Colour of violence

Print edition : June 24, 2016

Family members of the murdered Congolese national, Olivier Masonga Kitanda, led by African diplomats, leave Jawaharlal Nehru Bhawan after attending a meeting with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in New Delhi on May 31. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Sushma Swaraj, V.K. Singh (left) and Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar during a meeting with a group of African students in New Delhi on May 31. Photo: PTI

African students during a protest in Bengaluru on February 6. Photo: Sudhakara Jain

A spate of hate crimes targeting African nationals in Delhi reopens old debates on racism and intolerance.

IN the month of May, a spate of racist attacks on Africans in the capital injured many and left one dead. As the Bharatiya Janata Party-led (BJP) government made half-hearted attempts to contain the situation to the embarrassment of many on the Indian side, members of the African community remained concerned about their safety and well-being. It also reopened old debates among Indians on casteism, intolerance and racism.

On the night of May 20, as Olivier Masonga Kitanda, a Congolese national from Kinshasa, summoned an autorickshaw just outside Kishangarh village after visiting a friend, he was abused with racial slurs by three men who were also trying to take the same vehicle. His friend, who is from Ivory Coast, was buying cigarettes nearby when he saw them assault Olivier. As Olivier tried to flee, the men gave chase and bludgeoned him to death. “There was a lot of blood,” witnesses who gathered after a police posse reached the area told Frontline. In a few hours he would have turned 24, as it was his birthday. His friends said that Olivier was the eldest of five brothers, very shy, and avoided trouble. He had come to India for higher studies.

The African community claimed that it was a hate crime as racial slurs were routinely hurled at its members, but the police refused to call it so and said that they would like to probe the matter further before making any statement. “This ambivalence of the police begs the question why we are so reluctant to address our prejudices and call a spade a spade,” a resident of Kishangarh said.

Of the three attackers, two were arrested while one is on the run, according to an inspector of Vasant Kunj police station. Racial slurs such as “habshi” or “kaalu” and even “monkey” are routinely used against people from Africa. Colour, it would seem, is a big deal here. Some members of the African community told Frontline that some Indians refused to sit next to them during metro train journeys.

Africans may have learnt to ignore and navigate their lives in India amid such everyday prejudices, but Olivier’s murder reopened old wounds that have not yet healed. It revived memories of the vigilante action in the form of a raid carried out by Aam Aadmi Party leader and State Law Minister Somnath Bharti in Khirki Extension two years ago, where he led a mob into the homes of Africans. He and several of his associates allegedly misbehaved with women there whom they suspected of running a prostitution and drug ring. Men were also attacked, and subsequently several Africans were forced to leave the locality.

The same year, a mob assaulted three young men from Gabon and Burkina Faso at a metro station in Delhi, calling them “Nigerian” in the presence of a policeman who did nothing. Even as they tried to take refuge inside a police booth, they were severely beaten up with rods and furniture and they received serious head injuries. The video of the vicious attack went viral.

There have been incidents of violence against Africans in Punjab. More recently in Bengaluru, a car belonging to a Tanzanian woman was torched, apparently in retaliation to a completely unrelated incident minutes earlier where an African driving a car had run over and killed a local resident. The woman was stripped, her companion beaten up, and when they tried to escape the mob on the road by boarding a bus, they were thrown out by other passengers. The police simply stood by and refused to register a complaint until the woman produced the African man involved in the hit-and–run case, because, as the policeman said, “you all look alike”.

Africa Day

Close on the heels of Olivier’s death came May 25, which is Africa Day. In the absence of any action by or statement from the government, African ambassadors threatened to boycott the Africa Day function as a mark of protest. In a face-saving gesture, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj tweeted: “We will also launch a sensitisation program to reiterate that such incidents against foreign nationals embarrass the country.” She did not apologise or express regret that such an incident happened. She was dismayed that India got a bad name from such incidents.

Nevertheless, it persuaded the Africans to attend the function, which itself turned into a bit of a diplomatic disaster when the Indian diplomats reached several hours late, at the fag end of the function when many Africans had already left. The function started at 7 p.m. and the Indian diplomats were nowhere to be seen until 10 p.m. This attitude, coupled with the fact that the Indian dignitaries did not make any relevant statements, left the African side sceptical about the seriousness of the government in tackling the issue appropriately.

They also expressed reservations about V.K. Singh, Minister of State for External Affairs, who attends these functions but does not make any serious attempt to interact with the community. “Last year, at the Africa Day celebrations, he came, stood for the Indian national anthem, and left without making a statement. This is in stark contrast to the previous government, where old ties had been built between the two sides over a long period of time and there was a lot of sensitivity to understand the issues,” said a diplomat who did not want to be named.

Furthermore, Singh dismissed the attacks as a minor scuffle and accused the media of blowing it out of proportion. “Had detailed discussions with the Delhi Police and found that media blowing up minor scuffle as attacks on Africans in Rajpur Khurd. Why is media doing this? As responsible citizens let us question them and their motives,” he said in a series of tweets.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s grand India-Africa summit in October, where all 54 heads of African countries were invited and close to 40 attended, appeared to be a sham to the African diplomats. “They seem to have done it to counter the China-Africa cooperation summits. At least when China does it, investments follow. But in Modi’s case, where are the investments? There is nothing to show,” said a Congolese official on condition of anonymity.

Four separate attacks

Even as diplomats were attending the Africa Day function and the furore over Olivier’s death had not yet died down, four separate attacks were carried out against Africans residing in Rajpur Khurd village, in the nearby Chhattarpur area of South Delhi, on May 25. In what appears to be a pre-planned action, every African spotted on the lane connecting Rajpur and Maidangarhi villages between 10:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. was attacked by a mob of 10 men, and at least seven people, four men and three women, were injured.

