The Daily Fix: VK Singh’s casual dismissal of attacks on Africans shows how racist we really are.
Race in India
Last Friday, Congolese national Masunda Kitada Oliver was beaten to death by a group of Indian men after an argument in Delhi. A week after Oliver’s death, seven African nationals were attacked in three separate incidents in the city. So severe were the attacks that they caused a diplomatic crisis: African envoys threatened to boycott the Africa Day celebrations of the Indian government last week. But they eventually attended the function, after India assured them on the safety of their citizens.
Unfortunately, it seems India’s assurances weren’t all that sincere. No less a person than the Minister of State of External Affairs, VK Singh, has casually dismissed the attacks on Africans as a “minor scuffle” and ironically blamed the media for reporting on the issue. “Had detailed discussion with Delhi Police and found that media blowing up minor scuffle as attack on African nationals in Rajpur Khud,” said Singh. “Why is media doing this? As responsible citizens let us question them and their motives."
So in a tragedy in which a man has been beaten to death, a Union minister wants to question not the killers but the media. In some ways, we must be thankful for Singh’s frankness: he has exposed the terrible bigotry towards race that is commonplace in India.
Only in Friday, Singh’s colleague, the Union Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma on Friday said the killing of the Congolese man was unfortunate, but "even Africa is not safe". Maintaining the government’s line that incidents like this are no good for India’s image, Sharma added, "India is a large country and such incidents will give a bad name to India."
Days earlier, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had expressed her regret for the incident, not because murder is unacceptable but because it embarrassed India.
In 2013, Nigerians suffered racist attacks across Goa, even as state Minister Dayanand Mandrekar called residents of that country a cancer. So severe was that episode that Nigerian diplomats warned of a backlash back in Nigeria against Indians working in their country. In 2014, a mob assaulted two Africans at a Metro station in Delhi. The incident, captured on camera, depicted a frightening picture of racism, as the mob tried to get at the two men cowering, ironically, inside a police booth. Earlier in Delhi, a state minister himself led vigilante justice against the city’s African residents.
People who have tried to bring attention to India’s frightening culture of majoritarian intolerance over the past two year have been shouted down, vilified and mocked. But pushing problems under the carpet usually makes things worse. India has multiple faultlines of bigotry already. To add race to that is an alarming prospect.
The attacks on Africans in India have exposed another ugly face of the caste system writes Ranjit Hoskote. In fact, its so bad that Indians think Africans are "frauds and prostitutes" ‒ so why do they still come to India to study? And a photographer is training his lens on the racism suffered by Africans in India.
A photographer trains his lens on the racism faced by Africans in India
Mahesh Shantaram wants to capture the experiences of African students in words and images.
Image credit: Mahesh Shantaram
Rhema Mukti Baxter
In September 2014, a video emerged on YouTube of three black men being assaulted by a mob at a Metro station in Delhi. The men, whose alleged crime was “misbehaving with women”, couldn’t find protection even at a Delhi Police kiosk: the crowd rained blows despite the policemen’s attempts to stop it.
Indians’ disturbing racism and their penchant for vigilantism was on display again this year. In January, a 30-year-old African-American tourist in Goa, Caitanya Lila Holt, was mistaken for a robber, chased into a rice field and assaulted by locals and the police. He died from choking on sludge.
The next month, a 21-year-old Tanzanian woman was stripped and beaten in Bengaluru following a car accident involving a Sudanese youth which resulted in the death of a man. Despite the public outrage, politicians justified the racist mob violence.
That February episode deeply upset Mahesh Shantaram, a 38-year-old documentary photographer in Bengaluru who decided to challenge Indian society’s mob mentality through a series of photographs. His project Racism: The African Portraits aims to capture glimpses of the racism in India through photographs and stories of African students in India.
As a Congolese man is beaten to death in South Delhi, and several assaulted in a separate incident in the Capital, Shantaram talks about his project, and the systematic racism in India. Excerpts from a telephone interview with Shantaram:
Natoya, from Jamaica, is pursuing Applied Medicine at Manipal University in Karnataka. Credit: Mahesh Shantaram
Natoya, from Jamaica, is pursuing Applied Medicine at Manipal University in Karnataka. Credit: Mahesh Shantaram
What was the genesis of the Africans in India series?
It began with the racist incidents in January in Bengaluru wherein like-minded people were wallowing in shame and misery. By the time it became news, the Jawaharlal Nehru University incident blew up and we forgot all about this.
I read and think a lot about people, their rights and their freedoms. I was taken aback by the horrific incident. The reaction to such incidents is always along the lines of, "This can’t happen in my city." Nevertheless, this incident made me realise that there were so many Africans living in my city about whom I knew nothing about. I decided to see the place where the students were living. Why were they living there? What was their life like? Curiosity motivated me to go.
Why do you think African students still come to India despite the attacks?
In Africa, there is this rampant belief that Indians are well-educated. It might be because the Indians who have settled there may come across as well-educated. That is the current that draws students from Africa to India. It also helps that higher education in India is more affordable than in the West.
The frequency of attacks have increased, but Africa is a huge continent. Education has been a constant dream. People don’t change their life plans on the basis of incidents. Maybe next year the education industry might take a hit. But bad news is mostly filtered down. Take the case of Natoya. In 2012, just when she was informed that her application to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi was successful, there was a breaking news alert on TV. Nirbhaya happened. Natoya decided against going to Delhi. It took her two years to get over her shock and find a place suitably distant from Delhi to pursue her medical studies. That’s how she came to Manipal.
