Print edition : April 28, 2017

Police personnel talking to African nationals at a shopping mall in Greater Noida on March 27. Photo: AFP

The Nigerian student Endurance Amalawa, 21, who was attacked in a mall in Greater Noida on March 24. Photo: Altaf Qadri/AP

The Kenyan student who was thrashed by some unidentified men in Greater Noida. Photo: PTI

At a football match on Sharda University grounds in Greater Noida on March 5. The match was organised by the Gautam Budh Nagar district administration to ease the tension following the attacks on Africans. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

African students face a spate of brutal attacks in Greater Noida following rumours of an Indian boy’s murder.

“SO, what sort of music do you like?”

“Jazz.”

“Let me introduce you to some African jazz,” said Lawrence, scrolling through the playlist on his smartphone. As the soothing melody filled the room, we (six African youths and myself) momentarily forgot why we had gathered in the two-room house in Greater Noida in the National Capital Region (NCR).

Lawrence asked: “Have you had the opportunity to hang out with Africans like this before?” To my embarrassment, I reckoned that I had not and realised how very comfortable and familiar it felt.

Ezeugo Nnamdi Lawrence II, coordinator of the African Association of Students in India (AASI), lives in south Delhi. As it was too dangerous for him to travel to the meeting venue in Greater Noida by himself, he was asked by a friend to travel the 48-kilometre distance to Greater Noida, which is in Gautham Budh Nagar of Uttar Pradesh, with an Indian journalist he had met before and who was writing a story based on the events that unfolded in the last week of March.

Around 11 p.m. on March 25, an alert flashed on Un-fair Web, a Facebook identity that shares updates on the African community in India and has emerged as a platform against racism. The previous day, a group of people had barged into the house of five Nigerian students in NSG Black Cat Enclave in Greater Noida, accusing them of killing and eating Manish Khari, a class 12 student. They checked the refrigerator for body parts and threatened to harm the students if they did not confess to the crime. Only two of the five Nigerian students were present in the house at the time; they panicked and called the police, who took them into protective custody. The intruders defended their actions saying that Manish was last seen with the Nigerian students. The police were unable to verify the claim as CCTV cameras in the locality did not work.

The next day, Manish stumbled home in a disoriented state. He was rushed to hospital but passed away soon after. On the basis of a complaint filed by Manish’s parents, the police registered a first information report (FIR) against the five Nigerians (Usman Abdul Qadir, Mohammad Amir, Saeed Kabir, Abdul Usman and Saeed Abu Waqar), all students of Noida International University (NIU).

On March 27, African students, led by the AASI, protested outside the Kasna police station in Beta-II in Greater Noida. “Skin tone is not a crime”, “We all bleed the same colour” and “Black Lives Matter, Say No To Racism” were some of the posters they carried during the protest. The five students were let off as the police did not find any evidence to suggest that they were responsible for Manish’s death, Sujata Singh, Superintendent of Police, Greater Noida Rural, said. The post-mortem report was inconclusive, and the cause of Manish’s death could not be ascertained.

The AASI and Un-fair Web called upon the media and civil society in India to take note of the matter. “But nobody came forward,” said Najib Hamisu of the AASI. “Had they highlighted the issue that day, the events of Monday [March 28] could perhaps have been averted.”

On Monday, Manish’s family members and the local people staged a counter march on the busy thoroughfare from NSG Society to Pari Chowk holding a banner with the words: “Throw out Nigerians from Greater Noida. Increasing crime rate. Illegal drug trade.” By now, rumours that the African students had administered drugs to the boy and later chopped him into tiny pieces began to spread on WhatsApp and social media sites.

Meanwhile, unaware of the frenzy that was building up against the African community, Endurance, Precious and Chkwoma were walking near the Ansal Plaza mall. Some protesters spotted them and ran towards them with murderous intent. They beat up Chkwoma on the street. His companions ran into the mall for safety. The mob followed them and attacked them. While Precious was hit with sharp objects, Endurance was surrounded and beaten with dustbins, chairs, and whatever the mob could lay its hand on. Nobody came forward to help them. A shopper on the upper floor of the mall video recorded the barbarous attack. The recording went viral.

Seven other simultaneous incidents of violence against Africans took place in Greater Noida. In a complaint submitted to the police, nine Africans were named as victims and an equal number of assaulters were identified. No FIR was registered. Two cars were smashed and one burnt. There was panic in the area, and the AASI repeatedly sent out advisories to African students to stay indoors. “We were trying to understand why this was happening to us. We had not heard of anything like this before coming to India,” said 20-year-old Husain (name changed). “I realised that in the Indian caste system, because of our skin colour, we must be even below the untouchables. When Indians, who are racist, see us driving fancy cars and getting education in their universities, it must infuriate them.” He said he saw racism as another form of casteism and the events in Uttar Pradesh as an extension of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s project of saffronisation. It comes as no surprise that all the five students accused of cannibalism have Muslim names.

