The alleged attack on the Tanzanian student on Sunday night in Hessarghatta, on the outskirts of Bangalore, seems to be a combination of racism, road rage, and a clash of urban and rural cultures.
The fact that the police did not immediately register a complaint is not unusual. Similar incidents have happened in the past, and most go under the radar. This time a person died and two cars were burnt up. The local police goofed up in thinking this too would blow over. However, the story took on international ramifications with the Tanzanian embassy asking for an explanation and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj asking Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah for a report.
The timing of this unfortunate incident cannot be worse. Siddaramaiah has invested enormous time and money in showcasing Karnataka at the Global Investor's Meet. The last thing he needed was racism to raise its ugly face in Bangalore.
There are varying versions of what actually happened. Some reports say that the girl was stripped, but her friend told a local paper that was not completely true.
The incident occurred on Sunday after a drunken Sudanese national, identified as the 20-year-old Mohammed Ahad Ismai, drove a speeding car into a couple, killing the woman and injuring the man. This infuriated the locals who assaulted the driver. Fortunately for him, police rushed to the spot and rescued him. The second car arrived a few minutes later with the Tanzanian woman and her friends. Although there was no connection between the occupants of the first and second cars, the crowd, seeing that they too were Africans, chased and assaulted them. When her male friends fled the scene, the unfortunate woman was left behind to face the full fury of the mob. According to some versions, police constables, who had rushed to the spot after the accident, apparently did not intervene. This has since been denied by the police.
Was the attack racist? It undoubtedly was. While the attack on the first car can be dismissed as road rage, the attack on the second car was not. The second car was attacked because the occupants were Africans and the crowd, in its fury, saw no difference between them and Sudanese driver who was responsible for the fatal accident. For locals, all Africans seem to be "Nigerians". From that point of view, this attack is similar to the ugly confrontation in a New Delhi locality last year, when an AAP minister led a mob that accused "Nigerian" nationals of selling drugs and prostitution.
In fact, locals told TV channels that Nigerians studying in colleges in the area were all drug addicts and drunks. One of them demanded that the colleges stop admitting them.
It's not a view shared by everybody. Local traders talking to Bangalore Mirror, said that the African students who lived there were polite and well behaved. They spend most of their time inside their homes or in their classes. A waiter in a nearby restaurant told the newspaper, "I cannot speak English and they cannot speak Kannada, but they are still very cheerful and we manage to communicate. I see them in the area regularly, and they are just like anyone else. They have never displayed rude or arrogant behaviour, or caused a public nuisance."
However, other eyewitnesses say the students in the second car were also drunk. The attack happened because that car stopped and one of the students belligerently approached the crowd that was beating up the Sudanese national. How true this is remains to be seen. Hopefully, a detailed police enquiry will uncover the truth.
Meanwhile, reports have alleged that the police did little to help the victim and, to make matters worse, did not register the complaint on Sunday. City Police Commissioner NS Megharik denied this and said the complaint had not been registered because the victim was not available for two days. Since then, a case of riot and arson has been registered, four persons have been arrested, and a manhunt has been launched for the remaining offenders.
In a small place like Hessarghatta, where everyone knows everyone, it should not be a problem for the police to quickly wrap up this case. Hessarghatta used to be a sleepy hamlet on the outskirts of North Bangalore. It has always been famous for its government-run horticulture, dairy, and poultry farms. In fact, Danish dairy stock reared first in Hessarghatta is responsible for Karnataka's own milk revolution; the improved varieties of fruits and vegetables developed on the horticulture farm are grown all over India. In 1990, Protima Gauri (Bedi) established the internationally-renowned Nrityagram (Dance Village). This was followed by the nature-inspired Taj Kuteeram hotel. The man-made 1,100-acre Hessarghatta Lake (in reality, a reservoir on the River Arkavathy) began to offer some adventure activities. Yet, Hessarghatta continued to be a sleepy town.
With the arrival of the IT industry in the late 90s, things went crazy. Uncontrolled expansion of the city began to gobble up the villages on the outskirts and Hessarghatta was no exception. While a few landowners got rich, the majority of the population in these villages watched with dismay as the growing city ate into their homes and lifestyles. Hessarghatta Lake was suddenly an ideal spot for drunken louts from the city who marked their passage with empty beer bottles and plastic bags. The pristine landscape was destroyed by garbage and speeding traffic. And the locals don't like it.
The resentment manifests itself in several ways. All around Bangalore, villagers have violently protested the use of their neighbourhoods as dumping grounds for the city's garbage.
As a result, city garbage cannot be cleared out and Bangalore is getting buried in the stench of its own refuse. On the roads, in the outskirts, it creates frequent clashes between drunken or speeding motorists and villagers, a phenomenon largely ignored by local police.
Above and beyond its racist and diplomatic ramifications, Sunday night's incident should bring focus on how unplanned city growth can fuel social distress. And how this needs to be managed.