Last week, a Tanzanian woman was assaulted in Bengaluru. The tepid response of the political leaders and cops does not bode well for the city and the country. Interestingly no one is talking about this kind of intolerance. The state home minister who belongs to the Congress-run government told mediapersons that she was “stripped but not molested”. A few policemen have been suspended but the expat students remain in fear of further attacks.
In the last few years, instances of Africans being assaulted, molested and intimidated by local people have shown a sharp rise. They are subjected to racist remarks and asked to leave Bengaluru.
Bengaluru, India’s IT capital, was known for its inclusive character that allowed people from different parts of the country and world to make it their home or place of work. Amidst good publicity and word-of-mouth goodwill, Bengaluru transformed itself from a city of pensioners to a vibrant capital that attracted people from all over. The growth of the IT industry made the city a magnet for all those who sought new opportunities and sought to contribute to its economy. Transformation of Bengaluru has made the city a major economic centre in Karnataka contributing over 65 per cent to state’s GDP.
Bengaluru’s pleasant weather through the year and thriving educational institutions has attracted people not only from different parts of India but also 45 foreign countries, including students from Iran, Afghanistan and African countries. Over 3,000 foreign students study in Bengaluru’s colleges (30,000 across India) and over two lakh people from north-east India work across sectors, including the BPO sector, where their English-speaking skills make them more eligible than people from some other parts of the country.
The city has always had a tag of being safe and secure for everyone that gave people, including women a sense of freedom that no other city in India can boast of. According to data from the union government, Bengaluru hosts one-third of expat students in the country.
While enjoying the benefits that a commercially thriving urban area brings to its people, old timers would not hesitate to complain about the growth in population, traffic and noise.
The economic boom saw a parallel rise of fringe groups and lumpen elements, who, in the name of Kannada identity were regularly seen damaging property, demonstrating outside IT companies like Infosys demanding jobs for Kannada speaking youth, and physically attacking people. All political parties including the Congress Party indulged them, and they were allowed by the police to vent their frustration every few months and then stay quiet.
However, there was little or no effort by political leaders to address the larger issue of inclusiveness. Why were “local” people feeling threatened? Why were ‘outsiders’ from north-east India or Africa targeted?
Every incident was treated as an act of some lumpen elements and ignored after a couple of arrests. Every political party that formed a government in Karnataka followed this principle.
A weak political response and police action has led to the growth of such incidents. In 2014 there was an exodus of people of the north-east from the city after incidents of attacks and intimidation. Similar attacks on African students who are also subjected to racist abuse have brought shame on Bengaluru’s image. But, there has been a pattern of such attacks that elicited a weak administrative response.
Over 2,000 African students from countries as diverse as Gabon, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, Cameron, Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda study and live in the city. Some of them study under ICCR-funded scholarships.
The government of India starting with the Manmohan Singh-led UPA and more aggressively under Modi’s leadership is currently trying to woo African countries away from the expanding Chinese footprint in their continent. The education sector has always been an area which attracted foreign students to India, and Bengaluru was seen as an ideal destination because of its image of a liberal, safe and inclusive culture. A growing sense of insecurity among African students in Bengaluru can damage not just the city’s image but that of India which seeks to position itself as a peer of China.
In a telephonic chat, an African student from the Association of African Students in India who didn’t want to be named said that the local police tend to take such attacks lightly. He said, for the last three-four years, there has been a steady rise in instances of attacks on African students in the IT city and there are also racist comments that they are daily subjected to. He said that Africa knows India as the land of Mahatma Gandhi, but such incidents dent India’s image back home.
He went on to state that Indians in Africa do not face such treatment. They are respected, he said.
Such comments do no good for India and her image. The Karnataka government must ensure that those involved in the assault get stringent punishment. The external affairs ministry led by Sushma Swaraj must take all steps to ensure that the state government walks the talk and punishes the guilty. Else, India’s outreach to Africa could suffer.
The writer was BBC’s South India Correspondent based in Bengaluru from 2004-06