Race and realty

Properties of prejudice

Print edition : February 21, 2014

A lane in Khirki Extension. Photo: MEETA AHLAWAT

SANDWICHED between major shopping malls and Malviya Nagar, a Punjabi-dominated middle-class colony, Khirki Extension in south Delhi has become a signifier of urban dystopia. A nondescript village until a few years ago, this unauthorised residential area became famous among migrants as a destination for affordable living. As a result, landlords of the area converted their old houses into apartments to accommodate the increasing flow of migrants, who were initially mostly students and working men and women. The builders’ lobby saw this transformation of Khirki as a good opportunity to either buy property or finance the owners in remodelling their houses. The village soon began to grow vertically, making it one of the densest extensions in south Delhi. However, Khirki remained an unauthorised or what the British called a Lal Dora area (a part of village land that could be used for non-agricultural purposes). This meant that there were no regular water pipelines or sanitation channels or streetlighting or municipality-maintained streets. Inundation, leakages in drains, electricity thefts and increased private use of groundwater became the order of the day and made living difficult in this overgrown village.

As a consequence, rents did not increase to the expectations of the landlords. That is why Khirki opened up for African nationals and migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar who were looking for low-budget lodgings. Both these communities find it difficult to rent an accommodation in the authorised residential colonies of Delhi. Since Khirki become real-estate intensive, the landlords welcomed tenants without prejudice. Since the rents were affordable compared with what was charged in other colonies in south Delhi, African nationals, mostly students, started renting apartments in Khirki. In recent years, Somali, Nigerian, Ugandan and Congolese nationals, driven out of their respective conflict-ridden countries, have made Delhi one of their destinations for a better living. They were even ready to pay the landlords a little more than the market value of their properties. So much so that, in due course, Khirki became, according to a property broker, “an African ghetto”. “Calling it an African ghetto had a double advantage. It meant that the African diaspora preferred Khirki, and at the same time, middle-class Indians, who paid a lower rent than the Africans, viewed it as an unattractive colony,” said another property dealer.

This arrangement paid off and for the past five years landlords had been making gains. Khirki, because of its fluctuating rents, remained in a state of flux. This period was also the first stage of metamorphosis of Khirki’s human geography from a Lal Dora village into a Foucauldian heterotopic urban village.

When Delhi’s Law Minister Somnath Bharti attempted to conduct a midnight raid on African households in Khirki on January 16, following complaints from the residents’ welfare association (RWA) that it had become a bustling “sex and drug racket”, many dormant frictions showed up. The RWA implicated only the Africans in the alleged racket, a phenomenon not novel in Delhi.

In the tussle that followed between Bharti and the policemen, who rightly refused to conduct a raid on the African households without adequate proof and warrants, a few African women who were returning after a party were made to forcibly undergo drug tests and give urine samples in public. Bharti, who had come to the area with an army of mediapersons, made copybook racial remarks against the African women: Yeh, hum aur aap jaise nahin hai. (These people are not like us.) He told the media that “all Nigerians girls and men indulge in prostitution and drug trafficking”, posing a threat to the “local ma, behen, beti” (mothers, sisters and daughters).

The racial tensions between the African community and the local residents surfaced all of a sudden. Moral policing, a common practice in Delhi, came to the fore. Above all, the idea of mass politics sought to be followed by the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) came under scrutiny. But at the heart of the Khirki debate lies a neglected and least discussed component: real estate, and the financial considerations of land brokers that give tangible shape to xenophobic, racial prejudices.

The Khirki RWA comprises a few old residents of the locality but its primary agenda is driven by property brokers. The association was formed a year ago, not to discuss issues such as poor infrastructure but to drive out African residents. “The Africans get into fights in the night. Drugs and sex are their primary occupation. Most of the women wear extremely short clothes and move around naked in their houses. The women solicit men in front of the Sai Baba temple in Khirki. They have become a nuisance. Will our children and women be able to live in such an environment? And that is why we organised ourselves to fix this problem,” said Surinder Saini, a property dealer. Asked whether all Africans are sex workers and drug dealers, he said most of them are. Incidentally, in the past five years, he has received maximum business from Africans. “Khirki can be a posh locality. Many Indians want to come here now and are ready to pay more. It is centrally located. Why should we tolerate the Africans and their misconduct?” asked Micky, another property dealer, when this correspondent pointed out that the African nationals had helped sustain the village’s economy.

