Fatima Hassan, a Somalian refugee, was 10 when she first moved to India with her siblings. In Pune, where they first set up house in 2001 and joined a local school, the children picked up a smattering of Marathi, learned to relish Indian food and spices and make friends with their neighbours. “Pune was quite cosmopolitan, the people seemed more used to foreigners, certainly to students. But there was no getting away from the occasional name-calling in school or when we played with other children. Being called a Negro was not uncommon, otherwise, it wasn’t terribly bad on the whole,” says Hassan, now 25.
According to UNHCR June 2015 data, of the world’s 19.5 million refugees, 1.11 million come from Somalia. India is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol and lacks a national refugee protection framework. But, in keeping with the UNHCR’s mandate, it continues to grant asylum to a large number of refugees and asylum-seekers, particularly from neighbouring countries, and hosts one of the biggest refugee populations in South Asia. But, “in the absence of a legal framework, these asylum-seekers are stuck in a curious limbo. Their legal status is variable, they can’t get a PAN card or open a bank account and resettlement can take anywhere between five to 15 years,” says Radha Mahendru, curator at Khoj International Artists Association, headquartered in south Delhi’s Khirkee Extension village.
Mahendru says she found herself increasingly agitated about how things were changing all around them, even in the urban village of Khirkee, over the last two years. “Khirkee had, for long, been a melting pot. It has one of the highest concentration of migrants from different communities, religions and nationalities — from Cameroon, Somalia, Nigeria, Kenya, Afghanistan and Nepal etc. Cultural difference had often led to friction, but suddenly, that space seemed to be shrinking further because of acts of discrimination, and alarmingly, of violence,” says Mahendru. Over conversations with Bani Gill, a friend who was doing her PhD on forced migrations, the two debated over the ways they could make the lives of African migrants relatable to others. “It was then that we thought it would be interesting to bring out a graphic novel that would document the experiences of Africans in India,” she says. During the course of her research, Gill had come across Hassan and the two had become friends. She roped in Hassan and a couple of others for the project.
Hassan and her family moved to Delhi nine years ago. Unlike her brother and sister, Hassan has never been to Somalia and had lived in the Middle East before coming to India. India could have been the home she never really had, except that she was completely unprepared for the reception she received in the capital. “I have lived in India for a really long time. I speak Hindi, I even dress in Indian clothes sometimes. I don’t look completely African; in fact, I am sometimes mistaken for a Bengali. Even then, the way people look at me, the kind of things they say is shocking. I was completely unprepared for how Delhi treats people of colour,” says Hassan, who is currently enrolled in a correspondence course in psychology from the University of Qatar.
Even though Sushma Swaraj, India’s Minister of External Affairs, has denied racist motivations in the assault and murder of Masonda Ketada Olivier, the 29-year-old Congolese man in Kishangarh near Vasant Kunj nearly a fortnight ago, the incident has flagged off concerns about the rise in violence against Africans in India. In February this year, a Tanzanian girl was stripped and assaulted in Bangalore by a mob after a Sudanese student had run over a local in his car. Delhi has also seen a spate of assaults against people from Africa in recent times.
The discrimination ranges from the innocuous to the abrasive, says Hassan. “I often wear a Somalian garment which looks like a cape and which makes me stand out. I have been pushed and shoved by children, finding accommodation has been difficult and I have been called the strangest of names. Negro, Kaaliya and even Jaadu (from Koi… Mil Gaya)! Why would you call someone an alien? It would have been funny if it didn’t hurt so much!” she says.
A year after former Delhi law minister Somnath Bharti’s infamous raid on a group of African women in Khirkee Extension in 2014, Juan Orrantia, a Colombian photographer, found himself in Delhi for a residency programme at Khoj. The exhibition, “Coriolis Effect: Currents Across India and Africa”, held at the end of the residency, was an attempt to document the shared history and the changing social, economic and cultural relationship between India and African countries through interactions between Indian and African anthropologists, researchers, musicians, filmmakers and writers. In the one month that he lived and worked in Khirkee, Orrantia would spend his time photographing African families in the area as well as in Chhattarpur. “What one sees in these colonies are many tensions, in particular, sexual tensions in a male-driven city, which do come out in racialised/gendered terms,” says Orrantia in an email interview from Germany.
But, even to a visitor, it was apparent that that tension was more complex than “just” racism. “Because that racism which is clear and evident, is connected to class, caste and urban and economic factors that feed into the new development of Delhi… Of course, there are many examples of racism in many big cities of the world (Paris, Berlin, etc) where black people continue to be discriminated against. What seems to shock people is that this is people of colour being racist against people of colour. But as many have pointed out in the Indian cases, derogatory terms, actions and violence have been used in the city against people from the Northeast, for a long time,” says Orrantia.
Hassan agrees that the discrimination can be both racial as well as gendered. “I think it has been easier for my brother to blend in than for me, because I have to deal with the added attention that a woman draws in India,” she says.
Drawing on such experiences, Hassan and her friends are now putting together for the graphic novel that Mahendru hopes to publish in August this year, when the 2016 Coriolis Effect residency takes off. Besides Hassan, there are two other contributors — Kofi and Hafiz — and the artwork is being done by Pia Alizé Hazarika.
Life in India has, of course, not been all bad. “I am a non-confirmist — an opinionated, outspoken person. India has given me the freedom to exercise my voice. It’s given me an education. I don’t have the luxury of a country of my own, India has taught me to adapt to different situations. And the food! I can’t eat too much paani-paani food, I need it to be spicy, the way it’s done here,” she says.
Her family has now moved to the US and Hassan is the only one still in India. But she hopes that the book will help those like her who come looking for sustenance and often flounder under the unfriendly scrutiny they are often met with.