The death of a 30-year-old African-American tourist in Goa last week has come under intense scrutiny, with the issue being raised in the legislative assembly and the state chapter of the Human Rights Law Network saying it will write to the Goa police to demand a serious investigation.

Caitanya Holt died on January 12, from allegedly choking on sludge in a rice field in the North Goa village of Korgaon. According to newspaper reports, he was chased into the field and beaten up by locals and the police after being mistaken for a robber. What happened before that is unclear.

The Times of India reported that Holt, who was “mentally unstable”, dropped his bag in a house in Korgao and started “misbehaving with the locals”. He “tried to grab the keys of scooters in the locality”, rushed to the village’s main junction, and started “behaving abnormally”. When local residents tried to control him, he raced into a paddy field some 1.5 kilometres away and began ploughing it. He died following an assault on him there.

The Navhind Times, on the other hand, reported that Holt had a “fight with some Nigerians” and, while on the run from them, took shelter in a house in Korgao. Mistaken for a thief, locals tried to apprehend him, but he fled and desperately tried to hail down a vehicle and then some scooters. He kept calling out for help. A mob apprehended and thrashed him, the newspaper said, with the police later joining in. In this fray, Holt escaped into a paddy field with sludge and died following another assault there.

A post-mortem conducted on Saturday confirmed the cause of death as asphyxia, although a panel of forensic doctors identified non-fatal injuries on the body, NDTV said.

Mapusa Deputy Superintendant of Police Mahesh Gaonkar told that a case of unnatural death has been registered and several people are being questioned. The police are in touch with the American consular authorities, he said.

Growing racism

The Goa coordinator of the Human Rights Law Network, Caroline Colaco, said the network will press for a “proper” First Information Report, so that the case is investigated properly. “What tends to happen in such cases is that an unnatural death is registered, some statements are recorded. When an FIR is filed, the matter takes a different turn,” said Colaco, a criminal lawyer. “How… matters are pursued tends to depend on the financial status and clout of the victim and his/her family.”

The issue was raised in the Goa Assembly last week, with the opposition calling it a case of murder and the chief minister saying he had sought a report into the death, which happened in his constituency.

Whichever way the probe goes, the manner of Holt’s death has nevertheless raked up issues of Goans’ racial bias and ignorance as well as their dangerous slide towards vigilantism. Colaco says there is a strong bias in Goa against African nationals and persons of African origin, who tend to get called “Nigerians”.

This ill will has been building up in Goa since November 2013, when several African men, including Nigerians, intercepted a police hearse carrying the body of a compatriot, Obodo Uzoma Simeon. They dumped the body on the national highway and blocked it for several hours to raise the demand that the autopsy should be performed in the presence of the Nigerian ambassador.

When the riot triggered off a diplomatic row, several locals were arrested for Simeon’s death. It was reported that the murder was the fallout of a turf war between drug-running local and African groups. The episode sparked an administrative exercise to check visa entries, with the government expressing keenness to deport many for overstaying. Meanwhile, 51 men of African origin were arrested for the highway blockade and cases were filed against a few locals for assaulting the highway protesters. Lawyers who represented the African nationals arrested for the highway blockade said they faced hostile queries from their colleagues just for providing legal services.

Vigilantism has been recurring in the state with striking consistency. In March 2013, mobs in Pernem, North Goa, apprehended an innocent man and assaulted him, believing him to be a notorious murder suspect that the police had failed to track down. The next year, in June, two men in their mid-twenties were “roughed up, dragged and paraded naked by a mob” in South Goa after “locals suspected them to be thieves”.