India and Africa have historically shared a close relationship that predates independence of the nation states themselves. As a newly independent nation, India was active in supporting the cause of independence of Sub-Saharan African nations from colonial rule throughout the fifties and the sixties and later in solidifying Afro-Indian unity through the Non Aligned Movement. India’s role was also well known in calling for international pressure on South Africa to put an end to Apartheid and also vocally supported Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights movement in a racially segregated United States. Outside the chambers of the government though, the race relations in the Indian subcontinent have been far more complicated and contradictory.
Referring the early decades of independent India, Professor Paul McGarr of Nottingham University wrote in a recent blogpost: “African students in India regularly complained about colour prejudice they encountered, which in the words of one member of the African Students Association ‘was almost as bad as that of Europeans in South Africa’.” Perpetual low-level, everyday form of racial discrimination has been quite common in the Indian experience of black Africans. They are frequently stared at, sniggered at, even spat at and called unacceptable racial slurs like “bandar” and “negro” (The majority of us are not even aware that use of the word “negro” is highly outdated and carries offensive connotations). Their attempts to break ice with smiles, greetings and speaking in the local language also largely don’t work to make these interactions better.
While the phenomenon of Africans facing casual racism in India is as old as the 1950s when the government of India first began to provide scholarships to African students to study in Indian universities, it is the ferocity and frequency of violent attacks against them in the last few years that have now brought these issues into a sharp focus.
No institutional racism ≠ No racism
While the government insists that the spate of attacks against Africans are not racism but isolated episodes of mob frenzies and opportunistic crimes, in actuality, they are clearly a combination of both. This is not just a law and order issue. It is foolish to deny that prevalent racist attitudes and negative stereotypes don’t have a big role in making the African community in India vulnerable to violence in the recent years. That would be about as logical as stating that misogyny has had no role in the recent incidents of violence against women. Consider that the latest fiasco against African students started from the mind boggling racist assumption of a teenager’s parents and neighbours that Africans eat humans and had consumed their son. When their raid on the African students’ house turned unfruitful, another criminal stereotype immediately replaced it – that those same Africans had peddled drugs to the young boy and killed him with an overdose. A demonstration against Africans followed and a group of mobsters brutally beat up a few Nigerian students in a Greater Noida mall. The mob frenzy should not make us forget that a strong racial bias was at the origin point.
Racism does not have only one definition. It is important to distinguish between societal and individual racism versus an institutionalised policy of deliberate racism backed by the political and legal establishments of a country. While India has never been institutionally racist, in the way of pre-Civil Rights United States and the segregationist regime in South Africa, but a societal prejudice against the colour black is still deeply rooted and impossible to miss in the Indian psyche. Simultaneously, there has always been a yawning gap in awareness and education about Africa within our parochial curriculums, such that African countries, cultures and people in practice tend to get lumped into one bunch along with some age old, deeply negative stereotypes.
Dirty, sticky stereotypes
“Why should the Indian neighbours go to the mother of teenager and say that the Africans kidnapped their child? Why should they raid the house of the Africans? It is racism against somebody who is a black man. Even when the child comes back, they don’t believe it. After that they said that they drugged him and murdered him – without any evidence,” says Zaharaddeen Muhammad, a Nigerian student pursuing his Masters in Chemistry at Noida International University. “Calling us Bandar because we are Africans — that is racism. To say that India is not a racist country is the denial of truth”, he says.
Another Nigerian student in Greater Noida expressed her anguish following the attacks on fellow students by writing on her Facebook wall: “Tagging every African as a drug peddler is like tagging every Indian a rapist.” It may be a brutal analogy to hear for some, but it is accurate in invoking the indiscriminate, unfair way in which negative stereotyping works. In the wake of the Nirbhaya case in December 2012 and later in March 2015 upon the release of BBC documentary India’s Daughter, grave concerns and questions were raised all over the world about the lack of safety for women in India. A few global commentators in the international media unfairly took the accused Mukesh Singh and his lawyers’ misogynistic interview statements as the monolithic representative of the Indian mindset towards women. One German professor had gone as far as to reject an Indian male intern quoting “India’s rape problem” and concern for her female students as the reason.
“Aren’t there people in India who take drugs, I ask you. I have never taken any sort of drugs in my life but if I go out, people here ask me if I have drugs. Even the police always stop and ask me this. Indian peddlers ask me to come because they think I want drugs. But I don’t. Everybody has to be treated as an individual, without generalisation,” says Zaharaddeen who feels that only negative instances of Africans gets attention of the local media, whereas there is little reporting of the positive aspect of how Africans have been contributing to the Indian economy.
