The horrible killing of Manmeet Alisher, the bus driver who was burned alive in his driver’s seat last month, has shaken the Indian community in Brisbane and the wider Indian community in Australia. Race relations between the two countries, on the mend for a while now, have received another jolt.
Manmeet Alisher was twenty nine. In the prime of his life. Like thousands of his fellow Indians, he came to Australia in search of a better life for himself and, more crucially, for his family back home. But on the 30th of October, 2016, a Sunday, when he was working his shift as a bus driver, Manmeet was burned alive when a passenger he picked up on the Morooka Main Road doused him with flammable liquid and set fire to him.
A shock to the community
Manmeet Alisher was an active part of the local Punjabi community. He was an enthusiastic singer, and he was often to be found involved in all sorts of community activities. His death – and the manner of it – has sent shockwaves through the community mainly because of speculation that there might be a racist motivation behind the attack.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also said to have called Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and conveyed his sense of ‘concern’, reflecting the mood of the Indian people towards attacks of this nature in Australia, which have often been thought to be racially motivated.
Loving brother, devoted son
Manmeet’s brother, Amit Alisher, flew to Brisbane on the same day from India and visited the site of the fire. He told reporters that he had not told his parents about the news of Manmeet’s death. ‘My father is seventy years old,’ said Amit. ‘He won’t be able to take it. I told him that my brother is in the hospital after a road accident and that I was going to meet him.’
Family spokesman Winnerjit Goldy confirmed this and said that the parents have yet to come to know about the circumstances surrounding Manmeet’s death. They just know that he had been in an accident, and they’ve been told that he is in a coma.
The whole family is said to be dependent on Manmeet.
There were about eleven witnesses for the incident, the other passengers in the bus while Manmeet was set alight behind the driver’s wheel. The man accused for the crime is Anthony O’Donahue, who is charged with one count of murder, arson and eleven counts of attempted murder.
O’Donahue’s lawyer has inserted a plea for mental instability.
Withdrawn and asocial
O’Donahue, a 48-year-old ex-accountant, has been described as withdrawn and asocial by his neighbour, Andrea Urch, who claimed that leading up to the crime, the accused had stopped interacting with people in his community housing building. She described his behaviour as erratic, secretive and withdrawn.
She also confirmed that O’Donahue always got ‘a bit opinionated’ after a few drinks, and that he ‘went on rants’.
An independent investigation into mental health claim
The Queensland Government has since ordered an independent external investigation into the mental health treatment given to Anthony O’Donahue. Health Minister Cameron Dick however denied that there is any suspicion of foul play, but he simply said, ‘It’s important where there are very serious incidents like this, there should be an independent review.’
This independent investigation will finish in eight weeks, and the findings will be made available to the concerned authorities on an immediate basis. O’Donahue is due to appear first in court in late November, but by then the independent investigation will not have completed, so the case is expected to drag on to December or to early 2017.
Mental health as defence ploy
The most famous use of mental instability as defence came from the perpetrator of President Reagan’s assassination attempt in March 1981. After that incident, the United States ruled to shift the burden of proof from the prosecution to the defence. That means that instead of the prosecution gathering evidence to show the person’s mental health stability, it is the responsibility of the defence to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is mentally unstable.
Opinion of family and friends
Family and friends of Manmeet Alisher are stopping just short of saying that they believe the attack was racially motivated. Amit Alisher, Manmeet’s brother, disagreed with Queensland Police Commissioner Ian Stewart when he said that there was no evidence for racial motivation in the crime. Amit said that he believed that race was a factor, but he also added that he would like to see due process, and he reiterated his faith in the Australian justice system.
Hero taxi driver
Taxi driver Aguek Nyok, who saw events unfold from nearby, kicked out the back door of the bus to help shocked passengers out of the vehicle, thus saving them from the fire and the accused. He is being praised as a hero, and he is now being nominated for a bravery award.
The waste and the hope
Of all the technical details that occupy this piece, the most important one is the sheer waste of a human being’s life that happened due to either a mentally unstable man or a man driven by thoughts of violence. Manmeet Alisher was a good young immigrant man who was in Australia legally, with a family to support back home. He was a responsible, fun-loving part of his community, and by all accounts a good citizen.
The fact that he had to give up his life in so horrific a fashion to the actions of a madman is sad, and makes us wonder how such incidents can happen in the developed world. Our hearts go out to the friends and loved ones of the deceased, and we hope that justice is brought home speedily.
We also hope that the racial divide that has taken root in Australia between Australians and Indians get bridged sooner rather than later. There is more that unites us than divides us.
But let’s finish on the note of hope. In spite of the terrible incident, the good side of humanity shone through when Aguek Nyok, another immigrant, at great potential cost to his life, protected those of his fellow beings.