African students being mobbed at Delhi Metro Station

We need to respect our African guests

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Something very shameful happened in Delhi on the first day of October. Three African students from Burkina Faso and Gabon were mercilessly mobbed and subjected to the worst racial treatment of Africans since The Great Raid by Somnath Bharti, the then Law Minister of Delhi.

When Indians return from stints in foreign countries, they are brimming with stories of how they had to put up with racial discrimination. A friend of mine who had gone to Edinburgh for a holiday came back and told me that she was shocked when a British woman refused to talk to her. It wouldn’t have been such a big deal if she hadn’t simply been asking for directions to a landmark she couldn’t find. If this qualifies for racial discrimination, I wonder what to call the incident at the Rajiv Chowk Metro Station.

Why harp about the behavior of foreigners in a foreign land? Anybody who has been to the United Kingdom will tell you how cold the migrant Indians can be towards you. It is almost as if they see themselves as a shade better. How does one explain such a thing?

We talk about racial discrimination as if it is a crime that only we are subjected to. Yet, we forget that we indulge in it on a regular basis. African students form an essential and large demographic of private colleges in India. The PR machinery of these private colleges is so strong that they lure students from all countries in Africa. Some have even set up dedicated cells in countries like Tanzania and Nigeria. So, there is no question of believing that we are playing reluctant hosts to them.

A larger population of Africans in our country are students. The outreach of embassies from these countries is limited. Students from the continent find it difficult to engage with administrative barriers in educational institutions that they are part of. Often, they end up being conned for the silliest of things like hostel and yearly fees. I will not even get into how costly transportation is for these students. Our auto-drivers become money-sucking vampires the moment their customer is an African. One can imagine how relieving the metro must be for them, as it is for the 10 million people in Delhi.

The incident at the Delhi Metro cannot be brushed away as an aberration. It is in fact just the visible part of a festering wound lying beneath. Can you imagine being beaten by a mob? If you can, then try imagining being beaten by a mob inside a police booth. Is it difficult to visualize the scene? If I were to answer this question just two days back, I would have said that it is damn near impossible. No longer can I indulge in such ignorance of youth.

A very interesting thing happened during the mobbing of Yohan, Guira and Mapaga. They were, as reported by the Indian Express, repeatedly called Nigerians. The majority of us don’t know this, but most non-Nigerian Africans themselves are wary of interacting with a few unruly Nigerians. As my friend M… ( name withheld), a Tanzanian, says, “Some of the Nigerians are bad news.” It will be downright idiotic to deny that some Nigerians have ruined the trust quotient Indians have for Africans. If there was ever anything like that. And it will be equally idiotic to deny that because of this, the rest of the Nigerian and African population has had to suffer at the hands of every self-anointed cultural protectionist in India.

Goa. This is one state that brings a smile on the faces of anybody who has ever visited it. The casinos are legendary. The beaches are amongst the most inviting beaches across India. And a dozen articles can be written on everything that is good in Goa.

However, not everything is good in Goa. As is a common norm, most clubs have a cover charge for its visitors. If you are a man wanting to go clubbing, you must dole out the cover charge. If you are a woman, you might just be lucky because most clubs don’t require the ladies to pay a cover charge. Now, the funny thing is that if you are African and a male, you get to announce your nationality at the entrance. The clubs in Goa have a hateful relationship with Nigerians. If you are Nigerian, flush with cash or not, you are denied entry.

The club authorities don’t make this sound so bad. After all, they can cite a dozen different cases where some Nigerians have caused or helped cause mischief in their clubs. Not just that, they will go ahead and tell you how the Goa culture has been hijacked by these ‘Nigerian miscreants’ who they believe have polluted their peaceful state. Yes, it is quite possible that some Nigerians along with some Ukrainians, Russians, Americans and almost every other foreign nationality you can think of have contributed to some form of criminal activity. But, how does that justify persecuting an entire community?

Some wise friends of mine studying highfalutin subjects in colleges under the DU, talk about how precedents are set and the need for society to abide by these silly shackles for ensuring harmony in general. It is nothing but a milder way of saying that we shall treat the entire community in the same way until they stop flooding our shores or decide to play second fiddle to us.

The police are no better. Not just Africans, their racial hatred even spreads to Indians hailing from outside states. For explaining this, I needn’t give any examples. The Bengaluru Traffic Police is amongst the most active police cadres in the country. You are liable to be flagged down at the unlikeliest of roads and corners. Somehow, their pro-active nature takes on a darker form if you hail from Bihar or Jharkhand. The questions increase and so does the chance of paying a fine. Migrants from Bihar have indeed done their bit to ensure such greetings. I won’t deny it. But how does it justify harassment? If you don’t speak Kannada, you are sometimes even fined twice the normal amount without being given a receipt for it. What does one do? Fight? Run? Shout? In a way, life in Karnataka is much easier for a migrant than in states like Kerala and Maharashtra.

It is essential for the state police to issue disciplinary directives to its cadres. Nobody is asking them to turn a blind eye towards crimes by foreigners(Indian or non-Indian). All they need to do is show some sensitivity. It is difficult to explain yourself to a person who doesn’t know your language.  If you see this video, you will realize that the three African students were only looking for shelter from an unsavory, uncouth and uncontrollable mob. This is the only incident of an African/Africans being subjected to racial cruelty in India with clear video footage. Most of these incidents go unreported.

If our elected leaders were a reflection of the mindset of the people who elected them, then it will be easier to conclude that even they have played a major role in promoting a typical xenophobia in our society. Some even make promises of a better future in which they will ensure the rooting out of specific nationalities (read African).

How would we react if we Indians are made to put up with the same racial discrimination in other countries? Take Tanzania for example. Gujaratis form the largest section of Indian migrants to this relatively peaceful African nation. They run hundreds of shops, trade freely and have been living alongside Tanzanians for many generations. Their children even speak Swahili as fluently as a native.

Whenever something similar happens against Indians in a foreign country all of us make a lot of hue and cry. Some time back, a few incidents had happened against Indian students too in Australia. Our news analysts, political commentators, leaders and diplomats will come out armed to the teeth and ensure that they do everything they can to either prevent or control such an act. Where do all these people disappear when Africans are subjected to milder forms of racial discrimination on a daily basis?

Remember that even going up to an African and asking him/her to have their picture taken with you is a kind of racial discrimination. Even if you didn’t intend it to be, it will leave the individual irritated. Indians need to immediately change their definitions of what can pass off as congenial behavior in public and towards strangers.

While our PM talks about how an NRI should nominate five or six families for touring India, we keep setting new standards in our attitude towards foreigners. How can we expect these tourists to keep coming? We have already set such dangerously low standards that foreigners refuse to interact with any Indian and are extremely cautious even when they do. What kind of progress do we intend to make as a society?

We are already seen as a nation that fails to respect the dignity of foreigners. Such incidents are making our image worse. Look at this page and decide for yourself.

The rights of African students need to be protected. Even if this requires the setting up of separate grievance redressal bodies comprising officials from African nations alongside their Indian counterparts,  in the capital cities of states having even a single African student. No amount of damage control on the part of the Delhi Police or the MEA will be enough until this happens.

Akash Tiwary

Akash Tiwary is a freelance writer and a keen blogger. He has been writing regularly for newspapers and has been a columnist.

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