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Do Black Lives Matter here?

Racism is all-pervasive. Africans in Delhi are considered outcastes and stereotyped as drug peddlers and sex maniacs

The killing of Afro-American George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis lead to widespread protests all across America with thousands of people taking to the streets to protest the ‘murder.’  In solidarity with ‘Black Lives Matter’ (BLM), millions of people across the world, not just in America, and India is no exception — posted black squares instead of colourful posts on Instagram, imploring people to speak up against racism. Many didn’t, for they feel it’s time they acted beyond the tokenism of hashtags.

At home, we have grown up with a sexist, racist and patriarchal mindset. Matrimonial ads are one glaring reminder that fair skin is desirable, better. So if the Africans in India, Delhi in particular, are stereotyped as drug peddlers or sex maniacs, nearly sub-human, not many are surprised.

The BLM movement is relevant in India as well, where every year thousands of students from Africa come to pursue academics. And for the very moment they land in the capital, they are made to feel, in various ways, sometimes not so subtle, that they are different, undesirable and even dangerous.

The 27-year-old general secretary of the Association of African Students in India (AASI),  Chidozie Agumadu is a soft-spoken native of Nigeria. He has been living in India for the last five years, pursuing M Tech at Sharda University, and living in Greater Noida with a flatmate.

He likes India, particularly South Indian cuisines, and feels that not all is bad about this country of rich diversity. More out of politeness than any other reason, he says, “Stereotyping sounds better than racism” while describing the experience of Africans in India.

AASI helps African students to acclimatise with ground realities in Delhi-NCR. When students arrive here “they get a cultural shock”, Agumadu explains, again a polite way of describing latent racism that greets Black students. They are made to feel in not-quite-subtle ways that they aren’t welcome.

“Most of them want to go back within a day of arriving in India,” says Agumadu. AASI organises various events, even parties, people get to know each other, help them come to terms with the new reality, culture and way of life.

It’s a struggle from the very beginning, and the most formidable challenge of all is to find accommodation. Many of the African students are forced to live in the periphery of the NCR. Greater Noida has become a sought after place.

However, the general perception is that the Noida, Greater Noida and Haryana police are far more racist than Delhi Police.

Narendra Yadav (extreme left) at an Indiafrica Today event // Photos: Narendra Yadav

“At least they speak in English,” says James H, a 25-year-old student with two other friends, all from Nigeria, who live in a shared flat in a multi-storey housing complex in Sector 137 of Noida.

James was earlier staying in Greater Noida. One day, he was not allowed to enter his own house as his landlord had told the security to stop his entry. James was paying his rent in time, and didn’t even know what the issue was as the landlord never discussed it with him, he claims. James called the police, and the landlord spoke to cops on the phone and explained something to them in Hindi. He had no clue what they were saying about him.

“A European–a white middle-aged man–who lives in the same society advised me to leave as the landlord is always right and the cops will never listen to what an African has to say,” James recounts. He moved out within a week. Later, he came to know that the landlord had objected to too many visitors in the flat, mostly Africans.

James narrates many such instances when his friends had to spend a night in the lockup following an argument at a mobile repair shop or a restaurant — despite the CCTV footage — or even while hiring or being driven in a taxi. And in all these instances, police listened to what the locals had to say. The language remained a formidable barrier.

“I get the impression that police think that those who cannot converse in the native tongue and are of dark complexion are necessarily sinister,” says James and qualifies it by saying “The situation is reversed if it’s a white person. Then cops persecute the locals.”

Adaego is a tall slender girl with cropped curly hair, she likes to wear jeans and  t-shirts. She is pursuing post-graduation from a private university, and is an outgoing and gregarious person. One evening in November last year, she hired a cab at around 9 pm from Nehru Place to Saket, where she lived with two other girls. The driver offered to take her for a ride for free if she agreed to ‘have fun’ and that he’s ‘a very loving person’ and wants to experience a ‘black woman’.’

She threatened to call the police. He soon pulled over near the Saket Mall and walked to cops sitting in a PCR van stationed nearby. The cops came and asked her to get out of the car and sought her papers. All her papers were in place but for one document. She hadn’t got her rented accommodation registered with the local police station.

They are made to feel that they are different, undesirable, and even dangerous

She was held for many hours before being let off. “Instead of arresting the taxi driver for his indecent behaviour they were trying to fix me for something — I couldn’t understand what they were discussing — as if I’m a criminal or druggy,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief over a Skype conversation.

There are many such instances. “When you walk into a party, there are people who’d stare at you, never reciprocate when you greet them, some even make a ‘huffing’ sound when you pass by,” narrates Agumadu. And as James puts it, “You often wonder–what’s wrong with these guys or do I look very funny!”

Roa Narender Yadav, editor of Indiafrica Today — a web platform where Indian and African constructively interact — doesn’t mince words, “Racism is ingrained in our psyche,” says Yadav. Casteism, which is the worst form of racism to him, also social segregation have been practiced and institutionalised for centuries.  And for this reason, Yadav reasons, “there will never be a wholehearted acceptance.”

The rift is further widened by the mainstream media that only reports on Africans when there are sex or drugs involved. There are rich stories to be told about their culture, cuisines and way of life.  As for “dark skin”, not just Africans, but also natives are discriminated against. Yadav recollects growing up in Delhi in the 1980s when every south Indian was referred to as “Madrasi”.   Now the favoured slur for Africans is “Habshi”.

For things to change people, we will have to get out of their inherent biases, prejudices against dark skin, and stereotypical image of an African that has nothing to do with reality. “Raising slogans or hashtags won’t make much of a difference,” concludes Yadav.

(Cover: Africans in India, Delhi in particular, are stereotyped as drug peddlers or sex maniacs)