A wave of brutal violence against visiting college students is forcing the country to examine its racism problem.
Thick white curtains with a colorful zigzag pattern only partially block the scorching sun from the living room of Sandra Adaora Okoyeegbe’s rented apartment on the outskirts of New Delhi. An episode of BKChat LDN streaming on YouTube flashes on a modest flat-screen TV mounted on a wall. The 21-year-old African student calls the recently launched British web series a “chat show,” each episode featuring a group of mostly black, young participants who exchange their views on issues including the racism they contend with in the U.K. Okoyeegbe has faced it in India, too.
ABOVE: Photojournalist Mahesh Shantaram began his project on Africans and racism in 2016 following an attack on a Tanzanian woman in the Indian city of Bangalore. The incident moved many people, both Indians and foreigners, to respond. One of them was Amina Abubakar (right), from Ghana, a mass communications student in Hyderabad. In February 2016, she posted a video on Facebook in which she called out Indians for their racism. “Africans are not beggars, we are human beings,” she said under the social media alias “Wumbey Mina.” The video went viral. Hokar Ahmed, from Kurdistan, is her fellow mass communications student. He and Abubakar have become so close that they’re nearly inseparable.
A Nigerian from the southern state of Anambra, she left her home to pursue an undergraduate degree in pharmacy at one of the private universities that have mushroomed in recent years in Greater Noida, a suburb about 25 miles south of New Delhi’s center. “Indians have racism in them, even the educated ones,” she says, with a trace of sarcasm. “They think because of the color of our skin, we are lesser than them. We face racism here every day.”
In March, not far from her neighborhood, a roving mob beat up a number of African students in multiple attacks. Some of the violence was captured on a widely circulated video of Indian men storming into a local shopping mall, kicking and punching a black man, and thrashing him with metal trashcans and stools. The severely injured victim, a young Nigerian, survived, but Okoyeegbe and many other Africans in the area feared enough for their safety to remain indoors for several days, in some cases weeks. Even now, Okoyeegbe says, “I cry seeing that video.”
The rampage followed the death of an Indian teenager. A few days earlier, when the young man was reported missing, rumors buzzed that Nigerian men had kidnapped him, and lurid tales of cannibalism ensued — until he came back home in a dazed state. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he died. Soon unsubstantiated reports surfaced that he’d overdosed on drugs provided by some Nigerian men living in the area. After the teenager’s parents filed a complaint, the police detained the alleged culprits, but there wasn’t sufficient evidence to hold them, and the men were released. The African link to the episode refused to die, and anger toward the community boiled over.
That tension is connected, in part, to a widespread belief about Nigerians in Indian society — that they all sell drugs or are a social menace. Respected Indian publications have indeed reported on Nigerians’ disproportionate involvement in drug trafficking in some Indian cities, and many Africans, irrespective of their nationalities, have been subjected to a presumption of criminality. And there is minimal social exchange between the Indian and African communities to help dispel these stereotypes.
The past few years have seen several clashes between the locals and an expatriate African population of about 40,000 by some estimates, many of them students. In 2013, a minister in the state government of Goa was criticized for referring to Nigerians as a “cancer.” The following year, a mob assaulted a group of young men from Gabon and Burkina Faso in New Delhi — an attack posted on YouTube. In January 2016, Indians and Africans alike were appalled again when a Tanzanian student was pulled out of a car, beaten, and partially stripped in the southern Indian city of Bangalore. She was allegedly targeted by an irate mob after an intoxicated Sudanese student ran his car over a couple, killing the woman and injuring the man. The Tanzanian student didn’t even know the Sudanese driver. She and her friends had only driven through the accident site and inquired about the earlier incident. The police confirmed that she was presumed to have been involved with the crime, simply because she was African. (Five men were arrested for their assault on her.) The recent violence in Greater Noida has only driven a deeper wedge between Africans and their host country.
Whether there has been an actual escalation in attacks on Africans or simply more news coverage of such events is debatable. But the conflict suggests that street-level Indo-African relations are dangerously unmoored from diplomatic policy and the historic camaraderie that has long existed between India and Africa.
