June 05, 2016

Racist Attacks on African Students

THE death of an African student from Congo, Masonda Kitanda Olivier, after being brutally assaulted on May 21 in South Delhi has brought to the fore the deep-seated racism which exists in India. There are thousands of students from Africa studying in various educational institutions in the country. It is a shameful fact that these black students are often subject to racial discrimination and attacks. Not only students but all other people from Africa become targets because of their skin colour. That the lynching of Olivier is not an isolated incident can be seen from the fact that in the month of May, there were two other incidents of attacks on African students. On May 2, a student from the Ivory Coast was assaulted in Bengaluru and later in the month, a 23-year old Nigerian student was attacked and injured in Hyderabad. One can also recall the horrific incident in January this year when a 23-year old woman student from Tanzania was stripped and assaulted in Bengaluru. She was attacked for no other reason but that she was an African. Before her car passed through the area, another car driven by an African had run over and killed a woman in an accident. The mob stopped the car carrying the Tanzanian student and attacked her while the police stood watching. The killing of Olivier in Delhi has alarmed the African community in India and all the Heads of Missions of the African countries collectively lodged a protest with the government. They decided not to observe Africa Day celebrations in their Embassies. The African Ambassadors pointed out that Africans are being racially targeted and called upon the government of India to take steps to assure the safety and security of the African students. Within days of the killing of Olivier, another incident occurred in the outskirts of Delhi. Seven Africans, including four women, were racially abused and attacked in Rajpur Khurd, a village in South Delhi. The police dismissed this as a “scuffle” between two sides and stated that loud music and public drinking is the cause for attacks on the Africans. The attitude of the police to such attacks is to deny any racist connotations and reduce the crime to some quarrel or public brawl. Even in the case of the brutal attack on Olivier, the police sought to portray it as a quarrel over hiring an auto rickshaw. As if, it is common in India, for a person to be beaten to death just because of an argument about hiring an auto rickshaw. The reality is that the police and officialdom in India are also infected by the racist mindset which is prejudiced against black people. The response of some of the ministers in the Modi government has also been deplorable. The minister of state for external affairs, VK Singh, accused the media of blowing up “minor scuffles” as attack on Africans, after the Rajpur Khurd incident. Mahesh Sharma, the minister for culture, denying that any racism was involved went to the extent of stating that such incidents take place in Africa too. Finally, the external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, herself in a meeting with African diplomats and representatives of African students, declared that the murder of the Congolese student was not motivated by racism. All these developments have exposed the ugly reality that Indian society is deeply racist. This racism is reinforced by the caste system. There is a racial stereotyped myth that the “Aryans” who came from outside and settled down in Northern India are fair compared to the Dravidians in the south who are dark skinned. The caste-ridden society values fair skin, while dark skin is looked down upon. Caste prejudice is reinforced by the slavish worship of fair complexion. This is reflected in the matrimonial advertisements for fair skinned brides. This worship of the fair skin was reinforced by colonialism when the white-skinned masters were looked upon as a superior race. Black people are thus seen to be inferior human beings. The racism based on skin colour has thus been inherited and passed on by an unequal social and caste order. It is ironical that Indians who are treated as coloured or black people in white societies and subject to racial discrimination, consider themselves to be superior to those who are blacker than them. In India, the dalit woman who is sexually abused, or the adivasi worker who is brutally exploited, or the bonded labourer who belong to the lowest in the caste ladder are all part of this racist and casteist social order. Racism has, therefore, to be fought just as we have to fight against caste oppression and caste discrimination. But the BJP government at the centre is the least equipped to take on this form of discrimination. The government is promoting an agenda of exclusivism based on narrow communal identity and Hindu nationalism. Under their regime, mobs attack those who eat beef, or have a different religion from that of the majority, or think differently. It is such a climate which encourages people to attack those who look different and have different cultural life-styles. The small groups of African students who live ghettoised lives in India’s various cities are easy targets because of their skin colour and way of life. The fact that they are not able to lead their lives with dignity and peace is a damning commentary on how social life and civic values have degenerated in India. (June 1, 2016)