Living in the shadow of fear

Two months ago, the Dwarka district police launched “Operation Varchasva” as part of their mission to make the sprawling sub-city in south-west Delhi a crime-free area.

Cracking down on gangsters and criminals apart, the main plank of the operation was to arrest and deport foreigners who have been staying illegally in the area, particularly those whose visas had expired.

To this end, the district police also merged their Cell Against Illegal Foreigner with the Anti-Narcotics Cell.

The police have been on their toes ever since the violent incidents of September 26. On that day, a mob, comprising relatives and friends of a Nigerian national, who reportedly died from a fall while being chased by the police, attacked the Mohan Garden police station.

The man, who was declared dead on arrival at a hospital, was identified as Chinoso Okafor, 33, a resident of the area. According to the police, the mob also tried to attack the ambulance when his body was being shifting out of hospital.

Three policemen were injured in the mob attack at the police station. Subsequently, 53 people were arrested and a chargesheet was filed under IPC sections relating to attempt to murder and rioting, among others.

Following the incident, police patrolling in and around Mohan Garden has been intensified with door-to-door surveys becoming the norm. “We have stepped up efforts to trace and arrest foreign nationals who have been staying illegally on expired visas,” a senior police officer said.

“Only 3%-4% of their population now remain in Mohan Garden. Most have either fled to south Delhi or Noida or have been arrested and deported. Earlier, around 25% of African origin people living in the Capital were staying here,” the officer added.

Target of abuse

While hurling abuses and making racist remarks against people of African origin is a common occurrence in the area, the September 26 incidents have turned the atmosphere tense. While many African origin people are still staying put in their homes, fearful of being “picked up”, others have left the area to escape “police harassment”. Most desist from speaking up or disclosing their identity for fear of reprisal from the police. Others talk in hushed tones about how strolling on the streets has become risky... and how foreigners are being “arrested in hordes in the dead of night”.

A Nigerian national, who runs a textile business and deals in hospital equipment, said: “There has been a lot of fear ever since the incident and the police crackdown is still going on. They [police] will round you up even if you produce a valid visa,” he said.

For the 35-year-old, who has two children and an Indian wife hailing from Arunachal Pradesh, the police are a greater concern than local residents. “I haven’t faced a lot of racial abuse from the locals here, but the fear of police action hangs over our head,” he added. “I can’t leave this place, this is my home”.

The tension is palpable among those running salons and grocery shops selling African goods.

A 26-year-old woman from Senegal, who arrived in Mohan Garden last year, lamented: “Even women are not spared of police action... we live in constant fear. Those arrested can’t even come out on bail as no one is willing to stand surety.”

The woman, who runs a salon in Nawada, said the situation was calm until the recent incident. “I am being looked upon with sceptical eyes... this has affected my business as no one wants to come to my salon, how will I survive?” she said. “I cannot leave India as I have set up my business here and it's my only source of livelihood.”

Another 35-year-old Nigerian, while scouring through grocery items at a general store, was reluctant to make eye contact with anyone. “You the police?” he asked.

Opening up gradually, he said: “It is so tense here that we have stopped coming out of our homes unless it’s very essential. We mostly stay inside our homes as the police can stop and start inspecting us randomly on the streets.”

According to property dealers, houses where people of African origin stay “are being barged into and they are being arrested on the slightest of pretext”.

They said their migration has begun with most of them moving to south Delhi localities such as Chhatarpur and Khirki Extension or to Noida in Uttar Pradesh, from where they had earlier arrived here.

“Most of my clients have left the area due to fear of the police... not even half their population is left now,” a property dealer, who mostly deals with foreign nationals, disclosed. “The police have raided several houses rented out to foreign nationals and this has left the others with no option but to find another safe haven,” he said.

Local sentiment

While some locals used derogatory terms at the mention of the community, accusing them of “drug peddling” and “anti-social activities”, some sympathised with their suffering and said they were being “unfairly targeted”.

“They stay indoors during the day and party all night. This creates a bad impression of the locality... Some of them are into illegal activities. A lot of them have left after the police crackdown,” a resident said.

A woman, whose tenant was among those arrested after the September incident, said: “They [police] broke open the door and entered forcefully, it is illegal. Even landlords are finding it hard to find tenants... they are being harassed on the pretext of verification.”

A senior police officer responded to the charges: “We use minimum force as most of them don’t open their doors and hide inside when we come for verification. The allegations being levelled against us are exaggerated”.

DCP (Dwarka) Shankar Choudhary denied all allegations of overreach and said the police operate as per law. “Deportation and crackdown on people of African origin have doubled in the last two months alone. We have also taken action against landlords for giving shelter to them illegally,” he said. “We have to use minimum force according to law when they don't cooperate,” the DCP added.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2022 1:52:20 AM |

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