In 2014, a mob attacked African students at a central Delhi metro station. In 2016, a mob in Bengaluru stripped a 21-year-old Tanzanian woman and attacked her friends after a Sudanese student ran over and killed a local woman. In 2017, five Nigerians were beaten up in Greater Noida following the death of a 17-year-old Indian student. Earlier this year, a 27-year-old Congolese died in police custody in Bengaluru, triggering protests by African nationals.
These abominable incidents of discrimination and violence reveal the fleeting moments of African lives in India before they are lost and forgotten again in the public gaze.
Who are they? What do they do? Why are they in India? All these questions rarely cross our minds while one covers the jarring cases of violence and discrimination against them. To sympathise and understand the causes of the rising Afrophobia, it's important to understand how they struggle to make a life for themselves in a hostile country like India.
They Come For a Better Life, But Face Neglect
Since the economic and IT boom in the early 2000s, a growing wave of African students, traders, and tourist visa holders have taken up residence in different cities. They are mainly from English-speaking countries in East Africa (especially Tanzania and Uganda), Sudan, and Nigeria, a West African nation with strong economic and political ties with India. They come to India through familial ties for better economic and educational opportunities, and sometimes to escape conflict zones and abject poverty.
They travel to big cities like Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Delhi, and Pune as students, for affordable and quality education in multiple disciplines like English and Medical Science. However, India’s, and specifically Bengaluru’s, image as an emerging IT hub certainly attracts students to learn IT-centred skills in India, so that they can go back and find good jobs.
Besides students, seasonal traders also come to India to provide the existing African migrants in the country with African goods for everyday consumption. At the same time, they also pick goods that they export back to their native countries.
Africa’s love for Hindi cinema representing Indian culture, and of course educational and economic opportunities, attract African migrants to India where they aspire to learn, grow, and assimilate in the host country. However, when they arrive, they are met with extreme cases of violence, social exclusion and discrimination, institutional neglect, and accommodation difficulties on an everyday basis.
Private colleges and universities lure African students to come to India. They pay a hefty amount but are disappointed when they realise that these are not credible institutions with good courses, proper faculty members, or accreditation. Moreover, many African students are harassed by constables who demand official documents and accuse them of drug peddling and prostitution. African migrants also find it difficult to rent apartments. They are subjected to name-calling like habshis (slaves/ cannibals), and kalu (blackie).
Lack of Knowledge Is Behind the Hate
The prejudices persisting due to a lack of knowledge about African nationals, their countries, culture, and community are what makes them the object of hate. This sometimes takes the shape of violent cases of racism, and, at other times, subtler instances of discrimination.
Racism in India then takes a new meaning, where it is not the global north discriminating against the countries of the global south. Instead, racism emerges in the global south itself, where people of colour discriminate against other people of colour. Jideofor Adibe, an African scholar, argues that this racism, or rather “xenophobia”, in India emerges from the Indian social structure. The blackness of the Africans along with an unfamiliar language and an alien culture makes them the hostile other, waning them lower in the social structure of the Indian society.
Michael Jackson, a distinguished anthropologist, says, migrants build a sense of home and hope in the world in the most ambiguous and hostile of circumstances.
Similarly, in India, African migrants build spaces of comfort and security, navigating through formal and informal spaces to establish a strong network of support in small pockets. This is where Africans find their local food, attires, and foods. In this familiarity, they escape discrimination.
In Bengaluru, because of a relatively larger number of Africans, they have been successful in creating these pockets. These spaces can be a KFC or someone’s home where they feel safe, before heading back to the streets where they live under a perennial gaze. I was once able to visit one of these places in Bengaluru, where a trader showed me local products, local creams, and spices that he brings from his home country of Uganda to serve African demand in India. An African student who I interviewed said, “We leave our families, our life back in our countries, so we will have to create a small home away from home. We cannot talk much to locals except for business, so we eat, sing, dance in our small spaces of love and comfort.”
Living Under A Perpetual Gaze
Even though African migrants strive to build their spaces of security and social networks, they still are constantly harassed. They are often thrown into circumstances that are difficult to navigate because of the unexpected and outlandish behaviour of the police and the common public. Their day-to-day insecurity is exacerbated by police and even educational bodies that often fail to investigate or heed calls for protection.
In 2016, Bengaluru’s first detention centre was built and the first person to be detained here was a Sudanese national. Abdou, a Congolese trader, said about the detention of the Sudanese nationals, “We don’t deserve to be in prison and detention centres because our visa has expired, we are from good families, we need good education, and good jobs. It is not our fault that we come to other countries like India and are forced to make a living. Our government does not provide us jobs, we need to find a way to make life in this chaos. We are fleeing from poverty and war.”
What is heartbreaking is that despite the long-standing ties between India and Africa based on economic, cultural, and political interaction and exchange, historically and presently, and their common experience of colonisation and decolonization, Africans in India are treated as strangers who don’t deserve the hospitality of our country. One of the key goals of the current government is building stronger networks and markets in the relatively untapped African continent to combat Chinese interest.
However, in the context of all this economic and political rhetoric of support, the realities of the lives of African migrants in India remain the same- marginalised, victimised, and racialised.
James Ferguson, an American scholar, has argued in his book “Global Shadows” that Africa has become not a historical or a cultural region but instead a category of blackness, failure, and poverty. The echoes of this stereotype can be heard on an everyday basis on the streets of Bengaluru, in the multiple ways Africans are mistreated in India.
(The author is a Ph.D. scholar in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Florida. Her specialisation is in African studies, South-South migration, and questions of race and racism. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)