A recent incident in Delhi highlighted the extreme hostility that some people in India evince toward the country's small, but growing, population of black African immigrants. A few weeks ago, Delhi's new law minister, Somnath Bharti, ordered a midnight raid on a residence in the city's Khirki Extension neighborhood, where hundreds of Africans, mostly from Nigeria, Congo and Uganda, have settled in recent years. Bharti claimed the house operated as a brothel and he also called for the arrest of some of the Ugandan and Nigerian women who lived or worked in the residence.
However, according to various media accounts, after Delhi police refused to carry out Bharti's orders, members of the city's ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Bharti himself barged into the flats, brutalized the Africans and racially abused them. A group of African women claimed they were physically attacked and molested by the mob of Indian vigilantes led by -- or egged on -- by Bharti himself. The African female residents of the property in question filed a police complaint against Bharti, charging him with “criminal intimidation and wrongful confinement.” He has denied all accusations.
The FirstPost newspaper reported that Bharti and his supporters insisted that the raid was not based on racial considerations, but rather motivated by a desire to clear out drug dealers and prostitutes from a poor area where people are clustered together in mostly cheap rental properties, many of which are unauthorized structures, that is, illegally occupied. For example, building owners in Khirki add stories without approval from local officials, and many edifices don’t have legal water permits. Most homes in the area don’t even have address numbers and the roads are so narrow that automobiles cannot pass through.
As such, the neighborhood -- which is also located close to Delhi metro lines -- attracts not only impoverished African immigrants, but also Indian students, artists, musicians, young professionals and working-class laborers. Indian media has reported that some Africans in the neighborhood have considered moving out (or have already departed) in order to escape the interminable racism, abuse and rejection they suffer at the hands of Indians. For some of them, a questionable raid ordered by a senior municipal official was the last straw.
Brenda Semakula, a 26-year-old Ugandan woman who lives in Khirki, told the Wall Street Journal that she is frequently stared at by Indians, while taxi drivers refuse to pick her up as a passenger. “I feel like we are not liked in this country,” she said. However, she cannot afford to move out of Khirki, where she shares an apartment that costs only 7,000 rupees (about $112) per month. “My experience of living in this neighborhood is not very fond,” a Nigerian man named Jason told the Hindustan Times. “There is just too much prejudice. I have had people throwing stones at me for no reason whatsoever. Small kids have spat on me for no reasons. I don’t claim that none of the Africans who live here are drug addicts, but if they are doing something wrong, arrest them in a proper manner. Don’t accuse all of us of being drug addicts and peddlers. I don’t get jobs because of my skin color. There is a lot of segregation and discrimination.”
But Africans are generally leery about filing complaints with the authorities. A Ugandan told the Daily Mail: “Today if I voice my issues, then tomorrow [the Indian] government's minister will come and arrest me.”
For African women, the daily humiliation they endure is far worse. Some complain that young Indian men and teenagers often humiliate them by insinuating that they are prostitutes and asking how much they charge for sex acts. “It is common for [Indian] men in the area to sexually harass us on the streets and pass lewd comments,” a Nigerian woman told Hindustan Times. “Incidents of stoning are very common. In the past, men have [even] tried to enter our rooms late in the night.” Thus, Africans face the same kinds of negative stereotypes that they contend with in the Western countries.
Okito Christophe, the leader of a group called the Association of African Students in India, told the Journal that about 80 percent of all Africans in Delhi are students and that they arrived in India with very high hopes for their future. “We live a normal life and try our best to blend in with the culture. But this kind of racism, it is not happening for the first time,” he said.
Patralekha Chatterjee, a Delhi-based journalist noted in an interview that Africans are not migrating to India in large numbers, but many go here as students. “This is because Indian offers good higher education at a fraction of the price of a Western university,” she explained.
Moreover, the Bharti raid has received significant support from Indians in the city and the fallout has unleashed deep-seated prejudices against blacks. Some Indians in Khirki openly praised Bharti, calling him their “hero” who wanted to “protect us.” “These African boys are simply not tolerable,” a local homeowner complained to FirstPost, which noted nonetheless that the mostly middle-class Hindu landlords in Khirki allow blacks to live on their properties because they are willing to pay rents that Indian tenants would not, despite their aversion to black people. FirstPost also suggested that the Hindu residents of Khirki are hostile to homosexuals and Muslims, but blacks generate particular opprobrium.
