By Darshana Mitra
What is racism? Talking heads have spent a lot of time debating this over the last couple of days, with some claiming that race opens a Pandora’s Box, and others claiming that such a box needs to be opened. But what is this racism experienced by students from African countries in Bengaluru? When accused of racism, we are often quick to respond that we are not personally prejudiced. However, racism need not only be individual — it can also be systemic, as when institutions and structures discriminate against persons on the basis of their race.
How does this work? In light of the attack against four Tanzanian students in Bengaluru, let’s take a look:
There are around 7,000 students from different African countries studying in Bengaluru. Most of these students study in the innumerable private colleges that have been set up in the city. All of these colleges charge foreign students much higher fees than they do Indian students, and many of these colleges have a large base of foreign students who pay them huge sums of money in the hopes of a good education. Students are often approached in their home countries by agents of these colleges, who get a cut from the fees receives by the colleges. Agents approach students, and convince them to come and study in India. Students often make a down-payment in their home country, and they are then given an admission letter, on the basis of which they apply for a student visa.
Their problems start once they come to India.
Firstly, after they come to India, students are constantly pestered and harassed by colleges to pay money over and above the fees. This could be in the form of additional semester fees, blazer fees, computer fees — or simply attributed to a change in exchange rates. When students are unable to pay this money, they are harassed by college authorities.
This harassment can be in the form of withholding their examination hall tickets, or worse, withholding bonafide certificates. Bonafide certificates are issued by colleges certifying that the student is indeed studying in the college. Every foreign national requires a residential permit over and above a student visa, and the residential permit for students is often issued yearly, on the basis of the bonafide certificate.
Therefore, if the student does not have a bonafide certificate, the student will not be able to extend his/her residential permit. As a result, he/she will be guilty of an offence under the Foreigner’s Act, and may be arrested. Students are blackmailed to ensure that they pay huge amounts of money to the colleges. If a student is unable to pay, and his bonafide certificate is withheld, as a result of which his residential permit expires, then the Foreigners’ Regional Registration Office (FRRO), which is the visa and residential permit issuing authority, will force the student to take an exit visa and leave the country.
Never mind the fact that the student’s inability to renew his/her visa is because of the cheating and harassment from the college. There have been cases where students’ passports have been illegally taken by the college, as a result of which their visas and residential permits have expired, and consequently they have been arrested for overstay.
Secondly, in many cases, the facilities in the college do not match those promised in the prospectus. Buildings look different, laboratories are non-existent, and the faculty is often transitory and almost always under-qualified. Students often try complaining to the parent university, but the complaints of a handful of students carry little water with university authorities. The deaths of the three medical students in Villupuram, Tamil Nadu should tell us about how little colleges and universities care about the quality of education.
These students have spent large sums of money to come to India, and often, on seeing the lack of facilities, they wish to change colleges. But for that, they need a no-objection certificate from the college in which they are enrolled. Colleges routinely refuse to issue NOCs to students, or charge them exorbitant sums of money for that simple certificate. More importantly, they withhold the original certificates of the students, and refuse to return them.
What does a student do if he/she is being harassed by a college? Maybe, go to the police? But, as the students of Sree Omkar College of Commerce experienced in 2014, the jurisdictional police are often hand-in-glove with college authorities, and may threaten the students with arrest. The student may approach the FRRO, but the FRRO’s domain extends only to visas and residential permits, and not the actual lives of foreign students. They can approach the concerned university, and wait for months while the bureaucratic machinery churns out ineffectual stock responses to their complaints.
Many students manage to avoid all of this and complete their courses.
Sometimes they may have a couple of back-papers that they expect to finish in the following year. But when they approach the FRRO for a visa extension so that they can finish their back-papers, they are told to leave, and come back on a new visa. Alternatively, they are told to get an undertaking from their colleges that they shall not engage in any illegal activities while in India. No college will ever give such an undertaking. Why? Can you think of a single college that will vouch to the police for what their students do outside college hours? On one occasion, students were forced to approach the Karnataka State Human Rights Commission, which fortunately passed an order stating that no student can be forced to produce any such undertaking for visa extensions. All students who approached the FRRO subsequently went armed with a copy of this order.
This is what systemic racism looks like — when governmental and non-governmental institutions operate together to deny students from African countries their rights. This is deliberate to the extent that students from Africa are simultaneously seen as easy targets of exploitation, and as persons prone to criminal activities and the breaking of law and order. This coincidence in different forms of harassment is not reported by students from any other part of the world.
Neither are students from any other part of the world so vulnerable to violence.
In July 2015, six Nigerian girls were attacked by a bus conductor. One of the girls was badly injured, but the police, instead of taking her to the hospital, made her and the other girls sit in the police station for hours, while they took the bus conductor’s statement. Subsequently, the girls were charged with assault, despite there being no injuries to the conductor. The girls spent two nights in custody before being released on bail. They are yet to complete their education, and are currently running from pillar-to-post to get their bonafide certificates so that they can get their visa extended.
The reaction of the state to these incidents is two-fold — complete denial or victim-blaming. Students who go to the police to complain are routinely lectured on the criminal proclivity of all Africans.
What about the drugs, they ask? What about the loud music, the fast cars and the drinking? Never mind that in March 2015, eight Nigerian students were brutally beaten up by a mob in Kothanur, Bengaluru. In August 2015, a student from the Ivory Coast was refused cigarettes by a shopkeeper, and when he protested, the student was beaten up by locals. In all of these cases, arrests were made only after the intervention of lawyers and activists.
Most importantly, when students of African countries complain of racism, they are not simply referring to racial slurs and racially-motivated attacks. They are referring to the systems that enable their exploitation, that render them vulnerable to the police, that obscure their difficulties, and at the end of the day, make them convenient targets for misplaced anger. Yet, when the state encounters these incidents, its unwavering response is to deny the underlying racism.
As if structures do not systematically deny justice to an entire group of students simply because of the colour of their skin.
As if in the instance that a Kannadiga had hit and killed a woman on the street with his car, a mob would have stopped the next car driven by a Kannadiga, burnt it, and chased and beaten the occupants.
Racism, like casteism, thrives on its denial — and the more the state denies, the greater the impunity it grants to all these actors to continue exploiting and harassing these students.
Everybody makes money from this thriving economy of education.
The agent gets a cut from the fees, the colleges receive payments worth thousands of dollars. Local landlords charge the students much more than they charge Indian tenants. Rickshaw-drivers regularly overcharge African students. However, no one intervenes when students are harassed and abused.
Like the two policemen in the case of the Tanzanian students, everyone prefers to stand back, and occasionally shove a student back into the mob.
This is what racism looks like: The systematic exploitation of students from African countries, from the point of entry, to the point of forceful exit.