‘Experience has left us petrified”, say IIT students detained by Italian police

Three IIT students, on an internship program in Europe, had a harrowing experience after Italian police detained them for 10 hours without offering any explanation & whisked them on a flight to another city. The students were finally released after they managed to contact a relative who contacted the Bharatiya embassy in Italy. The experience has left the students traumatized since it is a clear case of racial profiling, but they have decided to continue with their trip to Europe.

According to this media report

“After a day full of atrocities, we were in a state of mental trauma. All the other people held were Pakistanis and Africans, and so it clearly seemed to us an act of racial profiling,” said Akshit Goyal, a second year computer science student at the Indian Institute of Technology – Delhi (IIT-D). Goyal, with his friends Deepak Bhatt from IIT-D and Uday Kusupati from IIT-Mumbai, is on a two-month internship in France at the Inria Sophia Antipolis, a European research body.

IIT Student
From left: Deepak, Uday and Akshit. (Image Credit: HT Photo)

Three days ago, the friends decided to spend the weekend in Italy and were travelling between Venice and Antibes when the police detained them illegally for 10 hours with no reason. The incident came to light on May 30, 10 hours after the students were pulled aside at the Ventimiglia railway station in Italy.

“There were around 20-25 police officers who were checking passports, so we readily showed our passports and were let off. But immediately another police officer sought our passports and asked us to stay back with a group of 10 people,” said Goyal. Despite reiterating to the officers that they had all the necessary documents, the students were taken to another room where they were asked to submit all their belongings and were not allowed to use their mobile phones.

“We had a medical checkup done. Our finger prints and photographs were taken and despite repeated requests to put us through someone who can speak in English, we were only told ‘no problem’, while things just got worse,” he said. Authorities remained uncommunicative, and the three were suddenly packed onto a bus and driven to Genoa city, three hours away. To their surprise, they were taken directly to the airport and after thorough physical frisking put on a plane to Bari, a fact the students found out only afterwards.

Once in Bari, while the other passengers were being questioned for lack of documents, the students got a chance to get in touch with their families back in India. “We found out that the police was planning to keep us in camp for the night, so we immediately contacted Akshit’s sister and asked her to contact the Indian Embassy in Italy about this incident,” said Kusupati.

In an hour, police officials returned the passports, apologised for the ‘mistake’ and allowed them to continue their trip. Though unwilling to term the incident as racist, Goyal said it was “an attack on a person’s dignity and blatant disrespect towards self-identity”.

The students have since written about their ordeal to the Indian Embassy in Italy. Though they have not yet decided about pressing charges against the Italian police, they have decided to start an online campaign and reach out to authorities through their letter.

“While this experience has left me petrified, I still believe I was really lucky to have a family at ease with usage of internet and quick in response to connect with the right authorities, including the Indian Embassy, our professors and friends, etc. What concerns me is that many students studying in premier institutes come from rural backgrounds and limited resources. What happens to them in such cases?” said one of the students.”

External affairs ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup said Italian authorities have admitted it was a “mistake” on their part to detain the three as their documents were in order. He said Indian mission has taken up the issue with the Italian authorities strongly. Swarup said the Bharatiya mission in Rome, after coming to know of the incident from a relative of Akshit, swung into action and contacted Italy’s ministry of interior affairs and police authorities in Ventimiglia. After around 10 hours of their being picked up by Italian police, the three students were released.

The students were first brought to the Bharatiya embassy in Rome on May 31 and then the mission made arrangements for their onward journey to Nice in France the same day where they are enrolled for an internship programme at a university, Swarup said. He added that the Bharatiya embassy was taking up the issue with authorities.

This is not the first case of racial discrimination and harassment faced by Bharatiyas travelling to Western countries, and it won’t be the last. Such incidents serve as reminders that despite all talk of Bharat being the largest democracy in the world and hence a natural partner of the Western world (US, Western Europe etc), their exists a deeply ingrained prejudice against Bharatiyas because of their skin color and religion.

And the same West which acts as the champion of human rights across the world won’t take a minute to shed liberal pretensions when it comes to safeguarding their homeland. Hence national interest alone should determine our relations with other countries, and not any romanticized ideals. While there is something to be learned from Western societies, their record on tolerance and respect for diversity is worse than ours.