Tech worker Srinivas Kuchibhotla was killed in a crowded Kansas bar
The murder has raised safety concerns amongst the Indian community in the US
“Get out of my country.”
According to eyewitnesses, those are the words Adam Purinton yelled out moments before he opened fire on two Indians at Austin’s Bar and Grille in Olathe, Kansas.
Purinton allegedly shot and killed Srinivas Kuchibhotla and wounded his friend Alok Madasani. Both men were 32-years-old, working as engineers at GPS-maker Garmin.
While authorities are still piecing together exactly what happened – the FBI is investigating the incident as a hate crime – Purinton’s words and actions have reverberated half a world away, in India.
Kuchibhotla’s widow, Sunayana Dumala, found her worst fears about xenophobia in the US confirmed. “I told him many times, ‘Should we think about going back? Should we think about going to a different country?’ He said, ‘No,’ ” she told CNN affiliate KCTV-TV.
And for millions of Indians, Kuchibhotla’s murder has raised serious questions: is America still home to the American dream? Can Indians be safe and respected in America?
Power and progress
The image of the United States has long woven with the idea of power, success, and progress. Despite fears over the Kuchibhotla incident, that remains the case for many Indians.
“In our society to go to just work in the United States, it’s a matter of prestige for our family, for our friends,” says Sannat Mengi, a freshman at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi.
His university alumni are known for landing jobs with startups and Fortune 500 companies in Silicon Valley; star graduates include the CEOs of Google and Vodafone India.
“We all are attracted to the US and the research they have got there,” he says. “We have to look into our own progress, so I would still like to go there, no matter how much instances like these happen.”
India currently has 166,000 students studying in the United States. Every year, tens of thousands of Indians move to the US on highly-skilled work visas. For example, in the H-1B visa category, which allows for 85,000 visas in a year, an estimated 70% of the visas go to Indians.
Yet, the relationship is rarely just transactional. For Preeti Vemu, a Hyderabad resident who just returned from living in California for three years, America is a second home. Both her mother and her boyfriend live there. She’s in the process of applying for a green card.
“We still love the US,” she says. “I think what America stands for is rebuilding. It’s about addressing an issue and giving steps to counteract that issue.”
Vemu says she’s taking a wait and see approach to the new White House’s take on immigration and immigrants.
“We are holding on to hope,” she says. “We are not writing America off.”
Still, Kuchibhotla’s death has injected a sense of anxiety in the narrative – one whose backdrop includes an American president whose campaign was run on messages about excluding certain groups of immigrants and curbing visa programs for highly skilled immigrants.
“Indirectly, some of these people who are in favor of such opinions … would have got motivated because of President Trump’s speeches,” says first-year IIT student, Divyanshu Saxena, adding that it might deter him from going to the US in the future.
“I would not like to go now because [of] the recent frequent increase in such incidents,” he says. “There are much better facilities, but we would not like to sacrifice our own well-being for that.”
Grief and realism
However, in Hyderabad, as family members prepare to cremate Kuchibhotla’s body, there is realism even in a moment of deep sorrow.
Venu Madhav, the brother-in-law of Kuchibhotla’s wife, says the incident hasn’t changed his view of America. “I have a lot of respect for America and my family has a lot of respect for America,” he says, adding that he would definitely still send his children there. “We love America.”
Madhav himself has lived in the US and says he still has many relatives there.
He points out that while Purinton may have killed Kuchibhotla, another American – Ian Grillot – tried to stop him.
“He is my hero,” he says.
CNN’s Omar Khan contributed to this report from New Delhi