Racism: Walking the fault line

The recent attack on four Nigerians in Greater Noida has once again exposed the racism that pervades our society, from top to bottom. But it has uncovered another problem that’s bigger in magnitude: our refusal to accept our intolerance
Shalini Sharma Noida

It was on March 26 that Najib Hamisu Umar, Nigerian Students’ Coordinator and a member of the Association of African Students in India (AASI), got a call from an Indian friend who owns a little shop in Jagat Park area of Greater Noida. This was a day after Manish Khari, a Class XII student of JP International School in Greater Noida, died due to cardiac arrest and alleged drug overdose. Locals held the African students living in the area responsible for the boy’s death. Speaking in broken English, Umar’s friend somehow managed to convey that Gujjars were planning to take out a protest march on March 27 and had vowed to beat up any black person they saw on the roads. By that time, the community was already alert, as the locals had thrashed two Nigerian students that night. Umar moved quickly to circulate the message conveyed by his friend and asked his people to stay vigilant and indoors.

However, on March 28, newspapers were splashed with stories of how a candlelight vigil turned violent and attacked four Nigerian students around Pari Chowk and inside Ansal Plaza Mall. Videos of an angry group of people beating two black men inside the mall using whatever they could lay their hands on went viral on social media. Locals alleged that the Nigerian students living in the vicinity had forced Khari to take drugs. Reports also claimed that the residents of the area searched the refrigerators in the homes of other black people living in the area to see if they had stored the remains of Khari’s body there.

The incident was just the latest in a series of other events where people from Africa have been attacked, beaten up, molested or even killed by mobs in India. In a letter, the African Group Head of Missions in Delhi termed the attack as “racially charged and xenophobic” in nature and called for an independent investigation by the Human Rights Council. It triggered a face-off between the African envoys and the Indian government, with the latter summoning the Dean of the African Heads of Mission over the statement. However, in order to prevent the issue from spiralling out of control, the Indian government also moved quickly to assure that the matter woud be looked into and adequate security would be provided to Nigerian students in India.

Dressed in a purple printed shirt and sharp trousers, Umar is reclined on the sofa comfortably inside his dimly lit apartment but his voice carries the anguish and anger spawned by the treatment people from his continent have been receiving in India. “People think of us as cannibals. They don’t want to stay with us, talk to us or be friendly with us. And it has got everything to do with the colour of our skin. How can somebody just attack you and start beating you up? This incident was a murder attempt. If 40-50 people start beating you up with anything they can find, there is little chance you will survive,” says Umar. He is pursuing a PhD in electrical and electronics engineering at Sharda University.

Inside the sprawling campus of the university, a group of African students seek refuge from the summer sun under a tree. Except the security guards placed by the university, there is no trace of any additional deployment by the State. They belong to different countries in Africa—Zambia, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, among others. Their first impression of India was drawn from the extravaganza of Bollywood films that are replete with emotions, song and dance sequences, and glamour. That image has been shattered now. Emily, a first-year student pursuing BBA, says that she had grown up with a Roman Catholic family from India and had always admired the warmth and love with which they received everyone. That was the picture she had in mind when she left Nigeria to pursue her studies here. She has been in India for a year and her experiences on the streets of Delhi and the National Capital Region as a woman with black skin have scared her to the core. “I remember this incident vividly because it makes me shiver every time I think of it. I was returning from a party with my friends and we were waiting for a cab on the road. A car screeched to a halt beside us. It had a group of inebriated men seated inside. They were calling out to us and asking us the ‘rate,’ almost ready to step out of the car. Thankfully, the security guard told them to leave us alone and threatened them with dire consequences. They left after that,” recounts Emily.

As women with black skin, they are at the receiving end of both sexism and racism. “People assume our girls to be prostitutes only because they are black. I think Indians lack orientation and humanity,” rues Umar. Salifya, another first-year student pursuing law, says that she is scared of travelling in the Metro because of the way people stare at her, not just men but also women. She says some Indians have also photographed her without her permission. After the incident that took place at Pari Chowk and Ansal Plaza Mall, Salifya is scared that they can beat her up too. Therefore, she always opts for cabs—a choice preferred by her friends, both male and female. John, another student, intervenes to say that stares are not something that only women are subjected to, men have to face it too because of their hair and dark skin. “Even in college, a few professors identify us as ‘them,’ meaning the students from African countries. I have a name. It’s been a year and that’s long enough for people to be able to memorise names. Some of our classmates think that Africa is one country and all Africans are black. We cannot be herded together under the same umbrella. There are 54 different nations in Africa,” he says.

According to Umar, the abuse that people from African countries face on a daily basis swings between verbal and physical. “Sometimes people hurl slang at us that we don’t even understand but we know it is derogatory. Some will pour water on you. If they see you dressed in your traditional attire, you will invite stares. Sometimes people on bikes will drive past and hit you on your head,” he says.

The perception of Africans being drug lords and prostitution kingpins is so widespread that it is almost like an alternative truth. In January 2014, a group of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) members and volunteers led by MLA Somnath Bharti had raided the houses of various people of African descent and molested women at around 3 am in Khirki Extension, claiming to have busted a drug and prostitution racket. For students who have lived on the university campus, life has been easier. Umar, who lived outside the campus for a while, says, “In cases where you are not refused accommodation by the landlords directly, the society builds pressure on them and warns them against renting their place out to Africans. It is very difficult to get a house. At least five or six landlords refused me because people in the society did not want to live with Africans.”

George, a first-year student pursuing law, finds it ridiculous. “We are living in the 21st century and there should be no place for racism. It’s ridiculous to think that a mob of people can pick on a person for their skin colour and beat them to death. I have to spend five years in this country, I can’t spend my time here in fear,” he says. These students pay around US $6,000 per annum as course fees and an additional $4,000 per annum as accommodation charges. John says that he opted to study in India just because he liked the country. “There are countries other than India where educational institutions are better and cheaper. But I chose to come to India. Now I will have to do some rethinking,” he says. Family and relatives back home are paranoid in the wake of the latest incident of violence. Salifya says that her mother calls her every other hour to make sure she is safe. Her parents often tell her: “If you don’t feel safe, come back.”

Umar is disappointed at the way the government has reacted to the incident. “All that the external affairs minister did was to condemn the incident. She did not even call it racism and even failed to apologise for it,” he says. The police has arrested six people and booked one, but nothing is going to change on the ground unless people accept that there is racism in Indian society. George and other students too agree that the Indian government has not done enough and the least it could have done was to apologise. “I have some Indian friends who are great. They are so kind and nice to me that I wish I could take them to Africa. But at the same time, a majority of Indians are intolerant,” says John.

Umar says that there are at least 1.6 million Indians living in Nigeria and they have their own cremation grounds and temples. “If they can survive in a country with a completely different culture and have their own space, why can’t Indians here live with a few Africans?” he asks. Recalling the time when he appeared on NDTV for a debate on the incident, the PhD scholar says that he was horrified to hear a minister say things about African people that an uneducated auto-driver on the road would say. “That is why I say that racism in India is institutionally recognised by the government. The first step towards correcting anything is to accept that there is something wrong. If you can’t do that, you cannot set anything right,” he asserts.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2017