Washington, Feb. 22: Tavraj Banga, a second year Indian student at the prestigious Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, had a close shave with disaster when the Philadelphia Municipal Court yesterday dropped all charges against him and two other students in a sensational case which highlighted the depths of rivalry among Ivy League colleges in the US.
Banga and four of his university mates were accused in November of pouring motor oil on a member of the debating team from the equally prestigious Princeton University and threatening to set him on fire.
A conviction would have put an end to Banga’s promising future. He could have been jailed and then faced deportation to India after his release.
“If you are not a citizen of the US and you are convicted of a criminal felony, you serve your (jail) time in the US and then you are deported,” according to the university’s professor for legal studies, William Tyson.
“If you (have a student visa and) you can’t go to school — your visa is no longer valid,” Tyson told a university newspaper as the case riveted attention on Ivy League campuses during the last several months.
Because two of Banga’s partners in the alleged crime are foreigners like him, deportation became an issue at a time when foreign students are increasingly under scrutiny in the US in the wake of September 11.
College senior Steven Stolk, who was charged along with the Indian, is from Portugal. A third student, Thomas Bispham Jr, is from Hong Kong and is considered by the university as an international student although his lawyers insisted that he is a US citizen.
The five students were charged with aggravated assault with a minimum punishment of 10 years and criminal conspiracy. Both are felony charges under Pennsylvania law.
Other charges — simple assault, reckless endangerment of another person’s life and terroristic threats — are classified as misdemeanours.
Yesterday, the court dropped all charges against Banga, Stolk and first year student Philip Balderston of Pennsylvania.
The more serious felony charges against Bispham Jr and first year student David Hochfelder of New York were dropped too. They got away lightly with charges of misdemeanour for which they will have to undergo probation.
These two students will reappear in court on March 7 to work out details of their probation, after the completion of which, their criminal records on account of this case will be wiped clean.
Banga’s lawyer Frank DeSimone was ecstatic that his client was let off and the boy’s future was salvaged.
“We are happy about this,” he told the local media. “We have maintained all along that he (Banga) did not do anything, he just stood there” while the debator from Princeton was assaulted.
Although the incident involving the debator was serious on the face of it, the judge appears to have recognised it as a case of youthful exuberance not uncommon in universities, something akin to ragging in Indian campuses.
It helped that the accused appeared in court mostly in sports jackets, giving the impression of a student commitment to sporting activity on the campus. At least one accused kept reading his college notes in court apparently in desperate preparation for a coming examination, which gave the impression of students wanting to return to their studies.
Of the five students, Hochfelder did not appear in court as he is studying in Utah for the current semester, his lawyer informed the judge.