Criminalising Africans in Delhi’s villages

FAMILIAR TREND: The resentment against Africans is typical of prejudice that emerges when previously homogenous neighbourhoods are changed by the processes of gentrification. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

FAMILIAR TREND: The resentment against Africans is typical of prejudice that emerges when previously homogenous neighbourhoods are changed by the processes of gentrification. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

There is an eerie silence masquerading as peace in Khirki Extension. Previously home to a people of various nationalities, the recent fracas in the area has turned it into a shadow of its former self with many African residents fleeing the region. The raid and self-declared exposé against the perceived criminal activities in the area by Delhi’s Law Minister has earned him and his party one of two responses — criticism for illegal vigilantism and racial profiling or praise for upholding public safety and morality in the area. These responses have little to say about the state’s role in conflict mediation, the changing landscape of Khirki, and the larger geopolitics of the expanding ties between India and Africa. The general point of this article is not to deny or downplay racism, but to acknowledge that primordial ideas of race do not themselves lead to actual conflict. It is, instead, usually triggered by mechanisms that may not be immediately observable.

Making exceptions the rule

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has stated that the raid was not driven by racial prejudice but by the prevailing ground reality in Khirki. Delhi’s Law Minister and the MLA of the area, Somnath Bharti, felt it was incumbent on him to take action against the numerous complaints by the local Resident Welfare Association (RWA) with regard to the trafficking of narcotics and prostitution undertaken by the African community. The RWA also stated that the police were complicit in these activities, hence unwilling to take action. While Mr. Bharti and the RWA continue to stand by this contention, it is important to note that the language and actions of the latter are decidedly racist. It seems unwilling to tell apart the few residents who are engaged in criminal activities from the entire community of Africans in Khirki.

Since the raid, there is a perceptible air of vindication as residents reaffirm their beliefs in the criminality of the Africans based on circular logic: the Law Minister supported the RWA, which implies the RWA was right, and since the Africans fled the area, they were surely guilty. Mr. Bharti’s actions may not be racially motivated but the myopic solution to the problems he allegedly witnessed on January 15 undoubtedly reinforced existing prejudices in the area. As a public representative, Mr. Bharti should have understood the prevailing tensions and acted with more foresight, initiating, for instance, a systematic study of the situation that gave voice to both the RWA and Khirki’s African residents. Something similar is now being attempted by the AAP, which, though welcome, is far too delayed.

The second issue is the cause of the RWA activism directed at the African community. The resentment is typical of patterns of prejudice that emerge when previously homogenous neighbourhoods are changed by processes of gentrification. In the context of Delhi, a new generation of professionals attracted by post-liberalisation employment opportunities and gleaming spaces of high-end consumption come to South Delhi, only to be corralled to urban villages by the spiralling rents in planned middle-class colonies. These villages have become urban planning’s zones of exception — intricate honeycombs of haphazardly constructed structures lacking basic norms of safety and comfort. Local villagers have, by and large, cashed-in on these changes by transforming themselves into big and small landlords.

In many of South Delhi’s urban villages like Munirka, Ber Sarai and Lado Sarai, pardah-wearing local women are as much a part of the fabric as girls in shorts, and dyed-in-the-wool patriarchs share the narrow lanes with liberal young men from around the country. Here, women from northeastern states are racialised as ‘available’ and ‘loose’ just as Africans become carriers of serious criminality. These villages are still in what can be termed the first wave of gentrification, centred on locals’ provisioning of rented accommodation for students and young professionals. Other villages like Hauz Khas and Shahpur Jat, to a lesser extent, are in the second wave where higher-end restaurants, bars and boutiques have replaced the first generation migrants, thereby fetching higher rents.

Khirki, it can be argued, is in the midst of such a transformation and the construction of upmarket malls across the road has accelerated the process. For local landlords — typically the most active constituents of RWAs — the representation of Africans as criminals, the raid, and their impending invisibility and eventual exodus effectively ‘cleanses’ the area for a fresh round of gentrification; this time, for an up-market clientele. Africans’ presence prior to the spike in property values, though not tension-free, was nevertheless tolerated for the sake of the rents they paid. Now, with a far greater choice of potential patrons, locals are much less patient. It should be noted that an appreciation of this underlying process was entirely absent from Mr. Bharti’s immediate response and subsequent assertions.

Contextualising rise of migrants

Finally, one must contextualise the sudden rise of African migrants in Delhi. While historically India has had ties with African countries based on shared beliefs in anti-imperialism and anti-racism, since the turn of the century, India has increased the engagement with the continent manifold. This is clearly illustrated by the increase in the value of trade between the two regions from USD 7.5 billion in 2000 to USD 66 billion in 2013. Trade is estimated to touch USD 100 billion by 2015. In addition to this, India is competing with China by positioning itself as a hub for educational and medical support for Africans. These international policies have increased people’s movement between both the regions and it is imperative that steps are taken to ensure that there are better support systems for Africans in India. This includes a more coherent and prudent state-level methodology of engaging with criminal activity which may take place with increased immigration, and better communication systems for Indians and Africans towards countering prejudice and its resulting discrimination. Finally there is a need for the relevant diplomatic missions to speak more categorically on behalf of their people in India and work towards improving the quality of life of the Africans who come to work, study, or holiday in India.

(Persis Taraporewala and Rohit Negi are urban researchers and co-conveners of Africa Forum-Delhi.)

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Printable version | Jun 24, 2022 2:15:53 pm |