From Varun Chheda to Neel Acharya – the Purdue deaths that shook Indians

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The recent death of Purdue University student Neel Acharya has put the focus back on the security and safety of Indian and Indian-origin students at and around the campus that witnessed a total of four deaths from the community between 2022-2024.

Placed at No. 33 in the US and No. 86 worldwide in the 2024 Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the prestigious university is a dream of almost every student growing up in India as well as abroad.

On October 5, 2022, 20-year-old data science student Varun Manish Chheda was gaming and chatting online with friends when he was stabbed to death inside his first-floor McCutcheon Hall room on Purdue University’s West Lafayette campus.

According to police, Varun’s death was Purdue’s first on-campus homicide in more than eight years.

Varun, whose grandfather migrated to the US in 1964 from Gujarat, was allegedly stabbed by his roommate multiple times in the head and neck with a folding knife, an incident that the police called “senseless and unprovoked”.

Ji Min Sha, a 22-year-old cybersecurity major from South Korea, was charged with Varun’s murder and was found fit to stand trial in September last year. He could face between 45 and 65 years in prison if found guilty of murder.

Making his first court appearance before the Tippecanoe County Magistrate just after the murder on October 14, Sha claimed he was “blackmailed” when asked why he killed Varun but did not elaborate further.

He also said he was “very sorry” when asked if he had anything to tell the victim’s family.

Remembered as a “humble person” and “bright student” by faculty and friends, Varun was just 10 days away from celebrating his 21st birthday.

Just a few hours before the murder, his mother sent him her usual evening text message: “Eat well, sleep well… Finish your homework,” and Varun responded by saying: “Yes, Mom, I’ve done it all.”

In his last text to his mother at 11:45 pm, Varun wrote: “Goodnight mama”.

A TWIN TRAGEDY

Just a year and a week after Varun’s death, 25-year-old Tanya Roy and her twin sister Rayna Roy died after falling from their seventh-floor apartment around the Purdue campus on October 11, 2023.

While there was no record of Rayna as a Purdue student, Tanya graduated with a bachelor of science degree in environmental and ecological engineering in 2020 from the university and was a recipient of the Presidential Scholarship in 2019.

The twin sisters were found dead in an alley between Campus Edge Apartments and Westwood Apartments, West Lafayette, according to The Purdue Exponent, the university’s student-run newspaper.

First responders tried to provide life-saving help but the girls died at the scene, the West Lafayette Police Department Lt Jon Eager said, adding that the girls’ parents were visiting from New York State and were anticipating helping the twins move back.

According to the forensic autopsy, the sisters died by suicide as a result of multiple blunt-force injuries.

FROM MISSING TO BEING MISSED

On January 28, 2024, officials were called around 11.30 am to 500 Allison Road in West Lafayette for a possible body, which turned out to be that of 19-year-old Neel Acharya.

Neel went missing a day before his death and was last seen by the Uber driver who dropped him off at the University. His body was found outside Maurice J Zucrow Laboratories on the Purdue campus.

He was a double major in computer science and data science at the John Martinson Honors College where the slain Indian-American Varun was also a student, majoring in data science.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Neel finished his schooling at St Mary’s School in Pune before joining Purdue in 2022.

He also participated in and won the Cozmo Clench competition at Techfest 2018-19 hosted by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT).

At Purdue, Neel worked as an Undergraduate Research Assistant and was adept at C (Programming Language), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Research Skills, Python (Programming Language), and Generative Art.

HOW SAFE ARE INDIANS AT PURDUE

According to the university website, Purdue is currently home to more than 2,782 Indian students, representing 21.9 per cent of their international student body — up from 18.2 per cent two years ago.

The university has 876 undergraduates, 1,906 graduates, and 73 online students from India alone and has offered merit-based scholarships to students from the country, through the Indian Emerging Scholar fund.

The university also has Indian Graduate Students at Purdue (IGRASP) — a campus cultural organization that aims to build a sense of community away from home for Indian graduate students at the University.

Following Varun’s death, Purdue’s president assured that the safety and security of students is the single highest priority on the campus.

“Purdue is an extraordinarily safe place on any given day, and compared with cities of Purdue’s population (approximately 60,000 in all), we experience a tiny fraction of violent and property crime that occurs elsewhere.”

“A death on our campus and among our Purdue family affects each of us deeply.”

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