What many African students call for, especially in the wake of the most recent violence, is for sensitising actions to loosen the hold of negative labels that are indiscriminately associated with black Africans. Incidents of conflicts involving Africans in India are almost always attributed to their community’s alleged drug abuse, drug peddling, aggressiveness and so called violent nature, the Economic Times reported last month. While many of these cases may actually involve an erring African, many also strongly feel that there is also a bias against them that results in intimidation and incarceration of a disproportionate number of them. Darshana Mitra from Alternative Law Forum, who works with African students in Bengaluru, told the ET bureau that many African students are deceived by educational institutions, who withhold their bona fide certificates and thus prevent students from renewing their visas. In such cases the police invariably side with the institutions, she added.
In the earlier days, everyday racism against Africans rarely took violent turns, somewhat in the same way that sexism has always existed within the Indian society but the alarming spikes in safety problems for women in Indian cities is a rather modern development. These issues fit into the larger climate of hypermasculinism that has legitimised a variety of violent ‘disciplining’ actions against anyone perceived to not know their ‘proper place’ and encourages a lawless ‘justice’ of vigilantes and mobs. To be sure, there is a law and order issue in the attacks, which calls for improved security measures and that constitutes the bulk of the counter response of Ministry of External Affairs towards the management of this crisis.
On April 3, the African envoys issued a strongly worded statement condemning the attacks in Greater Noida as “xenophobic and racial”, a terminology that the Indian Ministry of External Affairs referred to as “unfortunate”. But a policy of total denial of racism denotes a refusal to accept that a majority of Indians suffer from a dark complexion disdain syndrome, where dark skin has long been simultaneously associated with both lower caste and lower class. It also ignores the very common, deeply held misconceptions in the society about people from Africa. The overall effect of that, along with lack of better education about the foreigners, has been an insulting racial profiling that is continuing through the decades. The government needs to stop responding with defensiveness, as the charge is not of institutional racism, but of turning a blind eye towards disturbing societal prejudice which can be reduced if so endeavored. “The government really needs to create awareness against racism with the help of the local media in regional languages, the media houses and the radio stations. I don’t think that local people are aware of how the world is looking at India right now.”, says Amina Mustapha, a student of mass communication from Nigeria at Sharda University in Greater Noida.
Despite the sweeping assurances offered by Sushma Swaraj of a fair and impartial investigation into the matter, the repeated acts of violence and a lack of transparency in the proceedings of the law and order undermine the faith of the African students. “As the President of Association of African Students in India, I will tell you that no single government official, no one would tell us the situation of the people who murdered Olivier,” says Samuel Jack, referring to the Congolese student who was brutally stoned to death in an altercation last year. “We don’t know if they are still in jail or if they have been released. This will happen again [in case of the Greater Noida violence], very soon they [the arrested individuals] may be released.”
Instead of critically appraising the African student experience in India and following it up with meaningful sensitising campaigns, the government has largely kept silent with a continued denial of any racial issues behind the adjustment problems faced by African students. To make matters worse, BJP member Tarun Vijay showed up on Al Jazeera early Friday morning to take the denial to the next level with ridiculous, unsound statements like “we have been victims of racism, so how can we be racist”. He further showed indifference to the experiences shared by African student panelists and instead claimed that the idea of Indians being racist was a “vicious” one. Worse, he crassly responded by questioning the patriotism and berating a fellow Indian panelist because the latter affirmed and empathised with the discriminatory experience of Africans.
“The first thing you need to do when you have a problem is to accept it as a problem, otherwise finding a solution to it becomes very difficult,” says Samuel, “Constant denying and calling it an aberration just shows that they do not understand the reality on the ground.” Sweeping harmful social prejudices under the rug is unlikely to stem unprovoked, future atrocities against Africans, especially when mobs are involved. African students feel that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been at the forefront of promoting India-African relations, should himself address this prejudice problem, because the masses listen to him. Yet, such an event appears unlikely.
With all Sub-Saharan countries watching and the whole world listening in, there is a lot at stake for India which in the recent years has been losing revenue from falling numbers of incoming African students, for whom the prospect of living in a shadow of violence has been a growing deterrent. The by-effect on tourism, world forums like the UN and on India’s global aspirations are also no joking matters.