In May 2009, when Baljinder Singh, an Indian living in Australia, was assaulted by some local teenagers, the nation was outraged. Attack on Singh was preceded by numerous cases of assault on Indian students with apparent racial overtones. Following the attacks, talking heads gathered in newsrooms and vociferously debated racism. The then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressing his ‘deep displeasure’ over the attacks to his Australian counterpart Kevin Rudd, when the latter called to congratulate him on being voted back to power.
Seven years after the incident, India is once again at the centre of racism debate. But it's a role reversal — this time as the alleged perpetrator and not the victim.
On May 20, a youth from Congo was allegedly assaulted and was beaten to death by three men over a minor argument over hiring an autorickshaw in south Delhi’s Kishangarh area near Vasant Kunj. Following the incident, 54-member African Group of Heads of Mission in Delhi decided to boycott the Africa Day celebrations in their embassies and The African Students Association held a protest march at Jantar Mantar.
Another protest scheduled for 31 May was only cancelled following a high-level meeting with the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of External Affairs and with the Commissioner of Police, Delhi which ensured the redressal of their grievances.
While government promised strict action to stop any sort of racial discrimination, the fact remains that problem lies somewhere else.
Arjun Nagar, Khirki extension, Chhatarpur and Katwaria and Ber Saraiare are some of the places in Delhi where a large number of African nationals reside. Visiting these places and talking to the shop owners, those renting their houses or the autorickshaw drivers operating there, it becomes evident that it is the problem of perception to a great extent. While in most of the cases the perception is built on baseless rumours, in others they are backed by facts and personal experiences.
Sheetal Prasad Jain, who owns a shop and three flats in a five-storey building in Arjun Nagar says, “I am living here for the last 45 years. I have three flats in the building in the same area. For last two years, I have started renting my flats to Africans. I did not want to do this, but I was compelled to as people from African countries lived in the two floors and no Indian was ready to rent my flats.”
On why the reluctance to rent flats to Africans, Jain says,” These are the most uncouth people I have seen in my life. They have bad lifestyle. They drink so much, do drugs and bring girls. They get into fights all the time. They neither understand English nor Hindi and it is so difficult to communicate with them. And I fail to understand where they get so much money from. None of them I know do any job. They are all involved in illegal activities.”
While the allegations made by Jain may hold some truth, the other side of the story goes untold. In most of the cases, it is the colour of their skin that makes their acts and ‘lifestyle’ repulsive for the locals. While the lifestyle of foreigners sometimes contradict the ‘cultural sensibilities’ of the local people, the fact remains that it is not limited to the Africans. Then why are they singled out.
“I know people from the North East and some other foreign countries that live here have the same lifestyle. They too drink and party and bring girls. But they all do it silently. But these Africans do it all so loudly. And that is what creates the problem," says Sahil, who owns a confectionery in Arjun Nagar.
Talking to autorickshaw drivers also reveals the level of prejudice that exists against the African nationals. More than 20 autorickshaw drivers Firstpost spoke to narrated the same story of the hubshis being the man-eater.
Rakesh, an autorickshaw driver who usually ferry passengers from Green Park to Hauz Khas Village says, “I regularly make trips to Hauz Khas Village. I have seen many of these Africans selling pudias (a reference to drugs) there."
Ram Kishore another driver says, “I never take them beyond Green Park or Hauz Khas. They kill humans and eat them too. They are real hubshis.”
Christ, who is a Congolese, came to Delhi a few years ago after completing his education from Kolkata. He now lives in Safdarjung and works as a guide for African tourists. He says, “A lot depends on how we deal with people. Most of us are neither proficient in English nor in Hindi. There is always a communication gap. And adding to this are baseless rumours, having said that, I feel that not everyone who is targeted is innocent. I don’t think someone just gets into fight just like that. Most of the time, there are provocation from either of the two parties.”
Near the Ber Sarai market Firstpost spoke to two Africans. When asked if they feel they are discriminated because of their colour, one of them laughs while taking a swift drag from his cigarettes and says, “Hatred has no colour. Jews were not black people. Doesn't matter if you are white or black, if you don’t fit in the scheme of those who dominate, they will hate you anyway.”
While he rejected a colour bias, the fact remains it does guide the hatred to an extent. In Arjun Nagar, Firstpost asked a salon owner how he feels about the African nationals with who he interacts with. He laughs and says, “You know some of them come to get massages. They think by using Shahnaaz gold cream they can become fair.”
Prince of Morocco’s request for not disliking him for his ‘complexion’ might have found some acceptance with Lady Portia in the Shakespeare play Merchant of Venice. But in the capital city, the dark skin breeds prejudices and laughable perceptions.