy. He was very low profile and a very good friend to his friends.”
Subhash and Rakesh have applied for emergency visas to travel to the UK and were planning to fly last night [SAT]. They want to collect the body and to get answers to their questions.
“Why didn’t the UK authorities inform us,” Rakesh demands. “We need to know what happened that night, what was the treatment performed on him.”
They urged the UK and Indian authorities to work together to allow them to take the body home as soon as possible. The family is upset at the delay in arranging a second post mortem and regard the explanation that it is not possible because of the New Year holidays as unacceptable.
“It is unbearable for us to wait that long,” says Nehal. She gestures round the room to the mourning family. “They just want to see Anuj for one last time. How can we wait so long?”
Anuj Bidve’s home city of Pune is a far cry from Salford. It is a city on the up, an IT and car manufacturing hub, India’s eight largest city with a population of 5.5 million people. It lies close to India’s west coast, about 175 km from Mumbai.
Pune is a fast expanding city. Everywhere there are buildings going up, signs of a new, affluent India and a desire to embrace other cultures. A giant billboard announces the arrival of the McAloo Tikki – a spicy fried potato snack – for Rs 25 [31p]; a few hundreds metres further on there is a KFC, then a series of giant hoardings adorned with pictures of Mickey Mouse. Amid a row of smart shops selling international brands there is a large Christmas tree, covered in fake snow.
It is a very green city, trees everywhere, and clean compared with many of India’s megacities. The streets are wide and though busy, they are not choked in the way of places such as Calcutta and Mumbai.
Like most Indian cities, though, poverty is never far away. The smart neighbourhoods are interspersed with pockets of slums, which increase in scale towards the edge of the city.
An online guide for visitors warns that although the inner city is safe even at night, “venturing alone or into unknown areas near the ghats [hills] or on the outskirts are not advisable.”
It also notes that petty crime can be a problem and advises visitors not to stop to give lifts or to ask directions at night in isolated areas.
And Pune is not immune to violent crime. Last year the Maharashtra state government transferred the city’s police commissioner in response to a rising crime rate, which included a number of gang rapes.
Pune traditionally had a low crime rate, but its increasing affluence has made it a target for criminals. In 2008 its crime rate surpassed that of the national capital, Delhi.
A snapshot of crime in the city last year recorded 27 murders, 23 attempted murders, 21 rapes and 1,088 thefts in a three month period from January to March. The same report highlighted concerns about gang activity in the city, with five gang members killed by police over an 18 month period..
There has been growing concern about gun crime in the city, with the price of illegal weapons falling and quality increasing. Many weapons seized by police are home made, but still lethal.
A report last month [November] found that gun crime was rising, with 83 illegal guns seized last year. Police sources said young people, often without a criminal background, were buying weapons for the thrill of owning them. An illegal gun can be bought in the city for between Rs 2,000 and Rs 3,000 [£24 – £36].
Though Pune’s increasing affluence has brought with it more crime, yet even in the poorest areas, people are shocked at what happened in Salford.
The Ambilodha Colony lies in the heart of the city, home to about 3,000 people. It would not be regarded, even by its proudest inhabitants, as a prime residential development, not in Pune, not in any city. It is a slum, an established, 40-year-old slum with running water and electricity, but a slum all the same.
Children play on waste ground, a dirty water channel runs along its edge. In the narrow lanes between the houses, men are bathing in public, while women squat outside their houses washing clothes on the stones. The uneven paving slabs are awash with dirty water. There are small fires burning outside the houses for cooking and for warmth, for there is no such thing as central heating in the tiny houses of Ambilodha and this is the coldest day of the year so far.
A typical house has two rooms, one up, one down, each about 10ft by 15ft in size, connected by a metal ladder. The poorest have only one room. People share communal toilets.
In this small space an entire family lives, often three generations, grandparents, parents, children. Most have to get by on Rs 5,000-6,000 [£61-£85] a month. They spend everything they earn from jobs as labourers, carpenters, mechanics.