“These black guys are all [drug] peddlers. Did you see the way the [black] women dress?” a bank employee from Khirki told the Post. Mohan Dhalwani, a 77-year-old Indian building owner in Khirki, told the Wall Street Journal he will not rent his apartments to Africans, citing the negative experiences of other landlords. “Two [African] people would sign up for an apartment and the next thing you know, there were five living there,” he said, adding that Africans frequently refuse to pay rent and even refuse to vacate the premises when challenged. “Forget drugs. In these tiny lanes, from late at night to early in the morning, they [members of the black community] ... huddle up, get drunk, talk loudly and after they [are] done barbecuing on the bonfire, they would litter the whole area,” said an Indian woman named Maya Gupta, 46, who lives in Khirki.
Gupta, and some of her neighbors, applauded Bharti’s raid, asserting that the police fail to crack down on the drug dealing and prostitution in the neighborhood, which they claim is dominated by Africans. “Their culture is different, these habshi [African] women have made this an unbearable place,” Furkaan Ahmed, a leather shop owner in Khirki told the Deccan Chronicle.
For some Indians in Delhi, Bharti is a valiant vigilante. “He [Bharti] dared to take a step that none before him did. We had filed complaints with the police, but no action was taken,” one Khirki resident told Asian Age. “In the last few years, it has become impossible for us to step out of our houses because of [the Africans' and criminal] activities,” another local complained to the Age.
Some Indians also allege that Africans are immoral and pose a dangerous threat to their children. "We are conservative people and these African women dress up badly,” Aas Mohammed, an Indian landlord in Khirki, told the Daily Mail. “Our children are influenced [by them]. Also, there has been enough evidence of drug trafficking against them. Our children are sold drugs for 50 to 100 [Rupees]. We aren't racists, but being a conservative society, we cannot let the Africans impact how our children grow up."
The Daily Mail reported on the anti-African sentiment of many Indians in and around Delhi, including landlords who have vowed not to rent properties to black people, citing that in many cases Africans convert these homes into illegal bars and restaurants and create excessive noise. In addition, the climate of suspicion has compelled many Africans to carry their passports or other forms of identification on their persons at all times. “The locals call us all kinds of names and pass comments on our color,” a Nigerian woman told Asian Age. “When we protest, we are threatened and told to leave the country.”
While some Indian residents of Khirki express their fear and dislike of their African neighbors; some actually want their expulsion. Hindustan Times reported that at a community meeting – attended by minister Bharti and transport minister Saurabh Bhardwaj – that is exactly what they demanded. “Massage centers and night-clubs have started in the area. The Africans came here and started with drugs. Now they have started prostitution as well,” resident Anish Kumar Saini told the ministers. Another resident claimed his desire to see blacks depart was not fueled by racism. “At night, I often find the Africans standing there, taking drugs and looking for buyers. Foreign women keep standing everywhere. They are prostitutes,” a resident said.
In addition, the high profile new chief minister of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal of the anti-corruption AAP, defended Bharti’s raid and cleared him of any wrongdoing. “We are not against any race or country. We are against anti-social elements,” Kejriwal told the Hindustan Times. In fact, Kejriwal has demanded the suspension of the policemen who reportedly refused to carry out Bharti’s orders.
Something similar to the recent raid happened three years ago in neighboring Malaviya Nagar, another South Delhi enclave, when a group of vigilantes linked to the right-wing nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) attacked and destroyed an underground bar operated by Africans, on the pretense that the establishment attracted and encouraged criminal behavior. "Where do we go then? Most Delhi pubs don't allow Africans," wondered Ugandan law student Christopher Mbange.
