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Safety of Indian Students in US a Concern Again As 11th Death Reported in 2024

One consultant said Indian students had become soft targets of violent culture in the US because they earned enough money to become affluent in a short period of time, adding that it was not a question of hate crime.
Photo: X/@amjedmbt.

Hyderabad: The mysterious death of a Hyderabad-based student, Mohammad Abdul Arfath (25), in Cleveland in the United States has once again brought into sharp focus the safety of Indian students studying in that country.

Of more concern over the milling strength of the Indian diaspora abroad is the craze of students from the Telugu-speaking States of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana to make the US their ultimate destination.

Many a time, these students have died unnatural deaths.

The death of Arfath is the second by students from the two neighbouring states within a week. Four days earlier, another youth, Uma Satya Sai Gadde, died under similar circumstances, also in Cleveland.

According to reports, Arfath, who went to the US last year to pursue a master’s degree in information technology, last called up his father Mohammed Saleem, a centring contractor in Nacharam in Hyderabad, on March 7.

After that, he was missing.

On March 19, he received a call from a person over an unknown number asking him to pay $1,200 (the equivalent of Rs 1 lakh) to secure Arfath’s release.

Otherwise, the caller warned that Arfath’s kidneys will be sold to recover the money. Without mentioning the mode of payment, the caller hung up the phone. He also did not concede Saleem’s request to be allowed to speak to his son.

Local police launched a hunt for Arfath on a complaint by his relatives domiciled in the US. They recovered his decomposed body in the bed of a lake in Cleveland on April 8.

Earlier, a jogger found a bag with Arfath’s laptop five kilometres away from the lake.

The subsequent police investigation disclosed that Arfath was no longer a student of Cleveland State University – where he had registered – nor did he live there.

A social worker from Hyderabad said Arfath was removed from the rolls of Cleveland State University after he did not pass his first year exams. Photo: Tallonator/Wikimedia Commons. CC0.

It raised a serious question about whether he had moved to low-budget education and living, compromising on security.

Students were found to be vulnerable to targeted crime if they stayed in the suburbs, where renting accommodation was cheaper. On the other hand, university dormitories, though expensive, were comfortable and safe with two inmates in each of them.

The study abroad consultancies that guide the admission of students in US universities have always insisted on on-campus stay or university-recommended accommodation for safety.

They always counsel students that private rooms in suburbs were not only risky but exposed them to hit crime once they were off public transport on their way to universities.

Arfath’s death was the eleventh in a series of fatalities involving Indian students so far in 2024. Eight of them were unnatural deaths.

Anshul Singhal, a consultant, said the cause of death in all cases was still not established as the investigations were not closed. Details were made public only in fatal accidents.

He said no one knew whether it was a crime against Arfath or if he died by suicide.

Saleem asserted that Arfath was not the type to end his own life.

Amjadullah Khan, a social worker who is popular in Hyderabad for taking up distress calls from Telangana’s Muslims staying abroad, said Arfath was removed from the rolls of Cleveland State University as he had not passed some subjects in the first and second semester exams of his first year.

Arfath’s family had also contacted Khan, who is also a former corporator of the Majlis Bachao Tehreek, seeking his assistance in tracing the youth.

Khan said Arfath took admission in St. Francis College in New York to complete his course online, but continued to stay in Cleveland to do odd jobs to simultaneously earn money.

Since attendance was compulsory at Cleveland State University, Khan cited Arfath’s family as telling him that the latter’s GPA had dropped since he was focussed on working outside the university campus to earn money. He did not get an on-campus job.

A photo of Arfath riding a bicycle with groceries hung to its handle was released by the Cleveland police in support of their claim that he was indeed working and attending online classes while staying locally. The picture was taken just before he went missing.

Another consultant, Ajaya Kumar Vemulapati, said Indian students had become soft targets of violent culture in the US because they were hard-working and earned enough money to become affluent in a short period of time. He said it was not a question of hate crime.

He said Telugu-speaking students constituted the largest group of Indians admitted to US universities in 2022-23. Thirty-five per cent of admissions were cornered by women. The figures for 2023-24 will be revealed in November.

Ajaya Kumar added that the craze for US universities went up annually because Indian engineering colleges produced a million graduates every year, many of whom were not industry-ready in the country.

They were, however, quickly absorbed by industries in the US upon completion of their higher studies there.

Also read | ‘See No Future in India’: More Rural Indians Set Sights Abroad

The aspirational drive to move up the economic and social ladder also drove students to choose the US as their destination.

The Open Doors report of the Institute of International Education confirmed Ajaya Kumar’s version that Indian international students in the US were 2.69 lakh in 2022-23, which was 35% in excess of the previous year.

Of them, graduate students accounted for 1.66 lakh, which was a 64,000 increase in real terms and a hike of 62.6% over the previous year.

This was an all time high in any academic year.

The report, based on an annual statistical survey on international students in the US in collaboration with the bureau of educational and cultural affairs of the US Department of State, said India had surpassed China to become the largest source of international graduate students in the US.

India also led in the number of individuals (69,062) who pursued optional practical training, which is a type of temporary work permission that allowed eligible students to get real world experience related to their field of study.

The US Embassy and Consulates in India issued a record number of student visas during the student visa season of June-August 2023.

Consular offices across India issued 95,269 visas in the ‘F’ (student visa to study at an accredited US college or university), ‘M’ (student visa for non-academic and vocational study) and ‘J’ (exchange visa for participation in an exchange programme) categories, which was an 18% increase over the same time frame in 2022.

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