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Crime Time

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February 2009
Crime Time

By RITUPARNA CHATTERJEE

Not too long ago, a mere mention of Somen “Steve” Banerjee among Indian-Americans was enough to raise eyebrows and hush voices. Banerjee was the founder of the revolutionary Chippendales —America’s leading male strip joint of the ‘80s. Sure, his industry was a taboo topic in orthodox Indian circles, but thanks to his legendary success, Banerjee was a visible example of the success of Indians in America. Unfortunately, this ambassador of the Indian-American success story soon also degenerated into the poster boy of Indian-American crime. His convictions for mucky racketeering, attempts to burn down competing nightclubs, and murder conspiracies led him to a 26-year jail sentence.

In those days, Banerjee stuck out like a sore thumb amidst a community of Indian immigrants that was almost wholly focused on productive citizenship. An Indian in an American jail was quite an oddity.

Not anymore. Granted, in the overall American crime scenario, Indians and South Asians are still inconsequential. In fact, statistically crime is so low in these communities that there are no formal studies or reports done on crime in these demographic groups. Yet, even a cursory scanning of the community media reveals an increasing number of incidents.

A recent shocker was the case of Joseph “Sanish” Palipurath, who gunned down his estranged wife Reshma James at the St. Thomas Syrian Orthodox Knanaya Church in Clifton, New Jersey. Apprehended in Georgia, Palipurath had fired at two other individuals at the Church, one of whom also died. The case serves as a chilling reminder of the growing incidents of domestic violence in the South Asian community.

There has also been an alarming number of murder cases involving fathers taking lives of daughters-in-law and even daughters—a prime example of which was Atlanta’s infamous Chiman Rai case. Perhaps on the less ominous side are cases such as that of high school seniors Omar Khan and Tanveer Singh from Orange County, California, who hacked their way into the school’s computer network, stole test papers and changed their own and their friends’ grades.

Somewhere between the ghastly domestic feuds and crimes committed by youngsters lies a whole array of white-collar crimes. One of these was that of Manpreet “Prince” Singh who duped 100 students by setting up the American School of Aviation, taking fees from them and then absconding. The school was shut down; the students’ dreams crashed before getting a chance to take off.

Some even “make it” into the mainstream press. Vijay K. Taneja’s $33 million mortgage fraud is one such case. The Washington Post cites this as the largest mortgage fraud case in the state of Virginia in almost 20 years and among the largest nationally. Many in the community know Taneja as a flashy Bollywood producer with films like celebrated singer Himesh Reshammiya’s debut film Aap ka Suroor under his belt. He is also a show promoter who has staged several high profile Bollywood shows and concerts all over the U.S. In November 2008, Taneja confessed in federal court that his entertainment ventures were funded through a mortgage fraud scheme. Following his sentencing in January 2009, Taneja could face up to 20 years in prison.

Anand Jon is another high profile celebrity—a fashion designer who made a rapid ascent in the industry and was featured on the TV show, America’s Next Top Model. Ever since his arrest in 2007, Jon has been hogging headlines for all the wrong reasons. A number of young women, some models, some aspiring models, accused the 34-year-old of sexual crimes. The case dragged on for months, and with each passing month, it seemed the number of models implicating him increased. In November 2008, Jon was found guilty of one count of rape, 15 counts of sexual assault and several other charges. Jon starts a life sentence in prison on January 13. He would be eligible for parole only after 67 years.

What was perhaps the most high profile of recent cases involving Indians in the mainstream media was also one that was touted as a sign of the times brought about by one of the nation’s worst economic reversals. Karthik Rajaram, a highly qualified finance executive who had worked for major accounting firms like PricewaterhouseCoopers, was at the center of the tragic murder-suicide case where he killed his wife, his three children and his mother-in-law before killing himself. The 45-year-old man from San Fernando Valley, California, was deeply troubled on account of having lost his fortunes to the rapidly turned tides in the stock market, along with being jobless for several months. The economic crisis makes Rajaram’s case all the more poignant, not just for the community, but also for the nation at large.

Critical mass and its ailments

What do the rising number of crime incidents say about the community? It is certainly an elemental change that challenges the “model minority” tag that has often been pegged upon Indian Americans. More accurately, the recent crime incidents may just be a reflection of a community reaching a critical mass where it is no longer a homogenous whole that can be confined by singular descriptions. If Indian-Americans are well-educated, high-earning achievers, they are also the struggling new immigrants trying to find a foothold in their new homeland. Apart from being doctors, engineers and businesspersons, Indian-Americans also work at gas pumps, construction sites, retail stores, drive freight trucks and cabs, and so on.