It is in this context that property brokers and some landlords systematically inflamed passions against the African community in Khirki and other areas of Delhi where similar tensions have occurred in recent times against Kashmiri youth and the people of the north-eastern States.

Ever since the RWA was formed, attacks on African children and women are reported to have increased. A small group of sex workers and drug peddlers live in Khirki, but the RWA has tried to paint the entire African community with the same brush. “Incidents such as throwing stones, passing lewd remarks, sexually harassing [African] women on the streets and breaking into their houses and destroying their goods have increased in the past one year,” said Aastha Chauhan, a Khirki-based artist.

A woman from Cameroon this correspondent had met a few months ago had opened a kitchen in the area. Aastha Chauhan said the kitchen was vandalised by a group of men who thought it was a brothel. “She was forced to start an underground kitchen for a living. She was a trained five-star chef but one of the hotels refused to employ her saying that Delhiites are not yet ready to eat food cooked by a ‘black’ woman. After her house was attacked, she shifted her kitchen to another place. But she went back to Cameroon after the local residents made a brutal attack on her sister. Racism is prevalent in Khirki. But it is sad that such tendencies are getting political patronage.”

The racial attacks are often infused with sexism, leading to sexual exploitation of African women. “These women are ‘loose’. They do not have any sexual morality. So our youth sometimes take advantage of it,” declared a Khirki resident. Many African women live in constant fear of sexual abuse. “My landlord does not spare me, let alone others on the street. My landlord, a 60-year-old man with two daughters, barges into my room anytime he wishes, and tries to chat me up. Most of his conversations are full of sexual innuendoes,” said Josna, a Nigerian national and a resident of Arjun Nagar, another African ghetto in south Delhi. “The most bizarre accusation that I have heard against us in Delhi is that we steal Indian infants and eat them,” she added. Most of them had similar experiences with even the police. This prevents them from seeking help from the police. “The discrimination has a huge psychological impact on African schoolchildren who have learnt Hindi and English. At one of the functions I had organised in Khirki, a Nigerian child came up on the stage to say that ‘ main cockroach nahin khati hoon’ [I do not eat cockroach]. That was really sad to hear. The child was desperately seeking friends in the area,” says Aastha Chauhan.

There are so many such stories of African nationals that lay hidden in the folds of the urban colony. The African nationals of Khirki are in various professions. Some of them are Catholic and Pentecostal Church followers and devote most of their daytime to charity work. Some of them have opened boutiques and salons in the colony while many of them are students. A bunch of Nigerian boys are trained hip-hop dancers and perform regularly. Some of them are fascinated by Bollywood and want to become actors.

Unlike expatriates from developed countries, Africans do not have a strong sense of entitlement in India. It is for this reason that they either try to assimilate the local cultures or stay aloof to guard themselves from any animosity. This sentiment also explains the fact that they prefer to stay together. After the midnight raid on January 16, most of the African nationals have left Khirki, perhaps, never to return. Property brokers are rejoicing over this fact. “We are finally getting rid of them. We will not allow them into Khirki again,” said Saini, who knew many African men and women by name, as he was the one who found them places to stay. “It is sad that even educated people have a strong feeling of racial difference. Most of them do not want their children to interact with Africans. There is a deep sense of isolation and insecurity among the African nationals,” said Aastha Chauhan.

Khirki is now on the brink of its second metamorphosis into a cleansed, sanitised space, and probably a posh one with the exit of the African nationals. It has been said that perceptions about the ever-changing social relationships in a metropolis have to be tempered by humanism brought out by progressive politics, but in Khirki the displacement of its residents happened under the garb of moral policing for financial reasons.

The AAP’s unequivocal defence of its Minister’s action and its reliance on political cliches and mob action to further its political ambitions will definitely make people question the notion of mass politics it intends to practise, and wonder whether it can ever be socially transformative in nature.

Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

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