By Aishwarya Mohapatra
Edited by Namitha Sadanand, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist
A debate on race has kicked off in the media in the aftermath of the brutal violence against three African students in a Delhi metro station by an angry mob. The lame excuses the culprits and their supporters have come up with, are fast falling away; the initial allegations of lewd behaviour towards women commuters by the victims are almost certainly false, since no complaints have been raised to the police as of now. It is being reported now, that the entire situation arose as one of the students apparently made an “anti-India comment”. As the infamous video went viral and was viewed across the nation, the ugly truth reared its head in all our hearts as we watched the three students being beaten up with chants of “Bharat Mata ki Jai” coming up for good measure: Indians are very racist at heart.
I have to admit, I was pretty ignorant about the presence of ‘special’ racist attitudes towards Africans in the country. So, like any good netizen, I googled. “Indian attitude towards Africans” – these keywords will spew page after page of the struggles that many Africans face in our country every day. Of all the foreign nationals that reside in a nation that is supposed to be the creator of the “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” philosophy, for some reason, it’s Africans who aren’t, in plain words, treated right. “Kalu”, “Kaliya”, “Negro” and even “Drug Dealer” are some of the names and tags that we give to these visitors, irrespective of what they do, where they reside, what their real names might be – in short, we seem to forget that they are real human beings.
Many students travel to India from Africa with the aspirations of pursuing higher studies from reputed Indian universities. Their dreams slowly crumble to dust, as they are turned away by scores of landlords and not easily given access to a decent place to live. In some cases, certain students have also been subjected to unnecessary checks and questions by the police for, no prizes for guessing, “suspected drug peddling”. It is not only students, but other Africans who live and work here (many export garments to Africa), some of whom are even married to Indians, who are still shunned and looked upon with deep mistrust. Very easy examples where such stereotypes are enforced – in the recently released movie ‘Mardaani’, there was a small part of the movie where Rani Mukherjee uses two “Nigerian drug peddlars” as bait to flush out the criminal mastermind. The 2009 movie ‘Fashion’ showed Priyanka going astray by having drugs at a party and dirty-dancing and subsequently having sex with a black African man, which “breaks her up completely”. Movies aside , if you, say, saw your close friend or family member chatting up an unknown tall black African man, there is a 98% chance you will be alarmed and tell said friend/family member to “stay away for their own good”.
This is not the first time, when this issue of racial discrimination has come to light – in November 2013, six Nigerians were attacked in Goa, out of which one man was stabbed to death and the others were badly wounded. The incident brought to light the tensions between local Indians and a small Nigerian community residing there. Further back in 2012, an African student who was enrolled in Lovely Professional University, was beaten up in Jalandhar so badly that his brain function was irreversibly damaged.
What seems to make this entire situation even worse, is the fact that if any of us are to see a fair-skinned, blonde, blue-eyed foreigner walk by, he/she would be a subject of curious and almost – reverent stares- as if being fair translates to them being from a more developed country and a superior economic background. But when we see a black African man coming up to us for any kind of interaction, we would move away faster than the speed of lightning!
Many foreign nationals who visit India, irrespective of color, are of the opinion that Indians’ attitude to skin color has deep colonial overtones to it – even today, white-skinned people are judged to be “more beautiful”, while darker skinned people are treated inferior. Many Africans in the country today just keep their heads down and weather the abuses and insults – according to them, what scope do they have of expecting fair treatment as fellow human beings, when Indians discriminate against fellow countrymen on basis of caste, religion and gender?
Of course, there are two sides to every story – there certainly are hundreds of illegal African immigrants in the country, who have “lost their passports”, or whose visas have expired long back but still reside in India. Some of them do peddle drugs, and some of them are truly frightening criminals instead of merely “looking so”, as per so many of our opinions. But then, drug-dealing criminal-minded Indians must outnumber such people, don’t they? We simply cannot fall into the trap of creating stereotypes for people based on skin color or nationalities – does it not pain us to be stereotyped anywhere in the world? Then why would it be any different for anyone from an African nation?
We all need to remember only one thing the next time we see a “black-skinned African-looking” person – there is a much larger community of Indians that lives in many African nations, which has been able to prosper greatly only because the people there have accepted them warmly. The least we could do is extend to them the same courtesy.