While some struggle with paying their mortgages and their kids’ tuitions, others have to make do without basic essentials like health insurance. The number of Asians without health insurance coverage rose to 16.8 percent in 2007, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report in August 2008. Moreover, in spite of the high education standards, 23 percent of Indians had limited English proficiency and 11 percent of Indians lived in linguistically isolated households, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2000.

This stepping out of homogeneity means that the community as a whole is now susceptible to all that plagues the mainstream as well.

A diversity of crimes and criminals

Crime in the Indian American community does not lend itself to easy slotting. Its diversity is striking, and so is the diversity of criminals: students, executives, doctors, businesspeople, senior citizens and even individuals representing religious institutions, not to mention so called “religious” gurus.

Bigotry and orthodoxy: Powerful enough to snub out the lives of daughters and daughters-in-law

In a few recent cases, the clash of orthodox Indian seniors with the unconventional matrimonial choices of their offspring took a sinister turn—resulting in murder. Take the high-profile case of Chiman Rai , convicted of paying hitmen $10,000 for having his daughter-in-law murdered.

Rai, a former student at historically black Atlanta University and then a math professor at historically black Alcorn State University in Mississippi, ran a supermarket in a predominantly black area in Jackson. In 1998 he bought a hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, where his 18-year-old son Rajeev (Ricky) was the general manager. Ricky hired Sparkle, a 20-year-old African American and an Atlanta native, as a clerk. Two months after they started dating, she was pregnant. Eight months or so after their daughter Analla was born, she married Ricky in March 2000.

This marriage, according to the prosecution in the Rai case, was strongly disapproved by Rai who, they claimed, considered an African American daughter-in-law a stigma on the family reputation.

On April 26, 2000, when Ricky returned from work to the couple’s Union City, GA apartment, he found his wife stabbed to death. His seven-month-old daughter Analla was crying in a nearby room, but was unharmed. The prosecution claimed that Rai, through co-defendants Willie Fred Evans and Herbert Green, hired hitman Cleveland Clark to have his daughter-in-law murdered. While many of the details of the case are murky, and defendants Evans and Green were found to have lied to investigators and even on the witness stand, Rai was nevertheless convicted for the contract killing of Sparkle.

Rai’s case was presented as bigotry along racial lines.

In the case of Subhash Chander—a 57-year-old resident from Oak Forest, a suburban city in the Chicago area, caste bigotry appears to be the motive. Chander is accused of setting a lethal fire that killed his 22-year-old daughter Monika Rani her husband Rajesh Kumar, their three-year-old son Vansh and Rani’s unborn child. The motive, it is suggested, was Rajesh Kumar’s “lower” caste, and Chander’s apparent disapproval of the marriage.

He was charged with three counts of first-degree murder, one count of intentional homicide of the unborn child, as well as one count of aggravated arson.

Another disturbing crime, again in the metro Atlanta area, was that of Clayton County’s 54-year-old Chaudhry Rashid of Pakistani origin, who was charged with the murder of his 25-year-old daughter Sandeela Kanwal. When she was 19 she had gone to Pakistan for an arranged marriage to a cousin twice her age. After marriage, she had lived in the United States while her husband remained in Pakistan. In April he came to her family home in Jonesboro, but he moved to Chicago days later, leaving her here. She desperately wanted to end her marriage and by July had not spoken with her father in two months due to their strong disagreement on the issue. On July 1, she filed for divorce. A few days later Rashid strangled his daughter with a bungee cord at the family residence.

The cases seem to be extreme examples of intolerance and bigotry. What makes them even more complex is the fact that they revolve around traditional and orthodox senior citizens. However, they seem to be exceptions in a culture where fathers, and parents in general, are known to go to great lengths of sacrifice for the good of their children.

The dread of domestic violence

According to Tonja Holder, Director of Development at Raksha, an Atlanta-based non-profit support organization serving South Asians in the Georgia region, there was a 12% increase in 2008 in domestic violence cases that they served. The total number of victims of such abuse (adult and children) that they helped was 241. This does not include the number of women who might go to other organizations or the calls they get from other agencies needing technical assistance in serving the South Asian women that come to them.

