No country for the Dark-Skinned
Prejudice and xenophobia are rampant in India
Hardnews Bureau Delhi
Four days after a Congolese teacher, Masunda Kitada Oliver, was bludgeoned to death by some unidentified men in Delhi, envoys of 42 African countries triggered a sharp diplomatic downturn. They decided to boycott the Africa Day celebrations organised by the Government of India. The group of envoys also agreed to recommend to their respective governments not to send more students to India due to the racial prejudice and Afro-phobia which exist in the country.
Though the African envoys finally backed off from their resolve to stay away from the May 26 Africa Day celebrations, their angry statement compelled many to face up to the dark and unsettling truth that India is inherently a racist society where hate- based crimes have increased in recent years. Besides, it’s a country so obsessed with colour that many of those with a dark complexion get a raw deal in life. Beauty products like ‘Fair and Lovely’, which help in lightening a person’s skin, are a billion-dollar industry. Finally, the exclusionary Hindu caste system has embedded the idea of the “other” which perpetuates natural hatred and violence – as seen in the regular upper caste violence against lower caste Dalits in the country.
Besides longstanding historical ties, Africans come to India to study, work and for affordable medical treatment. Oliver saw the country as a land of opportunity when he took up a job as a French teacher. There are thousands of Africans who find India a comfortable place to live in till they come face to face with its hard and unforgiving face.
To be fair to the BJP government, this is not the first time violence has visited the African community. A couple of years ago, Somnath Bharti, a minister in the Delhi government, had got some African nationals arrested on specious charges of prostitution. Then there was a case of a young Nigerian student who slipped into a coma after falling victim to campus violence in Lovely Professional University, Punjab. Earlier, in February, a Tanzanian girl was stripped naked in Bengaluru. There are many incidents of a racial nature that never find space on the media radar.
What is different about the Oliver episode, though, is the strident manner in which the African envoys reacted to the incident that left the Indian establishment shell-shocked. What exacerbated the anxiety of the External Affairs Ministry was the timing of the protest. The Indian President, Vice President and Prime Minister Narendra Modi were all scheduled to go to Africa. In fact, Modi is deeply invested in improving ties with the African continent and India’s trade with the African mainland stands at an impressive $60 billion. The Prime Minister’s Office is working hard to make his forthcoming visit to Kenya and South Africa— both countries with a sizable Indian diaspora — a success. India’s foreign ministry is worried about how these leaders, during
their travel to the African continent, would respond to the allegation that racial violence had killed innocent Oliver. Further, the Indian diaspora, particularly in East and South Africa, is likely to face a backlash, as it has in the past and in the wake of the recent attacks.
She furiously tweeted about how African nationals were welcome in the country and exhorted ordinary Indians to meet them and assure them that “India luvs you”. While her tweets drew guffaws on social media, it was clear that Swaraj wanted to limit the perception that India has become an intolerant country ever since the BJP-led government has come to power
To prevent the situation spinning out of control, the Indian government pulled out all stops to prove that the unfortunate death of the Congolese teacher was a stray incident. First, President Pranab Mukherjee condemned the incident and recalled Mahatma Gandhi’s association with South Africa and his fight against racism. A junior minister in the government, VK Singh blamed the media for hyping up the incident and called it an outcome of a mere squabble. This was preposterous. His remarks enraged the African envoys further till the ailing External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, stepped in. She furiously tweeted about how African nationals were welcome in the country and exhorted ordinary Indians to meet them and assure them that “India luvs you”. While her tweets drew guffaws on social media, it was clear that Swaraj wanted to limit the perception that India has become an intolerant country ever since the BJP-led government has come to power.
Now, a lot of attempts are being made by the Delhi administration and police to reach out to the African community and tell them that there is no threat to their lives. Efforts have been made to fight the stereotype about Africans being “drug peddlers” and being involved in “anti-social” activities. Furthermore, African envoys have asked the government to fight the deeply entrenched stereotypes that result in violence against their people. This is not going to be easy. It is impossible for many Africans to get a house on rent in Delhi and other parts of the country. While landlords in Delhi are desperate to give their houses to a European, they blanch when a black African presents herself at their doorsteps. For instance, there were areas like Khirki Village that were inhabited by African citizens where a new subculture in music and lifestyle was taking root. Ever since the Aam Aadmi Party came to power in Delhi and the BJP at the Centre, life has become difficult for the African community. The district administration, police and, consequently, landlords display excessive prickliness over the consumption and possession of beef. Other lifestyle issues like loud music and late night parties are aggressively resented by local residents. In many cases, resident welfare associations (RWAs) put pressure on landlords to evict their African tenants. “Till sometime back, there were hundreds of Africans in Khirki village, but now I see much fewer,” said a resident of the neighbourhood.
Many of them have moved to the periphery of the capital where people are less bothered by the African lifestyle. A recent bloody face-off with the local residents whose images went viral saw cricket bats and iron rods being freely used. No one died in this confrontation, but there were some who had to be admitted to the hospital with broken noses and other injuries. The problem is not confined just to Delhi, but exsists in other cities too.
Since Oliver’s death, there has been an intense debate on India’s noisy news TV, social media and elsewhere about whether India is a racist country. Save for the aggressive defence by government officials and former diplomats, there has been near unanimity that, despite India’s close ties with Africa, ordinary Indians display a mindset scarily similar to that of the colonialists who ruled us in the not too distant past.