Many Indians may be unaware that Africans have long lived among them — their descendants, known as the Siddis, inhabit India’s west coast and parts of its south. Their ancestors are believed to have been cavalrymen and slaves who came with Muslim invaders in the medieval era. Some of them ascended to powerful military positions and even became provincial rulers in western India. The Siddis have retained elements of their musical and artistic heritage even as they have assimilated into Indian society. A smaller wave of Africans also came to India as slaves with the European colonizers, and some 60,000 people of African origin live in India today, scholars estimate.
ABOVE: Mika’ilu Yahaya “Hudu” (left), an undergraduate business major, and Abubakar Garba, working toward a degree as a medical technician, are both Nigerians studying at NIMS University, in Jaipur. Like many other African students, they live in Achrol, a village an hour and a half from the city center by public transit. Hudu and Garba were involved in two separate violent incidents in March 2017 and have been lying low ever since. They heard of each other’s experiences through the grapevine and met for the first time only when this portrait was taken. Hudu was mugged and beaten with a cricket bat, and Garba was harassed by a gang of boys in a market. In both cases, the police acted swiftly in rounding up the suspects.
In modern times, a natural affinity has existed among the once colonized lands of the global south. India took to international forums to champion Africa’s liberation from imperialism and sought an end to apartheid in South Africa. Mohandas K. Gandhi once said, “India’s freedom will remain incomplete so long as Africa remains in bondage.” That moral solidarity underpinned India’s decision to extend diplomatic, financial, and material assistance to African nations from the time it formed its first independent government under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru.
It was in South Africa that a young Gandhi developed satyagraha, the philosophy of nonviolent resistance that served as an important tool in India’s fight against the British. That ideology deeply influenced the anti-colonial struggles of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, and Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda, among others. The intercontinental ties, strengthened during the Cold War, brought scholars from Africa: Prime Minister Narendra Modi has noted that many African heads of state, past and present, have received some form of education or training in India.
In 1971, the foundation of the prestigious Symbiosis International University was laid in the western city of Pune with the aim to accommodate international students — which it did with not a fraction of the violence that has become all too common. Today, the school enrolls 3,000 foreign students, primarily from Africa. “The tears of a foreign student was the turning point in my life,” says S.B. Mujumdar, the university’s octogenarian founder. The plight of a homesick Mauritian with jaundice led to Mujumdar’s zealous efforts to promote dialogue between the local and foreign students. Even today, reports of assaults on Africans living there are rare, perhaps due to early, deliberate efforts to sensitize Indians.
Indian government agencies provide little useful data on the African student population currently in the country as a whole. But the Association of African Students in India estimates that some 25,000 Africans are currently studying in India, a substantial portion of them in Greater Noida. The area is one of the newest developments on the outskirts of the Indian capital, representing a slice of the new, aspirational India on the cusp of urbanization. Most of the original inhabitants are rural Indians; even those newly enriched by the real estate boom have had limited exposure to foreign cultures. They jostle against a young, upwardly mobile population, including African students of engineering, nursing, and finance, among other specializations.
Private universities have proliferated in India over the past decade. While catering to local demand, their promoters hard sell their instruction and facilities to international markets. “The world is here @ Sharda University,” promises a television ad for a privately funded school in Greater Noida. Many of these campuses are located in areas where rural insularity lingers. As foreigners, African students have become a source of revenue, often paying more in tuition than their Indian counterparts. Others are drawn by scholarships to Indian government-funded educational institutions — part of a diplomatic platform to promote regional trade and cooperation. Yet this show of amity has failed to bridge the cultural chasm.
“When there is a diplomatic connection between India and Africa, why is there no connection between the people?” Tochukwu Alagba asks. On his campus in Greater Noida, the lanky, mild-mannered young man with closely cropped hair, a pencil-thin moustache, and a goatee narrates his experiences in India with a measure of amusement and disbelief. The 25-year-old Nigerian student came to India from the state of Ebonyi in 2013. Since arriving, he has been mocked, stared at, and called racial slurs like kalu, a Hindi word that translates to “blacky,” and habshi, a derogatory term for people of African origin, which has its roots in Arabic.
