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Tributes flow for Indian migrant Manmeet Alisher, fondly remembered as an integral part of the community. KIRA SPUCYS-TAHAR, RAJNI ANAND LUTHRA (Sydney) and VISH CHILUMKURTI (Brisbane) report
Australia was only just recovering from the shock deaths of four holidaymakers at the DreamWorld theme park when Manmeet Alisher was killed in a senseless attack, set ablaze by a passenger while driving a Translink bus in Brisbane’s southern suburbs.
The 29-year-old never stood a chance.
Manmeet had recently begun his casual job as a bus driver and was looking forward to soon returning to India to marry.
None of the people waiting at the bus stop that Friday morning had any inkling of what was about to happen when the bus stopped to pick up passengers.
According to witnesses, 48-year-old Moorooka man, Anthony Mark Edward O’Donohue, one of three people who boarded the bus, threw an “incendiary device” at Manmeet, sparking a fire that killed him and injured passengers on-board.
While Manmeet was trapped in the driver’s seat, six passengers were also trapped inside the bus unable to escape the spreading fire.
Hearing their desperate cries for help, a passer-by, taxi driver Aguek Nyok, kicked the backdoor of the bus open and helped the passengers out. But it was too late for Manmeet.
“The fire was substantial,” said Queensland Police Superintendent Jim Keogh. “He would have stood little chance.”
Manmeet Alisher, also known as Manmeet Sharma, was an integral part of the local Indian Australian community and also a junior member of Aam Admi Party, which has a wide following in his home state of Punjab.
He was from the village of Alisher and had adopted the name of his native village for his stage persona. He arrived in Australia about nine years ago on a student visa and was granted Australian citizenship six months ago.
He had joined the Brisbane City Council as a bus driver two months ago, and before that he drove taxis around the city for about six or seven years.
The 29-year-old’s brother, Amit, arrived in Brisbane on the Sunday morning following the attack to take his brother’s body home.
“He was not only a driver, he is a shining star, a good artist, a good hero, he had made movies, he was a good social worker, he did a lot of things for his community in Australia even in India also,” long-time family friend Winnerjit Goldy, who accompanied Amit, told media.
In a spooky coincidence, a grateful Manmeet had presented a heart-felt tribute to his father only weeks before he passed. In his Punjabi poem Bapu tere karke, kamaon joggi ho gaya, he thanked his dad for all that he had done for him; he also promised his own share of dutiful care.
(‘You took me round town on your bicycle; now I’ll drive you round town in my Audi’; and, ‘You put me in the shade and sat in the scorching heat yourself, now I’ll seat you in air-conditioned comfort’).
Indeed, he was a typical youth from middle class Punjab who came here to eke out a living and improve his quality of life through sheer determination and hard work.
Sadly, his father will now not be able to reap the rewards of cool comfort his son wanted to afford the family. In fact, the family has decided not to tell the parents that Manmeet is dead until his body is home, as “They are too old – my father is 70 – they won’t be able to take it,” Amit Alisher told the Brisbane Times.
In a telephone call with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi conveyed a sense of concern being felt in India over the recent brutal killing of Manmeet. Prime Minister Turnbull expressed shock at the killing and conveyed that the matter is being investigated. Indian High Commissioner in Australia Navdeep Suri extended all help possible to the family.
Farewell to a cheerful friend
The city of Brisbane was shell-shocked as the news of Manmeet’s death spread; he was a popular member of the Punjabi community. Manmeet was a regular broadcaster of the Punjabi language program on Radio 4EB, a multicultural radio station. He was also an active theatre actor and was a regular member of Indoz Theatre Group founded by Rashpal Singh Heyer.
“He was one of our senior members,” Heyer told Indian Link. “He was the lead in a play that I wrote and directed called Chatura Chor; he was simply brilliant in it. He was a poet, writer, actor and singer. Together we did stage shows, radio shows and kavi darbars (poetry events), and even three short films. All he ever wanted to do was entertain.”