How do you hope your photo series might help in the fight against racism?
I am attempting to elevate myself from just focusing on the news value of the incidents. Racism clearly exists in India. I am using this as a means to document the issue. We don’t get to respond to racism in India by saying racism exists abroad as well.
In foreign countries, racism is very well-documented. People talk about it. There is huge shame associated for being a racist. There are ways of addressing racism right from the top level itself. In India, we need to recognise what racism means, spot it and talk about it more often. Currently, the word racist comes to fore only when there is an incident. We need to change that.
Why does your project focus mostly on students?
I have limited my view to Africans students because they are the most vulnerable group. Their numbers are really small.
They don’t have anyone to go to. People don’t even want to look at them – we hate their sight so much. It is difficult for them to get redress – they can’t just go to government offices to get a license or report a crime.
Why did you choose the medium of portraits to document this issue?
There were many ways I could have dealt with the subject. I could have gone to where the African students live very weekend and hung out with them and taken photojournalistic snapshots. But I chose to approach it instead through formal portraiture. In the past, I have been hesitant to make portraits – it is not easy. The motivation was right in this case.
I am not whipping out my smartphone and clicking a picture. I am making a portrait. It is a more formal relationship. It takes me half an hour to make each of these.
What do you expect the government of India to do?
Hopefully, not come up with kneejerk reactions. What we need is not a reactionary action to the systematic racism – we require a solution and not just a mere band aid.
Due to the rise in crimes against women, we now have women-friendly police stations. What are we going to do in this case? Launch an Africans-only bus service? That just doesn’t make sense.
I hope this project spreads social change like the campaigns of the ’70s. By virtue of being an Indian, I have also been a racist at some time or the other. Everyone needs help in understanding this about themselves.
Racism in India
The attacks on Africans in India have exposed another ugly face of the caste system
The possibility that criminals in some African countries have attacked some Indians does not justify Afrophobia in India.
29.05.2016 05:00 pm
On May 28, I tweeted what I thought was a simple statement of my dismay and anguish at the rising incidence of racist attacks against Africans of varied nationalities in India.
“As an Indian citizen, I am appalled by the recent racist violence against Africans in India, and deeply ashamed,” my tweet said. It was accompanied by three images: a portrait of Masonda Ketada Oliver, the Congolese student murdered in Vasant Kunj, New Delhi, on May 20; a photograph of Indian women protesting the act of a Bengaluru mob, which assaulted, stripped and paraded naked a Tanzanian student earlier this year; and a photograph from New Delhi’s Khirki Extension, showing police personnel, African and Indian residents in the aftermath of a January 2014 midnight raid of the neighbourhood by Aam Aadmi Party leader Somnath Bharti, who was then the Delhi law minister, in the course of which a group of Ugandan and Nigerian women were publicly humiliated.
An eye for an eye
The responses that my tweet drew have been reassuring, horrifying, and heartening. Reassuring, because many individuals whose moral compass remains intact expressed agreement and solidarity, or articulated their own sense of sorrow at this turn of events. And horrifying, because of the number of small but startling negative responses that have also been registered. They range from mild scepticism to undiluted trollery – “Typical Leftist indignation,” wrote one of these respondents. “Africans are far worse off in Africa than they are in India.”
I hadn’t realised that the Left had a monopoly on humanitarian empathy, which I have always taken to be a reasonably universal feeling. Also, in keeping with the shaky grip on grammar, nuance and civility that all trolls demonstrate, this person was clearly unable to tell distress from indignation. And the breathtaking cynicism of his comment on Africans in Africa should be held in mind by every Indian who feels agitated the next time an Indian gets beaten up in Melbourne or Madison, Alabama. After all, their attackers might argue, Indians are far worse off in India than they are in Australia or the US. Far more of us die of tuberculosis or starvation in the matrubhumi than get bumped off by skinheads in London or Dresden.
“Come on ground,” wrote another unintended recipient of my tweet, either afflicted by first-language interference or inviting me to descend from my idealist abode in the clouds. “There numbers are increasing day by day especially in Delhi, govt need put restrictions.”
Ah beware, fellow Bharatiyas, the Black Peril is among us!
A milder voice asked me if I had any statistics on the “criminal violence against Indians in Africa”. Not having surveyed this question in the 54 nation-states and one disputed territory that make up the African continent, I cannot claim to have that information.
All I can offer is my perplexity. I do not understand how the possibility that criminals in some African countries have attacked some Indians justifies attacks on Africans in India, which are patently fuelled and justified by racist animosity.
The caste factor
And yet, there are also those heartening reactions from individuals who connect our racist impulses with our casteist conditioning, who identify our response to Africans with our Aryan obsessions, writ large across the matrimonial columns in our newspapers, and evident in our advertising, and our everyday language.
The axial structuring principle of Indian society is caste, with its debilitating logic of mutual repulsion. In the language of the sociologists: The privileging of the svadharma or caste dharma, the difficulty this poses for the practice of a maanav-dharma or humanitarian dharma, and eventually, the derision of all for all, which leaves little room for productive solidarities based on universal values that lie beyond the interests of the caste-group or community.
Caste-commitment and Afrophobia are not unrelated. And one additional detail: Our self-hatred, based on the certain knowledge, daily reinforced by the mirror on the wall, that most of us are only a few shades distant from those we profess to despise and humiliate with ugly terms of abuse like kaaliya, translations of which, in English, German and Danish, can easily be applied to many of us when we ourselves are in foreign lands, at the mercy of strangers.