They feel racism is a two-way street: what if they went back and treated Indians the same way in their continent?
The anger is palpable. Not sadness, not shock, just plain anger. The two office-bearers of the Association of African Students Union in India (AASI) that Patriot met, talk about two objectives. One of creating a positive outlook about Africans and destroying the narrative that shows people from their continent as criminals. The second? To do unto us what we are doing unto them.
This conversation took place after the November 22 dastardly attack on four Tanzanian women and two Nigerian men on accusations of kidnapping and cannibalism. They were rescued after the women made frantic calls about their home being surrounded by a 200-strong mob baying for their blood.
Interrogation and subsequent investigation found that there had been no kidnapping of 16-year-old boy, as alleged. The additional accusation of cannibalism was also farcical.
A police officer privy to the investigation said that they have not found out who started the rumours. The Additional DCP of Dwarka, Giriraj Singh, when Patriot met him said that “it’s a small matter” and that “nothing has happened”. He added furthermore that the victims didn’t want any legal action.
For now, though, IPC Section 341 on unknown persons has been put in the FIR. This section, which deals with wrongful restraint, has not seen any arrests. The police say the victims must come to the fore, while videos circulating of the incident have many distinguishable faces.
The police refuse to call it a racial attack, as has been seen in numerous incidents that have taken place either in the city or around the country. This time, the Africans don’t want to call it that either.
The president of the AASI says he wants to do and hear only positive things. “We don’t want to focus on racism. We don’t need to be accepted, I don’t need to prove who I am.”
According to figures from 2016-2017 there are 55,000 African national students in Delhi.
Merveil Ntambwe Ngongo goes on to add that “deep in my heart” this incident has taught him a lot. “I live quite differently” here in India, “we face challenges. But that’s part of life.” If a similar incident took place between a “Hindu and Muslim it becomes discrimination, a fight between two religions”, and so they don’t want this depicted as racism. We are no victims, he says.
But in the same conversation he points out that only in this country he has learnt about racism – “the culture, the hatred”. And he will go to the extreme of advising Africans back home not to come to India.
Back in his home country of Congo, Ngongo was taught humanism: “That we are one, and that’s what I believed in.” But here, he has learnt “something else.” And this, he says, is not bad. “It’s just a bad thing when you project yourself as a victim. When someone says someone is acting racist, maybe it’s the love of your country.”
This is something, he says, his people need to learn. “Stop calling others racist but become racists yourself. It will help the situation everywhere.
Africans complain about racism around the world. Why? They need to love themselves before anyone else. That’s what’s going to happen.”
General secretary of the AASI Ezeugo Nnamdi Lawrence, with his anger more prominent, says sarcastically, “The West has taught us a lot and now its Asia’s time.” Soon, he says, “It will be our turn. Although we won’t really want to be racist but I think it becomes inevitable.”
He says at that point, when he goes back to his country, “We wouldn’t like a situation where someone is going to see me and say, hey Ezeugo you were in India, why are you treating me like this? I’m not going to listen.” And adds calmly, “At that time we will be focused on paying back.”
The first thing he says he will do after going back, is “identify those places where Indians are staying. I’m being frank. I’ll identify the community (and) just as we are not allowed to do things here we will start pushing our government to make policies.”
“When I start telling people back home about my experience and of other Africans, I think they would have second thoughts. They would say, ‘So you mean this man who has a shop there?’”
There are more than three million persons of Indian origin in Africa, according to the World Economic Forum. A large number of them have lived there for decades. Africa’s trade with India has grown nearly 35% every year from 2005, and is now estimated at $100 billion. At the World Economic Forum (WEF) India Economic Summit in Delhi in 2014, the plan was to boost India-Africa trade to $500 billion by 2020.
However, common people are not aware about the growing ties. “These are all things that the society needs to be educated on,” adds Lawrence. “Don’t tell us about the age-old Indo-Africa relations. If there is that long relationship, then why do people stare at me? That means you have not seen us, but you claim we have been partners for a long while”,
And maybe the people “don’t care because they think they’ll never depend on Africa”, but that things are changing. And “there is always payback. If I don’t do it someone else will.”
But in even simpler terms, as Lawrence puts it, they pay school fees, rent for their accommodation — which are pegged higher for Africans. Over and above that, “And the government takes taxes.” Despite all this, “They don’t even bother about the security.”
In 2016, following attacks on African nationals in India, and a threat made by African ambassadors in solidarity, saying they would not send their students here, the government had promised to work on safety and sensitisation. Promises were made by the Ministry of External Affairs and even the PM. “You meet Africans but what about the Indian locals? The mindset that they can bully anybody, that mindset should change,” says Lawrence.
He also blames the media. In 2017, after the attack on Africans yet again, they led a protest with the #letsuniteagainststereotype and #letsuniteagainstdiscrimination, but instead of promoting it, he says the media “got angry that we don’t use the racism tag.”
“The reason why we use these hashtags is because we understand these two to be units like the seed that breeds racism. If you look at the dynamics in Indian society, everywhere there is discrimination. You don’t love each other that much. So rather than make it an African problem, we thought let’s make it all-inclusive.”
This is where, they believe, lies the larger problem. That the day when Africans cease to come to India, and it doesn’t have someone to bully, “You may start doing it to yourselves on a larger scale”. He gives the example of how North Easterners are routinely targeted.
For now, at least they want to start a campaign in Dwarka, where the mob targeted the Africans on false rumours. “This is our work to initiate something positive in the community”, the AASI president says, adding that on a personal level, however, he feels, Indians should be concerned about tomorrow.
“Because nobody talks, it does not mean that people are not taking notice”, pointing to leaders back home. “When you come to somebody’s house, you abide by their rules but even after that cooperation there is only hatred, then that is not good.”
They have even in the past tried to change the narrative that seeks to demonise Africans or victimise them.
They led a drive in their community to collect relief material for those affected by the floods in Kerala. Ezuego says he travelled for two days to get to Idukki, to help people affected. “We wanted to do something positive. Show compassion”. And while he says it doesn’t matter that the media didn’t give it much coverage as the people there appreciated their effort, what would have helped their cause is a bit more of focus on their positive work just as much as the media likes the negative stories that come out.
Africans also joined in the government’s Swachch Bharat Abhiyan, picking up the broom to clean up Noida’s Sector 18. They wanted people to recognise that they are part of the community, that they also care about the environment — and to dismiss this thinking that Indians have about them: “People think we’re dirty, unclean.”
They have had various charity drives from visiting kids with cancer to old people and going through slums to donate books and pens to kids.
But at the same time, they reiterate, that with all the positive work here they are also trying to organise a whole pan African movement. “In South Africa, Africans are asking others to leave or relinquish the possessions they have which is not theirs originally.”
“Tomorrow it will be very sour,” Ezeugo says. Even if Indians change their ways he says, “It won’t stop people from paying back the society which has treated them unjustly but then the level the percentage will be less. So far rather than support such initiatives and contributing positively.”
He finishes with a warning: “The world is turning. The generation in power back home is old. That means the generation you’re discriminating against now will be the future leaders who you’ll have to deal with in 10 years to come.”