But it is Manmeet’s friendly nature that Rashpal Heyer will remember the most. “The ready smile on his face was his trademark feature.”
Rashpal and Manmeet had been collaborating for five years and were about to embark on a new production, Dila Patti, for which rehearsals were due to begin in early November.
Indeed, Manmeet had also made a foray into the field of movie production and had been a part of the production team for three movies in his native language.
His earthy style of singing, with which he entertained at many of the Indian community’s events in Brisbane, clearly showed him off as a true ‘putt Punjab da’ (son of Punjab). In his short films, he sent out the message of honest living and humanitarianism.
Safety for transport workers
Manmeet Alisher’s death has exposed the life threatening risks that are faced by workers in the public transport industry. Rashpal Singh Heyer said that a delegation representing public transport workers has proposed to the Lord Mayor Graham Quirk to bring about changes in legislation to make such heinous crimes punishable more severely in order to be a deterrent in the future. The Lord Mayor reassured workers that special focus in the investigations will be laid on the occupational health and safety aspects of the incident, such as exit doors and safety information for passengers.
On the Monday following the attack, bus drivers across South Australia wore black armbands in memorial of Manmeet Alisher. The Transport Workers Union also made counsellors available at bus depots across the State to provide support for drivers.
A recent survey of SA bus drivers carried out by the TWU showed over half of drivers faced aggressive passenger behaviour at least once a week while 80% felt threatened by the behaviour of passengers on their bus. Following the release of the survey, SA’s Minister for Transport Stephen Mullighan introduced tougher penalties for people who attack public transport drivers or security guards on bus and rail networks.
The community mourns
Gatherings of mourners have taken place across Australia in recent days in spontaneous gestures of grief, dismay and loss at the horrific killing of Manmeet.
On the Saturday evening following the attack, the residents of Moorooka in Brisbane organised a vigil in his memory. Hundreds of people from various communities paid homage to the popular thespian and radio jockey. The Lions Club, Brisbane City Council workers, hundreds of taxi drivers and members of the Brisbane Sikh Temple, Logan Road, the venue of a later vigil, were present to mourn the much-loved bus driver. Members of the Sikh community have also setup the Manmeet Alisher Memorial Foundation Trust.
As Rashpal Singh Heyer said, “The wider Australian community has shown a very mature response to the mishap and I expect that the Queensland Police Service will ensure that justice will be carried out.”
In Adelaide, more than 600 people gathered at Tandanyunga (formerly known as Victoria Square) surrounded by the constant stream of trams and buses. A friend of Manmeet’s, Mintu Brar read a personal message and then a short message of thanks from Manmeet’s brother, Amit. Also in attendance was Manmeet’s Adelaide-based cousin Himanshu Sharma. Manmeet had performed at a local Adelaide Diwali mela the previous Sunday.
Hundreds also gathered at Melbourne’s Federation Square to hold a candlelight vigil in memory of Manmeet. Local community leaders used their speeches to demand justice for his family.
In Sydney, hundreds of members of the community gathered at Robyn Thomas Reserve in Parramatta. A slideshow about Manmeet’s life and work was played, and various dignitaries and locals offered their condolences to the family.
Indeed, Manmeet Alisher’s death has touched the wider Australian community, with strangers reaching out on social media to pay their respects. Mona Razzak wrote on Manmeet’s Facebook profile, “I am so unbelievably sorry this happened to you. I personally don’t know you Manmeet, but my parents came here with a dream to make it in this country and I imagine you were the same. Rest in peace and my condolences to your family.” Will Reid wrote, “I don’t know you, but a smile personally tells me a lot about one’s soul. RIP champion.” While Joy Kelly wrote, “I don’t know you, but you and your family are in my thoughts and I’m honestly so heartbroken. I’m sorry this happened to you. I’m sorry you didn’t get to make it home take off your shoes after a day’s work, and be comfortable with your loved ones talking about your day over dinner. I’m sorry that your time was cut short before you got to accomplish all that you wanted, but know that you made an impact and inspired others. Peace, love, and warmth.”
