Shops belonging to Indians and Pakistanis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have been attacked and looted in retaliation for the arrest of two dozen Congolese students in India. At least one Indian national was injured in the violence and hospitalized – reportedly with a cracked skull.
The Congolese were angered by the detention of 21 of their countrymen in Jalandhar in Punjab in northwestern India on Saturday. Rumors are swirling over why the black Africans were arrested, amidst allegations that Punjab police officers abused and beat the Congolese. Congo government authorities have demanded that Indian police release the young detainees and provide them with medical care to determine if they have been physically assaulted.
Indian media reported that the Africans were arrested following some kind of disturbance between the Congolese and at least one Indian man at a bus stop. Jaspreet Singh, Jalandhar’s deputy police commissioner, also claimed that the Congolese "stole the bag of the victim." "When we arrived there we saw a crowd of Congolese had come. We tried to calm the situation, but the Congolese were very aggressive. They insulted and attacked us," he said.
However, according to BBC, the Congolese students alleged that one of them was almost overrun by a speeding car and then beaten by a group of Indians with a cricket bat. A group called the Congolese Community of India sent a message to their embassy in New Delhi, saying that the Indians directed racist slurs at the African students at the bus stop and that the police did not arrest any Indians during the fracas.
Ram Manohar, India’s ambassador to DR Congo, told BBC that 17 of the 21 of the Congolese students had been released as of Wednesday, but there has been no other confirmation of this. Indeed, CCI claimed that the Congolese remain in detention and that the conditions in the prison are inhumane, and the detainees have been subject to "all kinds of insults and torture.”
Still, Manohar called the incident in Jalandhar "isolated” and said this fracas should not hurt the countries' friendly ties. "It should not be construed as a target against a particular community or particular country," he said. "We are the largest contributor of troops to Monusco [the UN peacekeeping force in DR Congo] and we welcome each year between 6,000 and 8 000 Congolese students to India.”
The BBC noted that most of the Congolese students came from Kinshasa, the capital of DR Congo, to study engineering and commerce at the Lovely Professional University in Punjab.
Meanwhile, South Asian-owned businesses in Kinshasa came under attack and many remained closed to avoid any further violence. "I was in the supermarket and some Congolese told me, 'If you leave we will cut your throat.' I stayed hidden until my boss came to find me and I could flee in the car," an Indian shop worker told the BBC. "When in the car they were shouting, 'Catch him, catch him, catch him.”
Indeed, the latest incidents in Kinshasa and Punjab are only a small chapter in a long and bitter history between South Asian and black African peoples – both on the Indian subcontinent and in Africa. Black people in India (who have arrived as students, traders or businessmen) have long complained of racial discrimination.
A Congolese student named Keita (a pseudonym) at Lovely Professional told France-24 that a car driven by Indians in Jalanhdar had bumped into a fellow Congolese who was removing money from his ATM machine in order to intimidate him. “The car ‘bumpings’ perpetrated on black Africans are very common in Punjab as a means of intimidation and provocation, because they know that, whatever happens, it’s the black man who will be detained,” Keita said.
“As many Indian people -- even police officers -- see it, anyone who is black is suspicious. We are regularly accused of being drug dealers or alcoholics. I can’t go to the doctor without him or her asking me whether I take drugs. Indians often call out 'kalo' ['negro' in Hindi] while making monkey noises at us. Even the most banal daily activity becomes complicated for us. When we need to get administrative paperwork done, we often encounter people who speak to us in Hindi on purpose and make fun of us. Others tell us that India is already overpopulated and that we should leave.”
Christophe Okito, president of the Association of African Students in India, explained to France-24 that Africans come to study in India because visas are easy to acquire. He said there are up to 600 Africans studying in Jalandhar, but only about 50 are Congolese.
“Generally speaking, foreigners are not welcome here,” Okito said of Punjab. “There is a greater tendency here, relative to elsewhere in India, to shun those not in your religious or ethnic group. We really get the impression that many of them truly believe that black people are cursed by the gods, destined to be slaves, whereas white people here as seen as intrinsically successful. The intolerance and racism make Punjab a real hell for black Africans. This is less the case in New Delhi, where the population is far more diverse.”
But the huge diverse metropolis of Mumbai is also a hostile palace for black Africans. Sambo Davis, a Nigerian native who married an Indian woman named Sheeba Rani Sheeba, told BBC that her family and friends have ostracized her for it. Davis also lamented that he is under constant harassment from Indian police and faces discrimination in restaurants, hotels, stores and in seeking apartment rentals.
"The police treat us Africans like dogs," he said. "When they go to rent flats in a normal building they are told - 'you are a black man, you are Nigerian, and you are not wanted.' This is racism." He added: "It's because I am from Africa, I am a Nigerian. I think Indians see us as inferior."
Many Africans, principally from Nigeria, are believed to be illegal immigrants in India. A Nigerian cafe owner named Ikeorah Junior complained: "I don't understand why they [Mumbai police] have to go from house to house to arrest the people who don't have their papers. If they don't have papers, then deport them, don't put them in jail.”
One Indian woman spoke for many when he declared: "We call them Negro because they are black. They look frightening.”
An Indian man defended the discriminatory treatment of Africans. "They don't find homes to rent in Mumbai, they only stay in Mira Road [a deprived area outside of Mumbai]. Why? Because of the way they behave. They sell drugs and indulge in other illegal activities. They cannot be trusted.”