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“ATTENTION!!!” typed Zaharaddeen Muhammad into the small dialogue box on his smartphone. It was 1.30 pm on Wednesday and he was seated on the ground floor of the Kailash Hospital in Greater Noida. Across the hall was the emergency room where 24-year-old Kenyan student, Maria Burendi, was recovering after allegedly being beaten up by a group of men early in the morning while travelling in Greater Noida in a cab.
The latest allegation followed a mob attack on four Nigerian students at Pari Chowk on Monday evening. Since then, African nationals in Greater Noida have repeatedly been asked to stay indoors and not venture out — even for food and water.
“With due respect, the Association of African Students in India is arranging food and water supply to the needy ones at doorsteps.” Muhammad paused and scrolled up to insert “free” before the food. “Whoever is in need should contact the following numbers for delivery.” He typed out the phone numbers of Bukola Samuel, Abdul Brahim and his own and pressed his finger over the green circle to the right. The message went out to the ‘Greater Noida Students’, ‘AASI NIU’, ‘Executives 2017’ and the ‘Black Stars’ WhatsApp groups. He then pasted the message as his Facebook status.
An hour before this message went out, Muhammad, Samuel and Brahim had huddled together on the fifth floor of the hospital to discuss strategy. In the evening, they enlisted the services of police to distribute packets of biryani, samosas and bread to students who had written to them. “We will ask them to give us their name and address and let’s see how we can do this,” said one of them.
The three men, all students from Nigeria studying in universities in Noida, are office bearers at the Association of African Students in India (AASI), and have spent the morning sending out warnings to African students living in Greater Noida: “Remain indoors!”
Much like Nigerian students, Endurance and Precious, who came under a mob attack earlier this week, these men are part of a steadily increasing African student population who have come to live in Greater Noida, lured by the sprawling, American-styled universities selling India as a dream destination for education.
“Back home, I was a student activist and when I came to India, I noticed it was necessary to be involved in some form of association since things were going really wrong,” said Muhammad. “Everyday, we hear or read things that Indians say about us. That we ‘eat humans’ or ‘eat dogs’. We cannot let this happen.” Other students said they faced racial slurs on a daily basis, often called ‘kala’ or ‘Negro’.
Rough estimates put the African student population at 25,000 across the country, about one-fifth of whom live in Greater Noida. Manuel, an economics undergraduate student at Noida International University, does a quick calculation. “Even if you assume a minimum tuition of a couple of lakh, these universities are earning in crores from us. This is not including the money we spend on transport, food and rent,” he said.
“We are pumping thousands of crores into the Indian economy and we are getting nothing in return. There are more than five million Indians in Nigeria and they are employed and live comfortably there.” Manuel gets cut off mid-sentence by Michael: “An Indian man from Punjab lives in my house in Nigeria. I am his landlord and I look after him well. If this trend of mob violence continues, we will have to retaliate and perhaps it will be through diplomacy. Nigeria is one of the largest exporters of crude oil to India. We will also actively discourage African students from applying to Indian universities.”
The African diaspora within India is uniting and becoming more aware of each other, photographer Mahesh Shantaram told The Indian Express. Shantaram spent the last year photographing members from the African community in different parts of the country, including Muhammad in Greater Noida.
“Even though each place has a small concentration of Africans, they are becoming enraged with similar incidents across the country. The WhatsApp groups serve as a virtual family where they can come together and get to know each other. For instance, about the incident in Greater Noida that took place over the weekend, I came to know from five contacts from different parts of the country. The community was definitely not as united even a year ago,” said Shantaram.
The AASI, Muhammad said, has attempted to put together a database of students through an open college registration via their website. “We even used to collaborate with universities so we know the number of African students in any one place,” he said.
But WhatsApp and Facebook groups have made this task easier for the association. “Unless everything calms down, we are not going to tell anyone to leave their homes or go back to classes at their universities. This is not the first time such an incident is happening; the Indian government has to fully address the issue so it never happens again. Until then, India is not a safe country for a Black man.”