Gloom in US varsity over Indian student’s murder

By Parveen Chopra, IANS

New York : The killing of an Indian doctoral student at Duke University in North Carolina has left a pall of gloom on the campus even as the authorities are beefing up security and reiterating that robbery appeared to be the motive for Abhijeet Mahato’s murder.

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The 29-year-old IIT Kanpur alumnus was shot dead Friday at his apartment in Durham, outside the university campus.

Mahato, who had been studying for a Ph.D. at the Pratt School of Engineering for the past two years, was liked and considered an amiable and intelligent person by all those who knew him.

“The entire school is in mourning. People have taken it personally, like losing a family member,” Vivek Wadhwa, executive-in-residence at Pratt’s engineering management programme, told IANS on the phone.

Wadhwa said he had spoken to Robert Clark, dean of Pratt School, who felt devastated by the tragic incident.

“Clark told me the university was working with the authorities to bring to book the perpetrators of the hideous crime,” he said.

He agreed with Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs at Duke, who suspects that robbery might be the motive behind Mahato’s murder.

Wadhwa believes the victim’s apartment was broken into, but said the police were yet to confirm it.

Wadhwa, who is one of about 20 faculty members of Indian origin at Duke, conceded that some parts of Durham were not safe.

“But Mahato lived in a nice neighbourhood. So this is one of those unfortunate things, an exigency of living in cities,” Wadhwa said.

Sujatha Jagannathan, a friend of Mahato who is doing her Ph.D in molecular chemistry at Duke, also could not think of any motive other than robbery behind the murder of Mahato, “the friendliest, most harmless person you can come across”.

Jagannathan, who hails from Chennai, told IANS that “pockets in Durham are seedy, where walking alone after dark is not safe.”

“I know Mahato used to walk home alone and he had mentioned he had coughed up money a couple of times to hoodlums,” she said.

Mahato, a bachelor, lived with a flatmate who has been travelling in India. His family lives near Jamshedpur in Jharkhand.

There are nearly 300 graduate and Ph.D. students of Indian origin at Duke, which has about 12,000 graduate and undergraduate students.

Jagannathan said the Indian student community at Duke is planning to hold a memorial service for Mahato this week.

David Jarmul, a Duke spokesperson, told IANS: “After the autopsy, the victim’s body is lying at the local funeral home. There is a legal process involved and we are helping with the release of the body so that it is sent as soon as possible to India as desired by Mahato’s family.”

Two officers from the Indian embassy in Washington also reached Durham Monday.

Alok Pandey, one of the two officers, told IANS that they have met the president of Duke University, Richard Broadhead, as well as members of the Indian student community and faculty and discussed their security concerns.

“The president spoke at length, expressing his deep concern at the tragic incident. He also said he would take up the matter with the city mayor,” Pandey said.

Meanwhile, security on and off campus has been intensified, particularly because within two days of Mahato’s killing, a Duke University student and an employee said a man brandishing a gun near off-campus apartments robbed them in separate incidents.

In both cases the robber has been described as a 5.8 feet tall black man, according to a news item on Duke’s website.

Mahato was born in Jamshedpur and raised in Kolkata. He got his bachelors degree in engineering from Jadavpur University and masters from IIT Kanpur. He worked at the GE Global Research Centre in Bangalore for two years before joining Duke about two years ago.

The larger Indian American community is also alarmed by Mahato’s murder.

In statement released Monday, Sanjay Puri, chairman of the US-India Political Action Committee, said: “No matter what the motive, our hearts go out to the family and loved ones of this young man struck down so senselessly and we renew our hope for the guilty to be brought to justice.”

The North Carolina incident comes less than two months after two Indian scholars were shot dead in another US campus. Komma Chandrasekhar Reddy and Kiran Kumar Allam were killed at the Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. In that case too, the police are yet to find a motive or arrest any suspects.