The rising number of such cases is also reported by other support organizations such as California-based Maitri and Narika, and New Jersey-based Manavi. Collectively these agencies receive over 4,000 calls annually from women seeking legal and health assistance, social services, basic information about their rights, and referrals.   

Aparna Bhattacharyya, Executive Director of Raksha, says, “Crimes like domestic violence and sexual violence are learned behaviors. Quite often, people tend to use violence because it is a pattern they witnessed or grew up with or sadly, because it works. Children who witness violence often learn that violence can get them what they want; when they grow up, as a result they may use the same patterns as the violent adults in their lives. Many other crimes could occur due to the inequities we have in our society, or due to the abuse that was witnessed or endured either when the person was a child or an adult. For most, it is ultimately about having power and control over another person or a situation.”

According to Bhattacharya and others who are involved in support services, this category of crime is particularly insidious as the victim often suffers for years behind closed doors—literally and even symbolically, considering the stigma associated with domestic violence in the community. For every Palipurath who makes the headlines, there are countless other perpetrators who go unnoticed, let alone held accountable for their actions.

Fraud and white-collar crimes

The only other crimes that seem to recur fairly often in the community are fraud and white-collar crimes. Like Vijay Taneja, there have been others conning everybody from organizations to unsuspecting people. Consider also the case of Anil Anand, CFO, Allied Deals, who conspired with the Rastogi brothers, the company’s owners, to build a scam of false deals and deceptive loan applications that resulted in losses of over $680 million to many banks including J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Fleet National bank, PNC Bank, China Trust Bank, and others. Nilesh Dasondi, an Edison zoning board member, was charged with carrying out an immigration scam between January 2002 and June 2008 through his company, Cygate Software and Consulting of Edison. He was arrested in June this year. The $800,000 bail set for Dasondi indicates the kind of money he allegedly made through the scam.

Even so-called spiritual gurus are in the league now. 51-year-old Guru Sant Singh Khalsa of Sombrillo, New Mexico, an American who converted to Sikhism 30 years ago, was accused of conspiring with his marriage broker to defraud women by charging them to meet him during a trip to India, although he did not intend to marry them. Locally, Annamalai Annamalai, the head of the Hindu Temple of Georgia, who goes by the name Dr. Commander Selvam, has been charged with theft and practicing medicine without a license. The temple’s website hails Annamalai as a “divine personality” and a “great scholar” with powers to cure practically anything from superstitious beliefs like “black eye”, to marriages, immigration problems, business, government and career issues, health ailments, and so on. The self-proclaimed religious leader was accused of charging $1,751 to a woman’s credit card in July 2007, without her consent. Moreover, he charged a woman suffering from Crohn’s disease $14,000 to perform a spiritual service. According to an AJC news article dated November 4, 2008, Annamalai Annamalai has been under investigation since 2006 by the Gwinnett County Police: “It is a very long and complex case and it is still ongoing,” said Gwinnett County Police Cpl. David Schiralli.

Human trafficking

The crime of a con artist ranges from duping people to steal their money, to duping them to treat them as slaves. Several incidents of South Asians trafficking laborers and domestic help have been reported. One prominent case was that of an affluent Indian-American couple, Mahender and Varsha Sabhnani from Long Island who kept two Indonesian maids as slaves. Besides violating their most basic human rights, the maids were subjected to routine abuse such as being beaten with brooms, scalded with hot water, cut with knives, forced to eat hot chili peppers, or made to take freezing showers for sleeping late. After confiscating their passports, the Sabhnanis forced the maids to work for 20 hours a day for meager wages. According to a Reuters report, investigations began when one of the maids was found in a donut shop wearing rags with deep open wounds behind her ears. Varsha was sentenced to 11 years in prison last June while her husband was sentenced to three years and four months. The judge also awarded the maids $936,000 to be paid by the Sabhnanis for back wages and penalties.

Juvenile Crime

Apparently, juveniles are not exempt from the trend of increasing crime in the community either. A case in point is that of the 18-year-old hackers, which some people have dismissed as not serious. High school seniors Omar Khan and Tanvir Singh were charged with breaking into Tesoro High School in Las Flores, California, to steal test papers and change their own and their friends’ grades on the school’s computer network. Singh apparently did this only once, but Khan progressed from cheating on a test to allegedly obtaining master keys, changing people’s grades several times, installing spyware, and trying to use his fraudulent transcripts to appeal a university’s rejection, as well as stealing and distributing master copies of tests to friends. The 18-year-olds are in a tough spot. According to a Fox News article Khan has been charged on 69 felony counts, which could get him over 38 years in prison.

