By Rohini Banerjee:
“We Indians are conservative people. We don’t have anything against foreigners but they must adjust to our way of life,” says a resident of Delhi’s Maidan Garhi — a locality which is home to a thriving community of African immigrants — as she tries to establish that the recent attack on Congolese teacher, Masonda Ketada Olivier (in an area not very far from her own) was not motivated by racism. What really is ‘our way of life’, and why do African nationals who have migrated to Delhi for professional or academic pursuits have to ‘adjust’ to it?
Olivier was assaulted and battered to death by three intoxicated men on Saturday night, following an argument over an auto rickshaw. The altercation began when the three men insisted on boarding the auto rickshaw Olivier had hailed, and at his refusal, they beat, chased and brutally assailed him with stones. Olivier was a French teacher at a private school in South Delhi, and despite being in this country for over five years, he was still seen as the ‘other’, and as some sort of transgressor.
India’s history with racism — especially towards its burgeoning community of immigrants from African nations such as Uganda, Congo, Nigeria, Cameroon and so on — is a vast and widespread one. In January 2014, Delhi’s then-Law Minister, Somnath Bharati tried to launch a raid on a group of Ugandan women, suspecting them of running a drug and prostitution racket; following which he was issued a formal notice from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) calling his suspicions both racist and sexist. In October 2014, three African men were attacked at a metro station by a racist mob so violent, that they had to climb on top of the station police booth to escape from the attackers—while bystanders only watched and filmed the whole thing to be uploaded on Youtube later on. In 2013, a Nigerian man was killed by a mob in Goa and the tourism minister, in response, called Africans a ‘cancer’.
But these cases don’t even scrape the surface. In the past few years, there have been so many cases of racial discrimination, and racially-motivated violence against African immigrants all over the country, that these events have become too commonplace to even find more than a passing mention in the news.
One aspect, in all the news and official police reports, remains common in these cases — and that is the insistence that these attacks aren’t ‘racist’. Like the aforementioned Maidan Garhi resident, most people maintain that it’s because the ‘lifestyle’ of African nationals is different from ‘conservative’ Indian values — which is the oldest and most racially-charged euphemism that ever was.
Racism, as a belief, stems from a fear and lack of understanding of the race in question, and that’s exactly what is happening here. Since middle-class Indians cannot reconcile themselves with the physical, cultural and behavioural differences between them and Africans, they demonise these people and inflict violence and hate upon them. In a bid to impose ‘Indian conservatism’ upon the African people (which, in itself stems from hypocrisy), they are essentially disregarding not African culture, but also the individual liberties of the immigrants. They shouldn’t have to adhere to the ‘Indian way of life’ to live peacefully in our country. By the way, what even is an ‘Indian way of life’?
The double standards become more prominent when you see white tourists and immigrants in India’ being respected and even idolised, while African immigrants’ discriminated against thoroughly. Even our ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ ads, which ask us to respect the foreigners visiting and migrating into the country, show only white people. Is this, again, a disturbing remnant of colonial ideology?
Olivier’s murder led to a major diplomatic backlash from the High Commissions of various African nations, who threatened to boycott ‘Africa Day’ celebrations (an annual event organised by the Delhi government to celebrate African cultures). However, they did not go through with the boycott — but the registering of the threat finally forced the Indian government to sit up and take note of this issue. The Minister of State for External Affairs, Gen. V. K. Singh, met with the representatives of the African missions to negotiate some sort of peace and assured that concrete steps would be taken to counter ‘racism and Afro-phobia’ in the country. However, this seems like an empty promise, because External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has come forth to parrot the same disturbing rhetoric that the attack in question, ‘was not a racist attack’.
Whether the government will take any actual steps—to sensitise locals about African cultures and communities (and the fact that there is no ‘one’ African culture) and check racial discrimination and violence—only time will tell. However, as of now, the situation remains bleak. Barely a week after Olivier’s death, four Africans were attacked in the Chattarpur area of South Delhi within an hour, so the threat is still as real as ever. When will the violence end, and when will people realise that these attacks are not ‘isolated incidents’ and are far from being ‘not racist’?
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