Neha Pant reports on the racial prejudices of Indians in the wake of protests, after a young African French teacher was brutally murdered in New Delhi last week
“They regularly beat up auto-wallahs, sell drugs. Run prostitution rackets and are a general nuisance in the locality. They have ruined this area,” says a disgruntled shop keeper in Arjun Nagar. “Arre Madam aapko kya pata In logo ka kya background hai? kise kya maloom ye asli main karte kya hain.. Kuch bhi bolte hain, par karte sab do numbari kaam hai,” (What do you know of their background? Nobody knows what they do in reality. They say they work but it’s all shady business) says 28-year-old Pratap Kumar, an auto driver in New Delhi. Sipping leisurely on his cup of tea at a roadside tea stall in Safdarjung Enclave he continues, “Ab kehne ko woh hapshi ek auto ke peeche mara, par asliyat kise maloom,” (Apparently that African died in a fight over an auto rickshaw but who knows the real story). The auto driver conveniently turns a deaf ear to the fact that in reality, Mason Ketanda Oliver who was killed last week was a French teacher at a private school in South Delhi. That the brutal way in which he was murdered, by being chased and hit with stones proves that despite spending five years in the country, he was still seen as the outsider. The other auto drivers in the area are indifferent to the facts. One guffaws loudly and starts narrating the staple myths that are surround African’s living in Delhi. They are dirty. They eat strange things. They are thugs. All illiterate half-baked superstitions that travel around in fear of the other.
Never mind the fact that most of the Africans that come to India, come for business purposes, education and health care. The Indian government too tries hard to bridge the gap between the two continents in the form of cultural events, scholarships and medical tourism. In October 2015, there was even a five day India-Africa Summit in the capital. In May 2016 India celebrated Africa Day amongst much official fanfare. Despite all these efforts at international relations, when a young Congolese man, Mason Ketanda Oliver was battered to death last week, the official response was to not acknowledge the fact that it was Xenophobia that killed him.
When External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj came under fire for the increasing number of violence on African nationals by concerned African envoys she chose to take the tried and tested approach of being a mother and stated that while she understood the pain of losing a son on foreign soil, it was not a racial attack. She also citied Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi as examples to convey that India could never have “a racist mindset” and said that “all criminal acts should not be construed as racial attacks. As the CCTV footage of the incident in question showed, this was an act committed by goons who also thrashed the Indian bystanders who had attempted to intervene to save Mr Olivier. Delhi Police immediately swung into action after the unfortunate incident…” She later tweeted urging Indian’s to tell Africans they love them. A part of her response stems from the fact that despite immigration relations being poor, the political as well as economic relations between the two continents continue to be on a new high. Even the president, Pranab Mukherjee reflected on the past relations between India and Africa.
Nostalgia and an economic history apart, India has always had a very violent history with the people of the African continent. Take for instance January 2014, when the then Delhi Law Minister, Somnath Bharati, attempted to raid the homes of some Ugandan women, as he suspected them of running a prostitution and drug racket. The National Human Rights Commission issued him a formal notice at the time, calling his suspicions racist, as well as sexist. In October 2014, three African men were attacked at a metro station by a racist mob. They eventually escaped after climbing on top of the station police booth. Soon enough there was a Youtube clip of the incident made by bystanders that refused to help. In December, a Nigerian man was killed in mob violence in Goa. In January this year, a Tanzanian girl was stripped and beaten by a mob in Bengaluru. Hyderabad too reported incidents of violence.
“We are a racist country. The sooner we acknowledge that, the better it is,” says 26-year-old Sharmishtha Agarwal who works in the marketing department of an MNC in Delhi. “The Africans have it harder because of their skin colour,” she says, “Indian’s love white skin. They might not admit it, but the average Indian loves showing his association with a white person. It is not like they accept them, they are just willing to patronise them a little more. Africans on the other hand are given a hard time, just because of their race and colour,” she says. Her thirty-six year old colleague Nishant Handa agrees, “It is not like they are bad people. But I think people are just intimidated by them because they have never even attempted to make conversation with them. I have seen girls giggling at these boys, pointing fingers and laughing. Children provoking them for no reason because their parents have not educated them any better.”
Most middle class Indians cannot deal with the differences between their lifestyles and the Africans. They are neither willing to understand or make an effort to bridge the gap. The result of which are these sporadic incidents of racist violence that have a butterfly effect. The backlash from the current incident has been felt throughout the world, Congo and even as far as Kinshasa, where Indian establishments have been attacked. “The Indian’s don’t care about endangering their diaspora community,” says 21-year-old Grace from Burkina Faso who is eating at a Nigerian restaurant in Delhi. She says she is sure that nothing is going to change, even after global criticism. “Most of the incidents of racism are so culturally ingrained and with such a deep prejudice, that if a change has to come, it will come in the next generation, or in the educated circles. The general public will continue to hate us,” she says. She states that while she gets regularly ridiculed for the way she looks, people also have a lot to say about the way she dresses. “They pass crude comments in Hindi and think I won’t pick them up. Most of the time, I don’t. But I have learned to identify words such as Hapshi and Kala,” she says. She also says that in the two years she has been here, she has little friends, “Some students from my university who are educated and open minded. But I still don’t get invited into their homes. On the streets I still get looked at with suspicion and hatred. I can feel their eyes digging in on me when I walk.” 19-year-old Daniel who is a student at Delhi University overhears the conversation and agrees, “we live very isolated lives. People don’t talk to us properly. I have seen girls run when they see us approaching, some of them blatantly stand and giggle. Any attempt at being polite is seen with suspicion. It is no wonder that mostly we choose to keep to ourselves. Hell! They even laugh at our food. But the Indian government won’t admit to this problem. And until they do, Africans will continue to will continue to be targeted and feel threatened in India.”