Vitthal Hiralal Ehorat is 36, a council worker with a degree in humanities which has not helped him escape Ambilodha. But he is happy here, among family and friends. A small crowd gathers around him as he explains why the murder of an outsider for the colour of their skin could not happen in this place.
“We love everyone here, even the foreigners and migrants. We could not shoot them. We would take care of them,” he says. “Here we love one another, we eat together, share our happiness and our sorrow.
“If a foreigner comes to the slum area we welcome them, we ask what they want, we want to help. We don’t hate them, we do our best to make them welcome. We are Indians. Love is our tradition.”
The whole world is their family, he says. The others nod in agreement. He is leaning on a brightly painted truck; two small children peer out through the open rear window of the cab.
“We don’t think about colour, white, brown or black,” he continues. “We were all made by God, it is not in our hands who is black or who is white.”
Vitthal does not think the whole of the UK is racist, but he thinks there is room for improvement. There should be no room for racism, he says.
Nearby an older man, S M Karade sits soaking up the morning sun, trying to warm up. He is 68 and has lived in Ambilodha all his life. He worked as a driver; now he has retired. He sees no reason to live anywhere else, even if he could afford it.
“Pune is safe, safer than the UK, because we respect foreigners. But we are not respected in foreign countries,” he says.
“We don’t know why they kill us. We don’t believe that skin colour makes a difference. It is bad that someone can be killed for their colour. We think that such places are not good to send our children to.”
Pune is not perfect, he admits. There are skirmishes sometimes, when people fall out, but on the whole the local people fix it and mediate. If they cannot, the police come and the problem is resolved.
In the ground floor of his house down one of the lanes, Ravi Shinde sits on the floor with his back against the family shrine, which takes up the lower half of one wall of the small room.
He is 28, a social worker, living here with his wife and two sons, aged seven and five.
Pune does not have a gun culture, he says. People of all colours and castes are drawn here. It is an IT city, an educational hub.
There is unemployment though, and the crime rate is rising because young people are educated but they cannot get jobs.
“We have crime, yes, there are disputes, but we don’t kill someone for the his colour or his caste and that is why Pune is known as a tolerant city,” he says.
“If you consider any other city in India people prefer Pune. It is calm and peaceful. Normally we don’t fight with each other. We respect the elderly, love our children and that’s in our blood.”
Ravi says that when he thinks of the UK, he thinks of development and pomp. People are drawn there by the lifestyle, to be educated and to work. But there is a darker side to the perception of the old colonial ruler.
“If we think of the UK, we think it is a racist country because they ruled Indian and we experienced it then, they treated Indians badly,” he says.
“India is the more civilised of the two countries. In India we have strong family bonds. We have heard that in the UK when a child reaches adulthood they leave their family but here in India we stay together.
“In the UK they don’t respect each other, they are rude, they prefer money to family.”
A couple of miles away, Parthiv Mehta is sipping a cup of sweet tea at a stall set up outside the gleaming white building of the IT firm where he works in human resources. Across the city, more and more such places are springing up.
Parthiv is 31, married but with no children. He wonders what it is that has led to so many attacks on Indians around the world, whether there is a problem of assimilation into their host countries.
It is the first time he has heard of something of this nature happening in the UK, though there is a recent history of such attacks in Australia and the US.
“What is shocking is that these things seem to be happening only to Indians of late. We don’t hear of other Asian communities being targeted,” he says.
Perhaps Indians need to be more careful when they are abroad, he says. But something has definitely gone wrong in the UK.
“I think of the UK as a colonial country. Who knows this better than Indians?” he says. “I guess that thing will never go from there. The UK has a lot of Indian population but it all boils down to tolerance.”
India has not escaped the rising tide of crime and violence, he concedes; it too has violent people. There are dangerous areas in Pune too, reports of women workers raped on their way home from their offices.
“But the UK is supposed to be known for its strong law and order,” he says, and sips his tea, and shakes his head.