This week, New Delhi invited leaders from all 54 African nations to the biggest-ever India-Africa summit.
The heartbeat of 1.25 billion Indians and 1.25 billion Africans are in rhythm, Narendra Modi said at a lavish session, which included dancers and drummers on Thursday (Oct. 29). The Indian prime minister and his African counterparts discussed trade, investments, our common goals and history with Africa. But one topic was conspicuously missing from the entire jamboree—India’s deeply ingrained racism towards Africans.
Last year, the issue became a political hot potato in India after a politician from the Aam Aadmi Party allegedly misbehaved with a number of African women living in Khirkee Extension—a neighbourhood in south Delhi.
But Indian racism against Africans isn’t that new.
The emerging Indian economy has been attractive to people from the first world and developing nations alike. In Delhi alone, the number of expats has doubled in the last five years, and this includes people from African nations.
A large part of this number come to India for higher education. There are an estimated 30,000 African students currently studying in India. In Khirkee alone—where I have worked for the past decade—I have met people from the Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Nigeria, Somalia and Uganda. But despite their large numbers, India has not been a hospitable country for them.
Cases of violence against people from African countries have been reported from other cosmopolitan places like Bengaluru, Goa, and even Ludhiana. But it is not just regular people who discriminate against dark-skinned expats—government support is missing, and even the police is equally insensitive.
* * *
We board the metro from Badarpur, the neighbourhood from where the Delhi metro’s violet line begins. This is March of 2015, the end of Delhi’s brutal winter.
My American friend, her father and I enter the first coach of the train. In the middle of an animated debate, we do not realise that we are seated in the compartment reserved only for the ladies.
Two stations later, 30 CISF men and women storm the compartment, allegedly clearing the coach of men who may be sitting in the women-only compartment. The Central Industrial Security Force, or CISF, is the police that guard the Delhi metro.
At that point, there were two men in the compartment: my friend’s father and an African man.
We apologise and begin making our way to the gender-neutral compartment. But as we are weaving our way through the crowded compartment, the African youth, in front of me, accidentally grazes the elbow of a lady constable.
She shouts, “He touched me. The black monkey touched me.”
Before one could blink, three constables pounce on the poor youth, dragging and beating him while hurling racist abuses. The other commuters also participate in the assault.
I try to intervene. “I saw what happened,” I protest.
But things escalate quickly. I get pushed back by the crowd and find myself surrounded by female cops shouting angrily at me.
Later, when I try to make a video on my phone, a cop snatches it. And what follows is a Bollywood-esque chase sequence where I struggle to get my phone back.
“Which country are you from?”
“Is he your friend?”
“How would you like it if he touched you?”
“But he did not touch you. He brushed past you accidentally.”
Well known for its punctuality, the metro is delayed by 20 minutes while the drama unfolds inside the ladies compartment.
Meanwhile, the African youth is clinging to a pole in the coach, shoving, kicking, struggling, while the jawans try to drag him out. Two young college students intervene on my behalf, and that’s when the cops stop yelling at me. The train leaves soon after, with the CISF jawans and the African youth left behind on the platform.
As the train pulls away, an elderly lady, sitting quietly until now, starts scolding me for intervening.
“I called the police the minute I saw a black man on the train. They should not be allowed on the train,” she says.
The elderly lady gets off at the next station, a spring in her step smugly satisfied with the commotion caused, brimming with self-righteousness.
* * *
In my opinion, India is one of the most intolerant countries in the world. Stories of people from African countries facing extreme violence and racism are aplenty.
For a country that has an established system of discrimination based on caste, class, gender and state, the racist attitude towards African citizens is terribly monochrome.
For most, an African is a Nigerian—or worse a habshis.
If the Indian government is serious about bilateral trade and agreements with the African nations, the home ministry has to take responsibility of the African people who come to this country. Then again, we kill people for eating meat, we burn children because they were born in a Dalit family, we rape women to teach them a lesson about patriarchy, and we don’t like living next door to someone from another caste.
We are so riddled with our own prejudices and hate that this shade of racism blends seamlessly with our graded Indian existence. Surprisingly, my African friends are rather upbeat about the summit. They feel this may be the perfect platform to discuss and highlight some of the core issues the African citizens face here: from students who land up in fraudulent universities and harassment by the police to bribes at the foreigner regional registration offices, cheating landlords and especially, xenophobic elderly ladies.
We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.