For now we see through a glass, darkly.

What has gone so wrong that parts of India are devoid of the civility to not call dark-skinned people offensive names?

April 29, 2014 03:56 pm | Updated May 21, 2016 01:48 pm IST

Students from several African countries share their experiences of living and studying in India, at Punjab College of Technical Education, Ludhiana.

Students from several African countries share their experiences of living and studying in India, at Punjab College of Technical Education, Ludhiana.

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Ruddy Kazumba is the son of a politician. He wears a yellow striped shirt, black pants and a cheerful smile and is usually found cracking jokes from the back benches of a classroom at the Punjab College of Technical Education (PCTE) in Ludhiana. His father is associated with the People's Party for Reconstruction and Democracy, the ruling party back home in the Democratic Republic of Congo, prompting him to declare that politics runs in his blood.

Ruddy never discusses his lineage unless questioned specifically. "Unlike in India," he says, "back home you will never know if someone is a son or daughter of a Minister or a politician."

The 21-year-old knows of the Bharatiya Janata Party's Narendra Modi through classroom discussions and English newspapers. Modi's 'Gujarat Model' is often discussed in his business administration course. In fact, he is fairly confident that Modi will be India's next Prime Minister. "The Congress party led this country for ten years but Indians want to give Narendra Modi a chance this time," he says.

Junior Kalamba is a year younger than Ruddy. He wears a Africa-shaped pendant and sits quietly in the far end of the classroom. "I don't follow politics" is all he says. "He only follows girls..." somebody yells out. In the front row, Donah Particia elbows Linah Uwase and the two burst into laughter.

Donah, 22, is from Uganda and earlier this year she closely followed a particular news item that was breaking in Delhi.

The former Delhi Law Minister Somnath Bharti had carried out a midnight raid against African women who he claimed were part of a drugs-and-prostitution-racket in South Delhi's Khirki Extension. "I thought Ministers were big people who were well traveled and aware... you should be seeking protection from them, not feeling insecure," she says. "I felt bad that nothing was done. No one even cared to question him!"

Soon after she moved to Ludhiana, Donah was made to feel like a prostitute and was sexually harassed by two Indian men on a motorbike. "They said 'Hi, how much?' and one of them slapped my ass," she says. Linah says Ludhiana's men "think of us as sex objects".

"Perhaps, the only time we didn't get stared at or asked how much our rate was is when we all went to Manali and Shimla. People were really nice there. No one cared to bother us..."

The boys say they are called all sorts of names, too. 'Chimpanzee', 'monkeys' and 'slaves' have been common names ever since they've navigated the streets of this industrial town. "A young kid in the neighbourhood where I live calls me 'nigger' every time he sees me. We don't even know each others' names. There are Indians in my country, too, but we leave them alone," says 22-year-old Tkay Noel.

Tkay came to Ludhiana from Zimbabwe with the intention of making Indian friends but he has found it to be a challenging task. "Most classmates are quite forthcoming but if you invite them to hang out after class, they never do," he says, "I sometimes invite them to go clubbing with us but they never show up."

Once, Tkay got talking to a Punjabi girl who became a really good friend. "But I got a Facebook message from a guy who said he was her boyfriend asking me to keep away from her. So I had to cut off all contact," he says. He had imagined his end to be like a fight sequence from a Bollywood movie -- car loads of men driving over to beat him up.

Many in the classroom had heard of what had happened to Yannick Nihangaza, a 23-year-old from Burundi, who ended up in a coma two years ago after being badly beaten up in Jalandhar by a group of locals. "The environment in India is just not conducive for people like us. They call you weird things. You can't even say anything because you are on your own and they are ten of them," says Adrian Muweado. "I think it just comes down to bad upbringing. At home I was taught never even to talk back to anyone in fear that it will insult them".

The staffers at PCTE have attempted to sensitise their Punjabi students even before the first batch of students from African nations came to Ludhiana a decade ago. "We had made it clear that you cannot and should not use certain words that are racist," says a senior staffer.

The reality of life around campus has however managed to have a lasting impact on these young men and women. "Can you explain to me why most sweepers on campus are dark skinned? It offends me deeply," Tkay says quietly.

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