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Business News/ Opinion / How Sunil Tripathi became a victim

How Sunil Tripathi became a victim

In a game of political one-upmanship the clear loser is the Indian community in America

This undated file photo released by Brown University 23 March 2013 shows Brown University student Sunil Tripathi. Photo: APPremium
This undated file photo released by Brown University 23 March 2013 shows Brown University student Sunil Tripathi. Photo: AP

The Boston Marathon bombings came as a shock to all of America. But its Indian community, caught in a wholly unnecessary tussle between the Left and the Right, has had to face some unpleasant truths about its existence. Let me explain. While the American law enforcement agencies were busy figuring out who the Boston Marathon bombers were, there was a similar manhunt on display online by the champions of social media. Led by Reddit and Twitter, pictures released by the FBI of potential suspects were scrutinized, their clothes tracked down by brand, and their features dissected by race and colour. We all put on our sleuth hats and became part of the Bureau in a first of its kind, crowdsourced manhunt. Thousands upon thousands of Redditors from around the world contributed their own interpretations of how the events of that unfortunate day on 15 April 2013 may have unfolded. Within a few hours, this self-appointed group of online vigilantes had managed to unearth several new photos of the suspects, thus giving legitimacy to millions of anonymous users across the world and the work they were doing in helping catch the guilty.

Somewhere in all this frenzy, an ignorant overzealous Redditor posted a photo of a 22-year old Indian American student from Brown University who went missing on 16 March. A link had been established. In the world of breaking news where speed far outweighs fact-checking, one potential marathon bombing suspect had been identified. This was a “breakthrough". What followed, however, especially the reaction from fellow Indians, was horrifying for those of us living away from our country of origin. With each passing tweet, the chorus to establish Tripathi’s guilt grew. And with it, grew the fear of retribution that the Indian community in the US would likely face in the coming days. “Secular liberals" on Twitter approached this piece of news with glee. For them, he became an embodiment of “Hindu terror" and they finally had a face to prove their theory. They tweeted, retweeted, got into arguments, and generally felt vindicated that they had been right all along. Those on the Right side of the political divide felt attacked. They vigorously defended Tripathi and his family and relied on the lack of incriminating evidence to absolve his name. One wonders if they would’ve been as assiduous in their efforts to prove his innocence if the alleged suspect had been an Indian Muslim.

For the rest of us in the US, Tripathi wasn’t just a statistic; he was a manifestation of an “Indian" identity. He was our brother, our roommate, our son. He was a friendly neighbour we played cricket with. For the rest of us, this was too close to home. And that meant we felt a shared sense of responsibility. Whether he was guilty or not would only be determined after a trial, but given this vicious online campaign against him, it presented the ugly side of the Indian political divide with the Left and the Right indulging in one-upmanship at the cost of one of us. This was unsettling. The sense of community that America embodies so beautifully was starkly missing from the Indian narrative. How does a community living so far away from their country of origin reconcile with the fact that when tragedy strikes, the first ones to abandon ship would be those “back home"? In the immediate aftermath of Boston bombings, as Bostonians opened up their homes to strangers, a section of the Indian community shunned one of their own.

There’s little doubt that Indians in the US have mostly been sheltered from unnecessary scrutiny or uncomfortable public perceptions given their disposition to constructively integrate into societies. But irrespective of how we’re perceived, the set of challenges for a minority community anywhere remain the same. The Wisconsin Temple shooting was a stark reminder of how, for a bigoted few, perception is everything and how a regular prayer day at a Gurdwara has the potential of turning into a life-altering tragedy. Are we so blinded by our politics that we are willing to put an entire community at risk? The Tripathis pulled down their Facebook page ‘Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi’ after being hit by a barrage of hate messages. If we lack the compassion that this moment deserved, the least we could’ve done was to be respectful. Instead, we pushed them into a dark corner filled with rage and disgust because it suited our political agenda.

Providence police, just this morning, reported that they may have found Sunil’s body in a river where students from Brown University practice rowing. One can only hope that the Tripathis are surrounded by family and loved ones at this time of immense sorrow and harrowing uncertainty. As for those who indulged in wilful propagation of a story that wasn’t, let this be a lesson in humility. No good can ever come out of a politically motivated debate if we fail to rise above petty divisions and sacrifice our humanity for the sake of our politics.

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Published: 25 Apr 2013, 11:02 AM IST
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