Others reached out as the incident hit close to home. Dexter Mejia wrote, “My partner and I send our condolences to your family. My partner is a bus driver as well and this story has affected us gravely. I hope the government will do more to protect our transport workers.”
The discussion turns to racism
Despite Queensland Police ruling out racism or terrorism as a motive for the attack, many on social media vented anger and the conversation turned into a discussion about racist behaviour in the community. Indeed, many in India suspect Manmeet’s killing was a hate crime.
Gagandeep Luthra wrote, “I am sure the attacker will escape his crime without adequate punishment imposed on him. We lost a person from our community and I am sure this was a pre-planned racist attack due to the fact that some people can’t digest the fact that Indians work really hard day and night to make their lives better and help improve Australia’s economy…wish the attacker was back in India… [he] won’t have been spared (sic).”
Tere wrote, “I hate Australia, it took away my friend” [translated from Hindi]. Sunny Nandi wrote, “f… Aussies” and Siddharth Jha wrote, “Didn’t know such kind of vile racism existed in Australian society. This is beyond horrifying. Such kind of inhumane acts are not expected in some dirt poor war-torn African country, let alone Australia. Really, even after 200 years, Australia is still filled with sick, depraved criminals. There were other passengers too, but he especially targeted the driver, so it’s not a completely random attack and looks to me it was racially motivated.”
Manmeet’s brother told the ABC that while his family understood Police did not believe the attack was racially motivated, they feared it might be the case.
“We suspect that it may be (racially motivated),” he said. “We would like to see due process, we have faith in the Australian system.”
After reports emerged that the alleged attacker suffers from mental illness, several online posts slammed the suggestions. Kulwinder Brar wrote, “It is just rubbish that he is mentally sick. No matter if he is physical or mentally ill, who cares about him? He committed a crime. Should be hanged till death… We want justice for Manmeet and his family.” Soman Hundal wrote, “He does not seem to be sick …he must be burnt alive” and a Facebook page called ‘RIP Manmeet Alisher’ wrote, “It is a humble request and appeal to all the Punjabis living in and out of Australia to demand for justice for Manmeet. Make sure that the murderer must be hanged till death or burnt alive. Don’t let the Australian Govt leave him free by just declaring him mentally sick…”
Anthony Mark Edward O’Donohue appeared in court on Saturday after the attack charged with murder, arson and 11 counts of attempted murder.
He was remanded in custody, with the case to be heard again late next month.
Support for the future
“The best way we can assist his family at this time is not only through our words of condolence and sympathy, but also in a practical way,” said Lord Mayor of Brisbane City Graham Quirk as he announced the Council will donate $10,000 to Manmeet’s family through the Manmeet Sharma Trust it has setup.
Deputy Mayor and public transport chairman Adrian Schrinner was very emotional as he told the meeting, “…It’s an absolute tragedy and while we can’t change what happened, we can’t change the events of last week, we can ensure that Manmeet’s memory lives on in the people of Brisbane.”
Greens councillor Jonathan Sri, who is of Sri Lankan descent, said he could emphasise with Manmeet Sharma’s family.
“They send them away with the best of intentions and so much love in their hearts and it’s a great pain to send your son or daughter to the other side of the world, not knowing when you’ll see them again,” he said. “And they have the pride that they have made it, they’ve gone to the West, they’ve gone to Australia.
“What a joy to talk to our friends in the villages and say how wonderful it is that he is over there, that she is over there, and for this to happen makes me so, so sad.
“I wish there was more I could say or do to ease your pain and there is nothing.”
Cr Sri acknowledged there been no allegation of racial motivation behind the attack, “we can always do more”.
“We don’t always make it easy for our brothers and sisters who come here from other countries and, at times like this, I think it’s important that we recognise that.”
With Frankey Gerard Fernandes (Adelaide)