But, now, at least one senior government figure in Delhi has offered an olive branch to the Africans in Khirki. The Indo-Asian News Service reported that Education Minister Manish Sisodia regretted that some Africans have fled the neighborhood and urged their return. "I appeal to the [African] people not to leave Khirki Extension," Sisodia told the media. "The [Indian] people of Khirki Extension are well meaning. I appeal to them too to persuade them [Africans] to stay on." The Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] has also condemned both Kejriwal and Bharti over their treatment of the Africans. "These [African] women's rights were violated and racist language was used against them. The [law] minister had no business directing such illegal activities. It is improper of the Chief Minister to cover up this act by citing the wider problem of police accountability to an elected government," the CPI(M) said in a statement. Women's rights groups have also castigated Bharti since he seemed to specifically target African women for brutality and arrest.
The saga has also pitted the AAP party (which rules municipal Delhi) against the city's police and the central government (which is also based in Delhi). Delhi police have vociferously rejected AAP's accusations that they ignore the criminality festering in poor neighborhoods like Khirki. “We were here [Khirki] long before [the] AAP came on the scene,” a police official told the Chronicle. “Everything was smooth and peaceful. Whenever we got complaints from residents, we took action. We have deported so many people from here.” Nonetheless, the AAP has called for the police to be placed under its jurisdiction, rather than the central government.
The Asian Age bitterly commented: “In one instant, AAP went from being Indian politics’ ‘game changer’ to a party of xenophobic, racist, anti-women vigilantes. Then, Kejriwal made things worse by descending onto the streets with his supporters in defense of Bharti, and in attempt to parlay the episode into a tool to wrest control of Delhi Police.” The police, already under enormous pressure to reduce Delhi's high incidence of rape, have reportedly increased their nightly patrols in Khirki.
However, Chatterjee said that that it is difficult to generalize on India's reaction to Bharti's raid as it is quite divided. “The English language media with which I am most familiar and which is influential (though it caters to a minority of the overall population of India) has been extremely critical of Bharti,” she said. “[But] when I visited Khirki, locals whom I met alleged I that many of the Africans were involved in narcotics and sex rackets. They also said that they have been trying to get the local police to act without any success.”
The Hindustan Times reported that in the wake of the Bharti raid and the eruption of racial hostility, many Africans are living in fear in the Khirki neighborhood or just keeping out of sight. "The [Africans] who are here don't want to come out of for fear of being attacked. Many of my friends have moved to friends' houses in other parts of the city for the time being," said a Kenyan in Khirki.
In another incident related to the Bharti raid, some African women were allegedly held against their will in a taxi for hours and subsequently forced to undergo medical tests at a hospital – apparently to detect signs of drug use and sexual activity. In response, the Nigerian High Commissioner to India Ndubuisi V. Amaku expressed his outrage. “As an African I feel personally violated and outraged that in the 21st century such an incident can take place against citizens of either India or any other country,” he told Hindustan Times. “I urge both the Central and Delhi government to please rise up and reassure foreigners like us in this country, especially Blacks and Africans, that not only [do] you condemn this incident but also act against perpetrators.” Amaku optimistically added: “I have no reason to believe that Indians in general are influenced by considerations of race or religion or any other primordial considerations.”
India, which generally has warm relations with sub-Saharan African nations, has tried to assure African envoys that Indian officials are not targeting their peoples. A senior official of India's foreign ministry told a group of African ambassadors that the raid by Bharti and the confinement of the women in the taxi were “utterly condemnable and cannot be condoned”, the ministry said in a statement.
Nigerians in India are particularly aggrieved following the death of one of their nationals in the western coastal region of Goa last November. Indian police claimed the death arose from a conflict between rival Nigerian drug traffickers. After some Nigerians protested the killing, the chief minister of Goa reacted by ordering police to crack down on Africans living illegally in the state. One Goan minister worsened matters by labeling Africans a “cancer.”
But there might be a ray of hope in this grim saga in South Delhi. Over the weekend, Bharti and AAP members finally met with African expatriates in Khirki. According to the AAP’s Facebook account, “in this meeting both the sides sat together, listened to each other’s concerns and resolved to live together amicably and at the same time, try and root out the evils plaguing us. In any democracy, communication between different communities is very important and this was one step in that direction.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.