Tesoro High School has often been hailed as one of the best schools in Orange County, California. The kids are from affluent families and live in posh communities that are featured on the reality TV show Real Housewives of Orange County. These are factors in considering why two bright kids acted this way. “Just because they are intelligent students does not mean they have developed a strong sense of moral development and decision making,” says Razia Kosi, Executive Director for Counselors Helping (South) Asians/Indians, Inc. (CHAI), an organization focused on the mental wellness of the community. In her roles as a licensed clinical social worker and Cultural Proficiency Specialist in Howard County Public Schools, Maryland, Kosi works on behavior and cross-cultural communication with adolescents in school settings as well as with women and families.

While the crime base appears to be as diverse as perhaps the demographic group itself, there are some very distinct traits about crime amongst Indian Americans.

Unique differences

Unlike crime in America in general, there have been few reported instances of crime or violence committed by Indian-Americans that affect the public at large—muggings, burglaries, narcotics dealing, gang crimes, etc. In that sense, crime in the community is generally different in nature.

Demographically, “Indian-Americans or South Asians tend to be younger, successful, advanced and high-tech. Hence, our crimes too, are not in the mainstream league,” says Jay Chaudhuri, President, Indian-American Leadership Initiative (IALI) and Special Counsel to North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper. Chaudhuri has been dealing with criminal justice issues for eight years. “Rising Indian-American crime is a reflection of shifting demographics,” he says. Like several other legal experts, Chaudhuri claims that most lawbreakers are male and aged 18-39 years. “Many Indians fall into this group. Compared to the U.S. population, the Indian community is younger and it is growing. Hence, the second generation commits more crimes,” he says.

The “model minority” myth

According to Deepa Iyer, Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), “The ‘model minority’ concept itself is a myth. It is a constructed picture painted of Indian Americans and even other Asians, that everybody in these communities is affluent and well-educated with no challenges or needs. It is a false picture of our communities and pits us against other minorities.” Iyer has previously worked as an attorney with the Asian American Justice Center and the US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and as Legal Director at the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center.

Bhattacharyya of Raksha adds, “We can only break these cycles and trends of crime when we do more outreach in our communities. We need to have honest conversations about what is really going on in our households, change our definitions of success, grades, economic status, race, religion, and talk openly about the violence we experience in our lives. Moreover, we need to realize that we really are not the model minority?the more we feed into this myth, the more we set ourselves up for failure.” Bhattacharyya opines that the model minority myth has played a role in keeping individuals from seeking counseling or support, since this could imply that the person is weak or flawed.

Interestingly, one element appears to be specific to these crimes reported in the community. Most of the perpetrators seem anxious to keep their families from socially bearing the brunt of their actions. This probably stems from the way Indian-Americans are brought up. Whatever happens, most of them do not want their families to be burdened with the shame. Sanjay Puri, Chairman of the U.S.-India Political Action Committee (USINPAC) thinks this factor might help check most crime. “Publicizing the crime in the media will be a deterrent to others, because they would not want their families to be hurt,” he says.

The Indian-American community’s aspirations for success could easily influence our children’s ideas of what is permissible in their quest for it. Seen in this light, it is less surprising that Khan and Singh acted this way. “Even if parents do not strongly force their kids to excel, there is always a subtle pressure on the kids,” says Kosi. But these kids are not the only ones who crossed the line in the name of ambition. “Chick lit” writer and Harvard alumna Kaavya Viswanathan was accused of plagiarizing portions of her book How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. She allegedly lifted passages from two books—Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings—by Megan McCafferty, another “chick lit” writer. “She was too ambitious to respect the law,” says Chaudhuri.

These cases serve to show how the community’s single-minded focus on success could be potentially dangerous.

Crime is inevitable in any civilization. Being Indian American or of any other ethnic origin has nothing to do with it. If there are notorious gangsters who are African-American, there are also inspiring success stories like those of US President Barack Obama, TV host and media tycoon Oprah Winfrey, Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison and Pulitzer Prize-winning feminist author Alice Walker. If Indian-Americans are beginning to have their share of criminals as a community, then they are also beginning to have more success stories than ever before. PepsiCo Chairman and CEO Indira Nooyi, Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri, the Interim Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Financial Stability, Neel Kashkari, and ace doctor-reporter CNN’s Sanjay Gupta are a few examples.

