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It’s time for Africa

A far wider cultural engagement with the continent is necessary to combat the latent racism among Indians

After a teenage boy went missing in Greater Noida on March 26, locals accused five Nigerian students of cannibalism. Residents of the enclave barged into the home where the Nigerian students were staying and searched the fridge for the remains of the youth, who died in a hospital after being found in a nearby park. Following unsubstantiated complaints from the victim’s family, the police charged the students with murder but did not detain them for lack of evidence. It was later reported that the boy died of drug overdose. This incident, followed by further violence against African students in Noida, marks a new low in the racism faced by Africans in India.

This vicious race crime is a clear sign of terrible ignorance, arrogance and the recycling of old tropes of Africans as “uncivilised”. Indians, with their preference for “whiteness” and their total lack of information and exposure to Africa’s rich cultural heritage and its contemporary politics, have denied Africans in India their basic humanity which is demonstrated in their accusations of “cannibalism” — the ultimate denouncement of the “inhuman other”.

A spate of incidents

There have been several atrocious cases of racism in the last year towards Africans in India. Masonda Ketada Olivier, a young Congolese man who was a French teacher in South Extension, was murdered while returning home from a party when he tried to get an autorickshaw home and got into an argument with three men who wanted to hire the vehicle. He was brutally pulled out of the auto, assaulted, and struck on the head with a stone. He was rushed to the AIIMS trauma centre but was pronounced dead on arrival.

 

The aggravated hate crimes against Africans are not limited to Delhi and its environs. Three months before the Olivier tragedy, a 21-year-old Tanzanian woman was driving in Bengaluru when a mob stopped the car, dragged her out, beat her and stripped off her shirt. Local papers reported that the police stood by while she was beaten and paraded around naked. The car was set ablaze.

Apparently the young Tanzanian student was beaten to avenge the death of a woman who had allegedly been run over by a Sudanese man less than an hour before the attack. The student pleaded with the police for help insisting she had nothing to do with the fatal accident. In her filed complaint, she alleged that a policeman told her: “You all look alike and you should get the black man who ran over a woman in the area.”

While these monstrous incidents hit the headlines, Africans in India face everyday racism that makes them feel very unsafe. The attitude of the police reflects and exacerbates this racial violence and discrimination. African students are mostly left to protest the hate crimes, and the government, keen to placate the African governments, offers the obligatory sorry and promises to look into the incident and bring about justice. However, no serious attempts to address racism towards Africans in India have been undertaken.

There were 42,420 foreign students in India in 2016. The top sending countries were Nepal (21.3%), Afghanistan (10.3%), Bhutan, (6.6%), Sudan (4.8%), Nigeria (4.7%), indicating that after the three SAARC partner countries, Sudan and Nigeria send the most students to study in India. Students come from many African countries to India as many universities offer quality education in English that is much more reasonably priced than in the West. The University of Mysore, for instance, has 2,000 foreign students, many from African countries.

Thus Indian students have an opportunity to meet African students and learn about a part of the world of which they know little. This is despite the fact that India has had trading connections with Africa over the centuries and many people of Indian descent live and have lived in Africa for centuries.

Engaging is knowing

Nana Peasah, a Ghanaian student, has returned recently to Accra after studying at the University of Mysore for two years. He was the international students’ co-coordinator at the university in 2015-16. He sought to learn about India and joined the Rotary Club East of Mysore. He also attended the Destiny International Church, a Pentecostal Church, where many international students are made to feel welcome. While Mr. Peasah had a lot of foreign student friends from around the world, it was harder to make friends with Indian students. To make friends with women students was almost impossible, as Indian men were quick to accuse Africans of making advances at ‘their’ women even if they were merely studying together.

 

Concerned by the racism faced by many African students, Mr. Peasah helped organise a peace march to raise awareness about racism in India. He also helped launch a campaign to clean Rajkumar Park to show that foreign students, including Africans, were also part of the Swachh Bharat effort and could contribute to the country’s mission to create a cleaner India. While very few fellow students from the University of Mysore joined the peace march, Mr. Peasah appreciated the fact that over 40 students came in a bus from Vikram Nursing School to join it and even provided first aid back-up support for the walkers.

Mr. Peasah thinks it is critical that proper orientation be given to African students coming to study in India. It is perhaps as or more critical for Indian students and members of communities where African students live to have a better understanding of Africa. This would require discussions and exposure to the many cultures and diversity of Africa.

To date there are few efforts even among artists and intellectuals to address this issue of blatant racism so rampant in India and among Indians abroad. The work of Bengaluru-based photographer Mahesh Shantaram is an exception. ‘The African Portraits’, a photo exhibition in conjunction with Tasveer, has been mounted in Bengaluru, Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Kolkata. Mr. Shantaram’s very direct and intimate portraits of African students studying, relaxing, or taking a nap underline the familiarity and everydayness of their lives. He briefly describes each of the personalities with respect and sensitivity and thus challenges the viewer to see the multidimensionality of each individual photographed. The stunning colour portraits also speak to the diverse faces of the continent. These nuanced portrayals force the viewer to move beyond stereotypes to see each person portrayed; their lives are no different from our own.

In addition, an exhibition of Africans in India was launched last year that has travelled to Delhi and Vadodara. Curated by an American art collector, Kenneth X. Robbins, the exhibition was first held in 2013 at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York. It portrays the trading and political relations between several African groups starting from the fourth century AD, and particularly examines the role that Muslims from East Africa played as slaves and traders in India, with a few — such as Malik Ambar from Ethiopia, who was a prominent noble in the Ahmadnagar Sultanate in the 17th century — rising to become important military generals.

A much more concerted effort must be made by the Indian government, and Indian citizens, intellectuals, and artists to make Africans feel safe in India. The police too, who are often implicated in these racist incidents, must be trained, and issues of racism within the force seriously prosecuted. Students on Indian campuses must be made aware of racism towards foreign students and shown that it is no different from the racism faced by Indian students abroad, which India so vehemently denounces. In addition, for a country of India’s size and given the increasing number of Africans coming to India to study and for medical tourism, a far wider cultural engagement with the continent is necessary not only to combat the malevolent racism, but also to expand the global horizons of the Indian public.

Jael Silliman is an author, scholar, and women’s right activist

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Printable version | Jul 10, 2020 10:18:55 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/its-time-for-africa-cultural-engagement-with-the-continent-is-necessary-to-combat-racism/article17745471.ece

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