V Lenin Kumar
“You're not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can't face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who says it.”
- Malcolm X
In 2007, when I first came to Delhi to pursue my Masters in JNU, the moment I set foot on the New Delhi railway station, my identity swiftly changed from a Tamilian to a Madarasi.
Even before I could introduce myself, people assumed where I came from, because of my complexion, my accent. A number of stereotypes were imposed upon me even before any interaction. In some ways, I share the feeling of being stereotyped with the African and North-Eastern Indian students, when they are called “chinky” and “Kallu”. These are not merely derogatory names that are used for them; they also carry with them the power to humiliate.
On the 27th of March several Nigerian nationals suddenly found themselves in the middle of brutal attacks including life threats.
The immediate trigger was the death of a 12th standard student, a resident of Greater Noida, Manish Khari. While the cause of death revealed an unfortunate case of drug overdose, the neighbourhood in which Manish resided jumped at the frenzied allegation of cannibalism.
The Nigerians living in the area were accused, tried and found guilty by the mob. The ‘punishment’ was carried out in Greater Noida’s Ansal plaza mall, where the Nigerian nationals were brutally beaten by the mob.
Overnight, several billboards appeared in Greater Noida saying, “Nigerian free Greater Noida.”
Behind this ghastly episode, while many details emerged, an important aspect that animated all of this went missing, deliberately: the question of Racism.
As 41 African countries have gone to the UN, the Indian government particularly has played down the aspect of racism. Atithi Devo Bhava is blind to this reality it seems. The Indian External Affairs Minister has asked for a report from the state government, but both the central and state governments have said that this was only an aberration, a local law and order problem.
But is it an aberration?
This clearly is not the first such incident in recent times. It comes in the backdrop of a series of incidents that happened in the national capital region of Delhi, where many attacks on people from the African continent have been reported.
In 2014, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) MLA Somnath Bharti conducted a raid in Khirki extension of South Delhi at midnight. Receiving complaints of drugs consumption and a racket being run by Africans, the MLA in a most horrific act of racism interlaced with sexual harassment, forced an African Woman to urinate in public, for a public drug test, the first of its kind possibly. This incident brought into light the rampant racism that was being practised in the by-lanes of the national capital, perpetuated even by the people’s representatives.
The IT capital of India, Bengaluru too witnessed attacks on people from Africa. In 2016, a 21- year-old Tanzanian girl, on a false suspicion of being involved in a hit and run case, was beaten and stripped. She was then paraded around naked. The angry mob, for whom the mere fact that she was African was enough guilt, took the liberty of burning her car, right in front of the police!
Earlier, in 2015, four African nationals were attacked brutally by the locals. The reason: When they made inappropriate comments on one of the girls, her companions reacted, and the local mob decided to unleash the tyranny of the (racist) majority.
Later, the locals told the police that the Africans had parties with loud music and hence were a nuisance to the locality. Stereotypes and deep seated prejudices based on racial difference had clearly played a part in this violence. However for the local police, reporting to the media, the “attack is not racially motivated”.
The need for an anti-racism law
The inaction of the government to control such an attack is only a symptom of the larger inability to even acknowledge the reality of racism, and how institutions of the State itself have perpetuated racism in India.
In the year 2012, we witnessed several attacks on students from the North East as well from various part of the country. Richard Loitam, a 19-year-old undergraduate student from Manipur, was found dead in Bengaluru in his hostel room. The immediate reaction from the authorities was that Richard had died in a road accident two days earlier.
However, it later emerged that Richard was beaten to death by his college seniors. While students across the country, both from the North East as well as other parts of the country, demanded justice and pointed to the prevalence of racism, the authorities kept denying it.
The ‘R’ word could not be acknowledged or uttered. Again, in the cold month of January in Delhi, 2014, Nido Taniam, a 20-year-old student from Arunachal Pradesh, was brutally beaten to death in Lajpat Nagar. Taniam’s crime was that he had resisted and spoken out against a racist comment that was passed about his hair. While one could no longer brush aside the charge of racial discrimination in the murder of Taniam, all the three accused in this case were arrested for murder. Since racism is missing from our legal framework, there were no charges of racism.
In the very next month, February 2014, a 14-year-old girl was brutally raped by the landowner’s son in Munirka, New Delhi. The rape survivor, who belonged to Manipur, was alone when the perpetrators assaulted her.
However, it took the Delhi Police 14 hours to file an FIR against the rape accused, an influential North Indian Hindi speaking person.
As students from JNU, DU and other concerned people protested and raised questions regarding the delay, the major reason behind the delay caused by the police was because the rape survivor didn’t speak Hindi.
Ironically, after this incident, the people in Munirka started threatening the people from the North East to vacate this neighbourhood. The students and concerned citizens however went ahead and demanded an anti-racism law, calling for a March to parliament on the February 14.
However, instead of engaging in any dialogue, the R word was drowned out as the protesters were brutally lathi-charged by the Delhi Police.
Racism vs racism
When we all are - rightfully - raising our voices against the racist attacks on Indians in the US, Europe or Australia, it is important that we look at our own backyard.
We must continuously reflect on how we are treating people from Africa, North Eastern states and South East Asia. We must also keep pushing the government to formulate an anti-racism law.
We in India have witnessed several movements for self respect, because not getting respect as a fellow human being is one of the worst forms of humiliation and discrimination. Those who believe in such a world, such an India where self respect is accorded to everyone by right, must fight for an anti-racism law.
It is also our shared histories of colonialism and racial domination that demand we break away the shackles of racism. We must stand in solidarity with the people coming from Africa, and safeguard the rights of every person from all regions of India who is subject to racial profiling, discrimination and violence.
It is important to re-imagine the kind of Nation we want to live in, where wrong is called wrong and not blinded by a false honour or superiority.
Lenin is a former JNU president and a political activist.
(Note: Views expressed are the author's own.)