– NEW YORK
It is every New Yorker’s worst nightmare – being suddenly and senselessly pushed into the path of an oncoming train. On Dec. 27 that became a tragic reality for Calcutta-born Sunando Sen, who was pushed into an oncoming subway train at the 40th Street-Lowery Street station in Sunnyside, in what police describe as a hate crime. Police arrested 31-year-old Erika Menendez of the Bronx for committing the heinous act and charged her with second-degree murder.
Sen, 46, died beneath the Queens-bound subway just six months after he opened his own printing business – New Amsterdam Copies – near Columbia University in Manhattan. According to The Daily News, Sen’s body was pinned under the second car after it came to a stop. News reports describe Sen as being unmarried and since both his parents had died, he lived with two roommates in a small apartment in Elmhurst. Sen, who reportedly lived in the city for the past 20 years, was cremated at a funeral home in Rego Park on Dec. 30 by his friends.
Menendez selected her victim because she believed him to be a Muslim or a Hindu, Richard A. Brown, the Queens district attorney said in a statement to the police. Menendez said she harbored hatred for “Hindus and Muslims” after the September 11, 2001 attacks and pushed Sen off the platform because she took him to be a Muslim. In a statement released by the district attorney’s office, Menendez is quoted as having told the police “in sum and substance” that “I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims ever since 2001 when they put down the twin towers I’ve been beating them up.”
Witnesses to the tragedy told the Daily News that Menendez was mumbling to herself right before she used two hands to push the unsuspecting Sen into the path of a No. 7 train. Security cameras recorded Menendez fleeing the station, which eventually triggered a flood of tips that led to her arrest. Prosecutors said she’s shown no remorse – and even bragged about smoking pot after committing the crime. She faces a maximum of 25 years to life in prison if convicted.
During the court hearing, Menendez reportedly laughed and smiled as she was ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. Defense attorney Dietrich Epperson said her behavior in court was no different from how she had been acting, and said her client didn’t really think the proceedings were funny, the Associated Press reported.
Menendez was identified on Dec. 29 afternoon in a lineup, news reports said, and added that she was recognized earlier in the day on a street in Brooklyn by a passer-by who called 911. The caller said she resembled the woman in the video.
According to The New York Times, Menendez was also arrested at least three times earlier - twice after violent confrontations. She was treated by the psychiatric staffs of at least two city hospitals, and caseworkers have visited her family home in Queens to provide further help.
This was the second case in a month which involved someone being pushed to death in a train station. Ki-Suck Han, 58, of Elmhurst, died under the Q train at the 49th Street and Seventh Avenue station on Dec. 3. Naeem Davis, 30, was charged with second-degree murder in that case. Another high-profile case was the 1999 fatal shoving of aspiring screenwriter Kendra Webdale by a former psychiatric patient.
Reuters reported on Dec. 28 that 139 people have been struck by New York City subway trains so far in 2012, and 54 of them died, according to a Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesman.
Living the ‘American Dream’
Roommates and friends described Sen as a gentle, caring and hardworking man, who “wanted to be his own boss.” Ar Suman, one of the roommates who shared the apartment with Sen told The New York Times that though he was a Muslim and Sen a Hindu, he admired the respect Sen showed for those who had a different view point that his own. “He was so gentle,” Suman, a cab driver, told The New York Times. Describing Sen as a workaholic, Suman said Sen was “very excited to have his own business.”
Another roommate M.D. Khan described Sen as being gentle and nice. “He was such a nice guy- always happy,” Khan told the Daily News, adding that the news of his death is “unbearable.”
Friends said Sen was a graphic designer and enjoyed American movies and music on his iPod – but most of his time was spent focusing on achieving the American dream – launching his own printing company.
“I didn’t know anything about the business,” Sanjeeb Das, his business partner, financial backer and best friend, told the Daily News. “He knew everything.” Das told the paper that Sen came to Manhattan in the early 1990s to attend New York University, and began living with Das in Sunnyside from 1998 to 2005. Das, who moved out after he got married told the Daily News that Sen would visit his house every weekend. “He loved my small son.”
Caution is necessary
Although such incidents are rare, Sen’s death has nevertheless created a sense of nervousness and fear among the commuters who rely on the city’s intricate subway system for their daily commute. “After having heard of two such incidents, I feel the need to be more conscious of my surroundings on the platform,” Anup Kapali, a 35-year-old salesman who lives in Brooklyn told Desi Talk. Kapali said he has been taking the subway for the past 15 years, since he moved to the city from Mumbai.
He says that during rush hours, there are times when he is in a hurry and he waits right at the edge of the platform, and that is something that he intends to change. Malvika Tiwari agrees with Kothari. Tiwari, who commutes daily with her four-year-old son from her Jackson Heights home to Manhattan, says she has to be extra cautious.
Tiwari who works in a threading salon told Desi Talk she leaves her some in a nearby day-care and then walks to work. “During the rush-hour the platforms are packed with people and you have no idea who is next you and what their frame of mind or mental health is,” she said.
According to news reports, transit officials have said they would consider installing barriers with sliding doors on some subway platforms. Other cities including Paris and London have installed such barriers.
Demand for swift justice
Several community and advocacy groups have demanded swift justice in the case and expressed their condolences on the abrupt end to Sen’s life. Indian ambassador to the U.S. Nirupama Rao expressed her condolences on Twitter and described it as a senseless and foul murder. “R.I.P Sunando Sen, citizen of India who has been taken away from us in an act of murder most senseless and foul,” she tweeted.
Reacting to Menendez’s statement, the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations repeated its call for America’s political and religious leaders to speak out forcefully against growing anti-Muslim hate in American society. “We again urge our nation’s leaders to speak out forcefully against the rising level of anti-Muslim hate in American society that is being fueled and exploited by a vocal minority of Islamophobes,” Muneer Awad, executive director of CAIR-NY, said in a statement.
The Hindu American Foundation also condemned the attack and said that although not frequently reported, the incident is not an isolated event. “Such a violent and hateful attack on any individual, especially because of religious hatred is completely unconscionable in any society” said Suhag Shukla, executive director and legal counsel for the foundation. “While we are encouraged by the arrest of Menendez and the Queens district attorney charging her with a hate crime, we are closely monitoring the situation to ensure that justice is swiftly dispensed in this case,” the she said.
The statement added that Sen’s death has also refocused attention on efforts by HAF, and several other religious liberty and faith-based advocacy groups, to urge the FBI to add three new anti-religious bias hate crime categories: (1) anti-Hindu, (2) anti-Sikh, and (3) anti-Arab.