By Hemant Gairola:
As a ‘northie’ who has lived in Bangalore for six years, I wasn’t one bit shocked at what the mob did to the young Tanzanian woman. I fully expect this from the city. And so do my ‘outsider’ friends who live or have lived there. Doesn’t matter whether you’re from Africa, the North-East or North, the locals treat all non-Kannadigas equally: with hostility and jingoism.
You may move to India’s IT capital with dreams and aspirations, but sooner or later xenophobia is going to get in your face and make you feel like an unwelcome refugee in your own country. Oh, prepare to be heckled on a regular basis for not knowing Kannada. Traffic cops, smart alec shopkeepers, compulsorily rude auto drivers, bus conductors, co-passengers etc are gonna take turns to remind you of your place in ‘their’ land. You are an ‘outsider’. I put it in single quotes because here, the term is not an innocuous, identifying detail but a label akin to outcast, riddled with prejudice and dislike.
I’m not implying the entire city has a mean streak. No way. Bangalore’s is a tale of two cities, of two kinds of people: intelligent, hospitable, awesome kind, which set an example in selflessness and charity when Chennai was submerged last year. And then there’s the immigrant-hating jingoistic kind. The majority embraces immigrants, others downright loathe them. Home minister G Parameshwara might dismiss claims of racism and say the city does not have “that kind of attitude”. I’m saying it indeed has the attitude of bullying ‘outsiders’. How many instances shall I cite?
An Odiya friend who lived in Bangalore for nine years knows that hostile crowds and uncooperative police are a way of life here for ‘outsiders’. That’s why she too wasn’t surprised to learn that a mob assaulted an African, who got thrown out of a bus and was denied help by the police. From her experiences, she knows what happened to that woman is so typical of the unwelcoming side of the city.
Once this friend was travelling in a city bus and the conductor started getting into her face for not having change. She was apologetic for the inconvenience, but the aggressive conductor accosted her and kept trashing her in Kannada. Co-passengers chuckled at his remarks, passing taunts of their own on the ‘outsider’. They relished seeing the hapless, demure woman singled out and in agony.
Humiliated, she got down at the last stop instead of her stop and went to the police station there, the conductor accompanying her nonchalantly. Only when she disclosed she was a journalist did the police pay heed to her and switched to a respectful tone. Respectfully, they told her: “Madam, leave him. He will not do it again,” not lodging a complaint despite her insistence. The culprit stood there wearing a belligerent smirk all along. As if it’s understood one cannot possibly get into trouble for accosting, manhandling an ‘outsider’.
When I was in college, I myself saw my female batchmates heckled by a conductor and aggressive co-passengers when they requested him to get men off women’s seat in the crowded bus. I tried to placate them, but passengers ganged up on us, getting louder and threatening us with violence, hooting when we got off the bus. We’re non-Kannadigas, after all.
On another occasion, when these girls were travelling in a bus and got up to offer their seat to an elderly woman, instead of a thanks they received a jibe: “You North Indians come to Bangalore and spoil our culture!”
“You don’t belong here,” is a diatribe one may come across in subtle or not-so-subtle ways. Last year, two motorcycle-borne men in JP Nagar said these very words to my face when I protested their rash driving, which almost injured me.
Not with everyone and not often, but such incidents do happen, reminding ‘outsiders’ of their place. The gift of anonymity in public places lets these people unveil their jingoistic side without hesitation. Many a Bangalorean has taken to the Internet after the recent assault and overtly or covertly justified the racist attack, also hurling more racial abuses.
When a friend would tell her elderly colleagues about how she’d get harassed for being a non-Kannadiga, they would squarely blame it on her for not knowing Kannada. This is a common refrain: Get conversant in Kannada or don’t whine about being harassed.
A couple of years ago, the newspaper I worked for had invited a few women entrepreneurs for a discussion on politics and general issues. One of them narrated an instance where a friend of hers, a foreigner, called 100 upon sensing trouble from ruffians on the road. A woman answered the distress call, cutting the other woman off for not speaking in Kannada. And even the city traffic police’s website says one should not expect traffic cops to speak English or Hindi as a matter of right.
Cosmopolitan City, anyone?
Remember, three Manipuri students were beaten up in October 2014 for “not speaking Kannada despite eating Karnataka’s food“? Students from the North-East have had to bear the brunt of xenophobic locals’ aggression on multiple occasions. Remember the mass exodus of the North-Eastern brethren in 2012 when they fled crammed up in trains, fearing for their lives? The rumour that triggered that infamous episode could take roots only because they knew a racist attack was a distinct possibility.
For Africans, harassment is a part and parcel of living here. In 2013, a mob landed an Ivory Coast native in a hospital. The attack on the Tanzanian student is a replay of what had happened there less than a year ago. It’s a routine thing, just ask them.
And after the recent attack, Congress leader B.L. Shankar had the audacity to sympathise with the mob. State home minister remarked it’s not a grave issue and ex-CM DV Sadananda Gowda’s concern is why so many foreign students are still in Bangalore when their visa has expired. By denying/defending, aren’t you tacitly encouraging this mob mentality that wears the mask of (excessive) cultural pride?
Why are pro-Kannada outfits above the law? Fearing their wrath, even the challan-happy traffic police hardly ever stop vehicles with Kannada number plates (if it’s not in English, straight, black letters on white plate, it’s illegal). Immigrants make up for more than 70% of Bangalore’s population, how do they report a crime/mishap involving such a vehicle? Why the exemption, then? It’s such things that embolden hooligans, who learn they can evade law by brandishing the red-yellow state flag. According to a Hindustan Times report, four of the nine men arrested for the assault are reportedly with a pro-Kannada organisation. Anybody surprised?
Such attacks have always happened, and the state machinery is forever in denial. It’s unfair that a beautiful city of beautiful people gets shamed regularly at the hands of ubiquitous bad apples and insensitive netas. It’s unrealistic to expect the latest incident will spark a paradigm shift. Still, I hope and pray that it happens.