Sidebar

When the Scotland Yard Takes Notice

South Asian crime in the UK is characterized by gang culture

Throughout August last year, desis flooded theatres screening the hit Hindi film Singh is Kinng. The movie revolves around a Sikh criminal gang in Australia, and portrays violence as both glamorous and hilarious. But real South Asian gangs and crime itself are neither hip nor funny. Nobody can tell you that better than people who have been the victims of crime, or for that matter, those pursuing the criminals, such as the Scotland Yard, UK’s legendary Metropolitan Police Service (Met) for the Greater London area.

In 2004, the Met launched a specialist unit to tackle South Asian crime in London. The reason, according to BBC news reports, was the rising crime rate in the community. Murders in London’s South Asian communities had gone up from 10 in 1993 to 38 in 2003; kidnappings had shot up from 90 in 1998 to 228 in 2003!

The obvious explanation was the growth of South Asian gangs in the UK, who were getting increasingly notorious. Often, there was no logic behind their crimes. Take the Supenthar Ramachandran case for example. The 18-year-old lad was in a restaurant where a Tamil gang happened to be eating and drinking. The gang members asked the boy to pay their bill but he did not have enough money. So, they beat him up and then set him on fire. If that is not bizarre enough, consider the example of Amarjit and Rajinder Singh, who ran the Forest View Hotel in Forest Gate, Essex. For weeks, they had asked worshippers at a nearby mosque not to block the parking lot behind their hotel. One day, they argued with some worshippers and were found dead 20 minutes after the confrontation.

Such stories of South Asian victims falling prey to criminals from their own community are becoming common in UK’s South Asian neighborhoods, South Asian criminals are reportedly getting into every possible crime from mugging, violence, kidnappings and murder to forging passports and documents as well as trafficking. Unlike other communities in the UK, South Asians have international contacts, whom they use to their advantage. “They operate within families and clans. They have links to criminal activity in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, or even places like Canada where large Asian communities have settled. (They’ve) got the potential to disappear, or launder money abroad,” said Professor Kamlesh Patel from the University of Central Lancashire in a BBC News report.

Sidebar

Decidedly Unglamorous

When crime seems to be the way to glamour and prestige

In Canada, home to a large South Asian community, the crime scene has a superficial veneer of glamour. Much like the characters in Singh is Kinng, Sikh gangsters in Canada drive around in fancy cars with beautiful women on their arms. “In the past 10 years in Greater Vancouver, over 54 young men were killed in Indo-Canadian gang wars over drugs, money and women,” reported a CTV article in December 2002. As early as 1994, two notorious young Sikhs utilized the evening news as a platform to exchange blatant threats. A few weeks later, one of them was shot dead in broad daylight on a reasonably crowded street. Bindy Johal was charged for his murder but found not guilty. However, overnight, Johal’s notoriety gained him a kind of heroic status among young men.

This is just one instance of law-breakers and criminals being hailed as heroes in Canada. According to a Canadian Broadcasting Center (CBC) report, extremist Sikhs glorified terrorists and criminals at the annual Vaisakhi parade in Surrey, British Columbia, last year. Motifs of illegal organizations were displayed prominently and purported terrorists like Talwinder Singh Parmar were glorified as “martyrs”. Parmar was the founder of the Babbar Khalsa, an association listed as a terrorist organization in Canada, India, USA and the EU.

There is no official information on South Asian criminal gangs in the United States, but rumors about South Asian gangs in the New York City area (not necessarily criminal) have been afloat for years. As is the case with South Asian gangs in the UK and in Canada, these gangs too are based on one single sub community. For instance, there is the Sikh gang Punjabi-by-Nature-Boys who sport the double sword Khalsa emblem, and the Muslim gang Medina Boys, the Malayalee Hit Squad, etc. These young boys do not loot, kill, or kidnap, but simply offend community members by being boisterous, smoking marijuana, drinking alcohol, troubling desi grocery store owners and customers and by eve-teasing.

Instances of South Asians mugging people or threatening the masses at large are still unheard of, at least in America. But going by facts and rumors, is it just a matter of time before Singh is Kinng becomes reality in America as well?


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