Kenneth Ignibosa, 29, a Nigerian, his wife, Kate, and four-month-old son, Blessed, were attacked with cricket bats, sticks and iron rods and their car was damaged as they were returning from the Fatehpur Beri church. They sped out of the lane and called the police.

Vikky, 30, from Uganda, and his brother Pierre were greeted with “go back to your country” as they alighted from an autorickshaw outside their house. They were returning from hospital. They were kicked, punched and hit with an iron rod before they managed to get inside their house and shut the door. They were so panicked that they did not call anybody for help.

Cameroonian national Shamira, 28, was attacked outside her shop as she tried to intervene and save some people in the scuffle. Nigerian national Leuchy, 29, and his friend were attacked by a group of men with sticks and stones as they were standing outside their house, and Leuchy was hit by a stone and had to get stitches on his nose.

In an incident in the posh Banjara Hills neighbourhood of Hyderabad on the same day, Kazeem Damilola was outnumbered and hit with an iron rod when a parking dispute spiralled out of control. He was almost run over by a bike. “A policeman later came, he was laughing at me when he was asking me questions; he did nothing,” Damilola said.

It was evident that the attack on Africans in Rajpur Khurd village was a hate crime. When this correspondent visited the Jat-dominated village, everyone was tight-lipped and initially feigned ignorance about the incidents and claimed that they had seen nothing. This correspondent was also advised to drop the story and write on more pressing problems faced by the community, such as drug abuse.

A group of Jat men in their twenties opened up to Frontline to explain how easily drugs were available in the stores in the village. They rattled the names of the drugs they had used or were still using. A 25-year-old man, unemployed for several years, said: “I have stopped using drugs for one month. But I can tell you all about it. I can even get you some, because the chemists will not sell it to you directly. They may even refuse that they have it, if you ask.” Injections, tablets that pregnant women use, they had done it all, they claimed. Unemployment is high among the youths in the village, who live off the rental income of their families. Several families had made a fortune by selling their farmland, where posh colonies stand today. The men who led the attack against Africans were high on drugs, according to the young men.

Jat elders in the village admitted that the person who led the attacks was badtameez (ill-mannered) but added that the Africans deserved it. “The women wear such tiny clothes [vulgar gesture] and indulge in prostitution. Their day begins when it is time for us to sleep and they talk so loudly. They are spreading keechad [filth] in our midst; all of them are drug addicts. Such things can go unnoticed in cities but not in a village where they have to play by the rules,” said a family elder, who requested anonymity as everybody in the village was related to each other and he would not like to be seen as making allegations against others. He claimed that the Africans were funded by the church in Fatehpur, the nearby Gujjar-dominated village.

According to data from the Delhi government’s Department of Revenue, the capital is home to 369 villages. Unlike other places, these villages are not on the periphery but right in the middle of the city. They blend seamlessly with the city and only if one enters them and spots a buffalo, hookah or charpoy does one realise that they are villages. Although the young men are educated and mingle with the world outside, the elders try hard to maintain old traditions along with their prejudices and way of life.

Xenophobic attitude

With the Africans living in these villages, most of whom are more educated and modern in their outlook than the Jats, friction becomes commonplace. The Jats also display a xenophobic attitude. One person said: “They come here only for rackets, otherwise why would they live in villages where there is an acute problem of water, electricity and conveyance? Until five years ago, [even] autos would refuse to come inside. Unlike the ‘proper foreigners’ [white people], who come here for serious tourism or education purposes, and live in posh colonies outside, these people stay in our villages only for drugs and parties.”

A person from Congo said on condition of anonymity that such incidents happened earlier too, but the violence accompanying them in the recent past surpassed anything he ever imagined. He runs daily early in the morning and in the evening with a mixed group of expatriates around the area where the incidents occurred.

While he is used to being called “kaalu” and “monkey” by locals, what bemuses him the most is that the same locals pity the white foreigner who runs with them, saying: “Oh poor white fellow, it must be so hot for him.”

Even at the private institution where he teaches, he has often heard people saying behind his back: “What is this ‘kaalu’ doing here?” To their dismay, sometimes, they find out that he is their teacher. Over the years he has learnt not to make an issue out of such comments and avoid confrontations, but the recent attacks have worried him. “People back home are calling to ask why this is happening,” he said.

He knows Hindi and says it is key to avoiding friction. The moment he speaks in Hindi to people, they understand that he does not mean danger and let him be. Women also pass racial slurs at him, regardless of their age. While Hindi has always come to his rescue, his safety mechanism consists of avoiding certain areas and situations. He says he would never live in a village if he could afford it outside.

Even as Sushma Swaraj and Home Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted about speaking with Delhi’s Police Commissioner and punishing the culprits, other Ministers continued to make problematic statements. Tourism and Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma, when asked about these incidents, retorted that even African countries were not safe and that such incidents gave India a bad name.

“When I went to South Africa, I was stopped from going for a morning walk at 6 a.m. by the hotel people, citing security reasons. My post-dinner walk was also dropped for the same reasons. It’s not fair to say that India is unsafe,” he said.

He added that the Ministry had launched a helpline (1363) and a list of dos and don’ts for foreign nationals. But such helplines will be of little help when accompanied by insensitive and outright racist statements by Ministers. This is nothing new. In 2013, when Nigerians were attacked across Goa, State Minister Dayanand Mandrekar of the BJP called them a cancer. It snowballed into a situation where Nigerian diplomats warned of a backlash against Indians in Nigeria.

A saving grace for the government was President Pranab Mukherjee expressing concern over the attacks and Vice President Hamid Ansari, on a two-day visit to Morocco and Tunisia, terming the acts as “despicable”. Planned protests by Africans in Delhi were called off after External Affairs Ministry officials and Sushma Swaraj promised to take action.