A Khirki to our soul: 'racism' case in south Delhi shows Indians see Africans with a jaundice eye

India eyes Africa's mineral resources but is not hospitable towards Africans


Abhishek Choudhary | February 26, 2014

Okito Christophe, a 28-year-old Congolese, is short man with a soft voice; with his spectacles and semi-formals, Christophe has the air of a geek who lives a self-absorbed life.

One midnight in the summer of 2012, he opened the door of his house in Vasant Vihar in south Delhi to see 12 uniformed men wearing masks and with weapons in their hands. Before Christophe could make sense of the situation, he found a gun pointed at his chest and was ordered to kneel down. Christophe and his cousin, with whom he shared the house, were soon cuffed in hands and legs. Without speaking much, the men, who Christophe was later informed were from the “CBI”, checked his house through the night: every drawer, every paper, every hole; when the search didn’t yield anything till the morning, they left, but not before breaking his cot and leaving the house in a shambles.

This is not the kind of story one expects from the president of the Association of African Students in India – someone who has on occasion shaken hands with senior diplomats, even politicians, in Delhi.

Christophe arrived in Delhi in 2008 to find himself duped by a certain ‘Vag Infotech’ university that had given him an admission offer back home in Congo: the university turned out to be fake. After wasting a year there, he enrolled himself for a bachelor’s degree in hardware networking at Aptech, another private university. Now a graduate, he is desperately awaiting his marksheets to leave India by the end of February.

Christophe has another, recent story, that completes the loop of his stay in India: in December 2013, he went to Mali on a vacation. At Addis Ababa airport, he was shocked to see a picture of himself featured in a commercial ad for Overseas Infrastructure Alliance, an Indian “project development and management company”, which has expanded its base in many African countries: the photo showed Christophe along with three other black men, and a black woman in the centre, all of them ecstatic. The adline said: “I am Africa. This is my century.”

Christophe had never heard of this company. He says the picture was shot in April 2013 for a brochure of INDIAFRICA, a private initiative supported by India’s external affairs ministry, meant to fund innovative entrepreneurs from India and Africa. Christophe, a “young visionary”, and the other winners in the picture were assured that it wouldn’t be used for commercial purpose. He is yet to receive the award sum of $10,000.
Okito Christophe’s story is one of the many dichotomies of India’s attitude towards black residents, a majority of whom are African students: even as the Indian government and private universities invite students for “quality education at an affordable rate”, the treatment they and other black residents face here raises serious doubts about India’s cultural engagement with the continent it claims to have had historical ties with.

Most incidents go undocumented. When Somnath Bharti, law minister of the AAP government in Delhi, raided Khirki village in south Delhi on the night of January 16 and caught hold of four Ugandan women who, Bharti and his lynch-mob believed, were into drugs and prostitution, it made headlines more because the media was minutely watching every move of the new government than any genuine concern for a minority group.
It wasn’t therefore surprising that though the women were found innocent in the narcotics test, an act of gross racial discrimination soon drowned in the clutter of news on Delhi chief minister’s dharna. Arvind Kejriwal and his team willy-nilly legitimised the prevailing ideas about every black man and woman in the country as addict of drugs and sex – everything that, to sum up, is immoral, even sub-human, to the aam aadmi he seeks to represent.
While most Khirki village residents are now satisfied, the African residents are not: for them the incident has heightened the air of suspicion and mistrust with the native community.

The evening I went to Khirki – it was days after the controversy had peaked and was beginning to fade in the media – two African men stood outside Sai Baba temple (the site of the raid), almost out of a gesture of protest. When I asked one of them which country he was from, he said, in the tone of someone victimised and stamped: “Nigeria.”
I mumbled something about the incident. “I have nothing new to say,” he said. “We just want a solution.”

The Atithi vs. Habshi dichotomy

Towards the latter half of the last decade, India suddenly decided to renew its relationship with Africa. In the 1950s and ’60s – when India played a crucial role in the non-aligned movement and the first Asian-African conference at Bandung (Indonesia) – it was one of the preferred destinations for African students. In the 1990s, when other countries, especially China, became a more preferred destination, the flow ebbed. South-south cooperation became a thing of the past.

With liberalisation, and the aspirations of becoming a global power that followed, India began afresh an institutionalised interaction with Africa: in April 2008 Delhi hosted the first India-Africa forum summit. But the underlying quid pro quo now, as pointed out by Senegal president Maitre Abdoulaye Wade, was: “In return for sharing Indian know-how and investment resources, Africa’s rich but relatively untapped natural and human resources can help meet India’s rising demand for energy, food, and minerals.”

Harping on this development, most Indian private universities (which included a great many fake ones, like the one that duped Christophe) started appointing recruiting agents and spent aggressively on advertising opportunities in many African capitals. India’s multiple attractions, as counted by high commissioner to Kenya, Sibabrata Tripathi, in a 2013 interview were “the use of English as a medium of instruction, reasonable living costs, ethnic, religious and cultural diversity, similarity of life experience in a developing country and the presence of foreign student communities from various countries”.
Different figures put the number of African students enrolled across India  today at anywhere between 25,000 and 30,000.
There are also others: some come for medical treatment, some to escape poverty and political turmoil back home. Often the boundaries overlap: Sudan, which sent the highest number of students from Africa in 2012, is beset with ethnic conflicts. There are also Somali refugees, whom India doesn’t offer even residence permits. There are many more of such small groups.