On March 29, there were reports of an attack on a Kenyan woman but these were subsequently retracted. The media woke up to the situation and sent its reporters to Greater Noida. The media reports highlighted instances of racist attacks such as the assault on a Congolese man outside Kishangarh village, the attack on African people, including children, in Raipur-Khurd as they were returning from midnight mass, and the incident in Bengaluru in which a Tanzanian woman was stripped and beaten. It may be recalled that the then Delhi Law Minister Somnath Bharti raided the homes of Africans in Khirki Extension in January 2014 accusing the women living there of prostitution. This gave rise to anti-African feelings in other localities in Delhi.

Since several rumours were being floated, the AASI felt the need to correct the misreporting and hastily called a press conference in a park in a posh locality in south Delhi. As the meeting was going on, two policemen arrived and demanded to know if the organisers had permission to hold a press conference there. The conference ended abruptly. In a statement released subsequently, the AASI said it was tired of the promises made by the Indian government and would therefore take stringent actions. Samuel T. Jack, the AASI president, said: “[Because of the] failure to secure the lives of African students and to ensure maximum security in areas where African students live, we will write to [the] African Union to cut all bilateral trade with India. We will ensure that all the local media houses in our respective countries get details of the growing racism which African students are facing in India. We will ensure that a detailed report on the barbaric racism African students are facing in India is sent to the high levels of all African governments and heads of state. We will ask African students in our respective countries to stop making India their study destination with immediate effect. We will call for a nationwide protest inviting all international media houses.”

The heads of mission of 43 African countries in India condemned the attacks in strong terms, calling them “xenophobic” and “racial in nature”. They agreed to take further action, demand an independent investigation by the Human Rights Council and other human rights bodies and send a comprehensive report on the matter to the African Union Commission. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was forced to take note and she promised help. She spoke to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath to ensure a free and fair probe. Importantly, the Nigerian authorities summoned the Indian envoy to that country to explain the attacks.

The following days were full of fear and uncertainty as African students remained indoors. As food and other essential supplies were low, the AASI enlisted volunteers to provide them. It was only on March 31 that the Africans stepped out of their homes and Lawrence ventured out to check the situation on the ground. As the cab drove through the empty streets of Greater Noida, one wondered where the police vigil promised by the administration was. Outside Sharda University, where several African students have enrolled, policemen were conspicuously missing. The African students were also not to be seen. “Some of them have exams going on, I don’t know what will happen,” said Lawrence. The five AASI members, including Lawrence, who had gathered at Greater Noida to plan out relief strategy, were visibly tired. They had barely got any sleep since the attacks began. “Yesterday, when I woke up after a brief nap, there were 69 missed calls on my phone. Some from people who needed stuff and many from the media,” said Najib, rubbing his eyes. Some mediapersons had asked them if they took drugs, and that, he said, irritated them. “What is this stereotyping of all Africans as drug peddlers or prostitutes?” Zaharaddeen Muhammad, national academic coordinator of the AASI, asked. He was making a list of townships in the area and calling people to find out what they needed. Edmundo wanted to pick up some groceries from Ansal and so the three of us (Edmund, Lawrence and myself) headed out. Lawrence began to explain the nuances of songs playing on the stereo. There was no sign of policemen on the streets. However, a police van was parked at the entrance to the mall.

When we stepped into the mall, it seemed like we were entering a crime scene. As a woman in Delhi, I am used to being stared at uncomfortably. But the way people held their gaze at us was of a different nature of humiliation altogether. People everywhere, standing alone or in groups, stared at us, pointing and jeering. It made me feel like an object of great distaste. Edmundo bought the groceries and we could not wait to leave the place. When I expressed surprise at the coolness with which the two of them dealt with the situation, Lawrence said: “We are used to this.” Lawrence, who is of royal descent, said: “They treat us like beggars here.”

Rukhsar, a security guard at the mall, was sorry about what happened and put the blame on unruly local people. “What happened was absolutely wrong. One person’s crime should not result in another’s persecution,” she said. She believed that the Africans had killed a boy but was against mob violence. She personally did not feel any animosity towards Africans who came to the mall.

On our way back, Edmundo took us to his home and rustled up an authentic Portuguese dish consisting of mutton, potato wedges, omelette, bread and cheese. He is from Guinea-Bissau, an erstwhile Portuguese colony. As the conversation veered towards food and culture, I asked them if they had eaten a meal in an Indian home. Lawrence had but Eddie and the others had not.

After the sumptuous food, we headed back to the house where the NIU deputy registrar had come to deliver 250 food packets. “They are all vegetarian and there is no water,” complained someone. “It’s okay. We should appreciate whatever they have brought,” said another. David from Bengaluru talked about peace-building measures. “With our experience of facing racist attacks in Bengaluru, we have started to organise seminars and cultural events such as food festivals with like-minded Indians. Building bridges is something we have to do in times of peace. We are going to suggest orientation programmes in universities where Africans study to educate them about racism.” Even as we were speaking, three teenagers, riding past in a scooter, shouted abuses at the group. It filled me with anger, but David merely said: “They are ignorant, they don’t know what they are doing is wrong.” As more volunteers arrived, the food packets were loaded into cars and dispatched to various areas. “Our people are getting tired here. Tomorrow we will meet the police and request them to provide security so that the students can attend classes. Africans are free people,” said Lawrence.

Manuel said: “Students from various strata come here for education, some on scholarship, some on education loans, some come with the money saved, some are rich and politically connected. But after these attacks, many prospective students have decided not to come.”

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