For many of them, even basics like renting a room or getting a cell-phone connection becomes a hard task. A handful of them open small businesses – restaurants, boutiques, export of consumer goods to Africa. In their everyday interaction with the natives, they are subjected to prejudices which are generally verbal, but can also be physical. A black is typically called a “Habshi” (derived from Al-Habsh, the Arabic term for Abyssinia or present-day Ethiopia), a word whose historical origin – in Delhi, where history laughs at modernity and modernity at history – most people haven’t a clue about.
The simultaneous appropriation and othering is unique: everyone – from the house owner to the auto-rickshaw driver – who otherwise doesn’t see a reason to interact with them, charges exorbitant rates when it comes to money matters.

“Tired of being on the receiving end of jibes and insults, the African community withdrew from any meaningful conversation with other residents in Khirki,” says artist Aastha Chauhan, whose efforts of many years of bringing the communities together in Khirki have found limited success. After a point the Africans also adapt “the regressive attitude of ‘us’ vs ‘them’.”

One can’t generalise which category of African migrants is part of the drug and sex rackets, but a small fraction, mostly out of poverty, is. Young African women, who are lured with the prospect of a job by an agent in their home countries, are often arranged the visa and ticket to India, only to be later forced into prostitution. But the rackets – which are often run by Indians – are not necessarily the biggest worry. Since the Commonwealth Games and Formula One events, many high-profile sex rackets involving nationals from Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and others have been busted, but they never attracted such wrath. The clients for both drugs and sex are, for a great part, Indians.

The problem then, as becomes apparent from another corollary, is the colour of skin: whites from Africa would face no discrimination here, while black Americans find themselves routinely subjected to the great African curse.
The Indian dilemma was thus summarised to me by a vegetable vendor near Sai Baba temple in Khirki: “Aise toh inn kaali-kaluthi ko kaun poochta, phir bhi ek se ek VIP inko le jaate hain.” The innocent-looking sabziwaala cannot fathom why a rich Indian man would want a black woman.

The dark secret of ignorance

Yamarie Bojang came to India three years ago as part of an exchange programme between the Gambian government and Sharda University, from where she will graduate this year with a bachelor’s degree in mass communication. On three different occasions, Bojang, 24, has been asked out for a date by Indian men. Sadly for them, all three spoke their minds rather soon: “They think every African woman here is for prostitution. They would actually tell [this to] you.”

So while none of these men had any intention of a relationship, they found the prospect of temporarily being with a woman with dark skin and liberal, independent lifestyle – someone who could fulfil their sexual fantasies – enticing: “they do it better” is the belief. According to her, even Indian women who, rare though it is, date African men, have something similar in mind.
Bojang, a Sunni Muslim and a first-generation city dweller, doesn’t understand why the Indian society hasn’t moved on, while the one she comes from has. “Why?” she asks.

Improving cultural understanding is a task at once beguilingly simple and hopelessly complex: “Understanding comes through living together, being in close proximity,” says sociologist Ravinder Kaur. “Most Indians are still not well-travelled and do not know about the early migrations and settlement of Indians in various African countries, while Africans know about all the Indians settled there.”
Call it a colonial legacy or what Chauhan calls the “American cultural terrorism”, Indians are “comfortable with the American accent, the American coffee shops, the American lifestyle, the ‘MTV understanding’ as one of my friends from Cameroon once pointed out.” Ironically, while America seems to have moved on, India, with its history of ritual purity (and later colonialism) has developed an aesthetics that looks down on dark skin: the popular culture increasingly paints black men as villains: the high-on-success-and-drugs super-model in 2008 Hindi film Fashion hits the nadir of her career when she finds herself in bed with a black man. “There is no representation of either the contemporary or the traditional African cultures in the mainstream media,” Chauhan says. “How many African artist has ICCR invited to perform in India? How many African restaurants are there in Delhi?”
We seriously need to open our minds and learn about other cultures, societies, people, says sociologist Kaur. Two weeks after the Khirki incident, a 19-year-old student from Arunachal Pradesh, Nido Taniam, died after being beaten up ruthlessly by locals at a south Delhi marketplace: the scuffle was sparked by the taunts on Taniam’s hairstyle. “We need greater tolerance even towards our own tribes, races, communities and also towards foreigners who are not culturally or economically privileged” or are different or in minority.

We can’t dismiss the local community as the racist evil lot, Chauhan says. “Passing that kind of judgment is unacceptable, and detrimental to a better understanding of the issue.” Education certainly is the keyword, except that one doesn’t know where to begin.
Despite an ever-increasing number of foreigners, India presently has no concrete policies for Africans who would be interested in becoming the long-term residents. “Even the idea is unthinkable,” Christophe sighs. Apart from the basic fact that few blacks are issued work permits for a full-time employment, living in India – thanks to the appropriation – is also much more costly for an African than the natives. “We can live the same lifestyle in our countries at half the cost.”

But the immediate concern is something else. “Right now all [Africans] are saying, ‘I want to go’,” Christophe says. The least the government can do, he says, is to make Somnath Bharti publicly apologise to the African community. Also, “the Indian government must meet African students – they must!”

This story appeared in the February 16-28, 2014 issue of the magazine




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