ABOVE: Nigerian Abdul-Kareem Saboabdullahi will graduate this year from NIMS in Jaipur, with a degree in computer information technology. He has taken leave from his government job in Nigeria’s Adamawa state to study in India, but he’s still paid a full monthly salary. His main regret, one echoed by other Africans, is that he has found it virtually impossible to make friends with his Indian colleagues. Indians treat Africans as social outcasts, almost embarrassed to be seen with them, he says. Saboabdullahi’s companions are his fellow Africans and the people at the local mosque where he prays in the evenings.
Alagba attributes all of this to a deep cultural misunderstanding — the assumption that all African men are drug peddlers and all the women prostitutes. “In Africa, women wear skirts. In India, women wear pants. Is wearing a skirt wrong?” he asks. “Does wearing a skirt make my sister a prostitute?” Then there are the dietary taboos. “Many Hindus don’t eat meat. In Africa, eating meat is considered normal. But here if you eat meat, they portray that Africans eat human flesh,” Alagba says. “We are not cannibals,” he adds, alluding to a racist myth that, incredibly, persists among some Indians.
He has run through eight houses in the last four years. “I pay my bills and rent on time. I keep my house clean.” When he asked the owner of an apartment why he suddenly had to vacate, Alagba says the landlord told him that “tenants complained that their culture forbade them from living with blacks.”
African students and residents in India “have always been victims of gawking and staring,” says Siddharth Varadarajan, a founding editor of the Wire news website in New Delhi. “Landlords have always overcharged them. What is new, and especially disturbing, is, first, the level of police harassment, of which there is anecdotal evidence, on the pretext of combating drug peddling and prostitution and, second, the increasing tendency for some Indians to resort to violence.” Failures of civil society account for part of the problem, he believes. “Our public spaces have become more brittle, though I am not sure there is data to suggest India is more prone to mob violence,” he says.
A veteran newspaper editor and author, Varadarajan notes that the Indian government does not statistically track race-based crimes, even as they are increasingly being covered by the domestic and international press. He believes that the presence of African students stirs “the usual resentment that we see in host societies around the world to migrants and foreigners.”
Even on college grounds, that resentment is sometimes expressed in the basest terms.
Okoyeegbe, the Nigerian pharmacy student, was confronted by an Indian student in a common restroom on campus. “Monkey! Monkey!” shouted the Indian freshman, expressing horror at the very sight of an African. Not too long after that, the two bumped into each other in an elevator. The same words greeted Okoyeegbe, who reported the incident to the university’s disciplinary committee. In a written apology, the Indian student stated that she was sorry for her behavior. Okoyeegbe says they’ve both put the incident behind them and are friends now. But still she often feels belittled off campus. One evening, she was mistaken for a prostitute while standing outside her residential complex. “I am not a sex slave. I am here for an education,” she says, with visible exasperation.
Other African students who arrived in India full of hope are subjected to curious stares bordering on suspicion. Joseline Umurerwa, 22, arrived from the Rwandan capital of Kigali in 2016 to study physiotherapy in Greater Noida. Outside her campus library, where she has been preparing for an upcoming exam, she carefully monitors the time on her black sports watch. Of the outright violence in the news, she believes that “the people behind it are illiterates who don’t know that there are people of different colors in the world.” She adds that “there are good and bad people in every country.”
T.K. Oommen, a prominent Indian sociologist, says light skin has always been associated with superiority and beauty in India. The caste system that has traditionally dictated social hierarchies in the Hindu-majority country has tried to establish that upper-caste people are lighter-skinned than the lower castes. Notably, varna, the archaic Sanskrit term for the Indian caste system, is synonymous with “shade” or “color.” It is no coincidence that India’s “fairness cream” industry is estimated to be worth some $467 million and that Fair & Lovely is perhaps its oldest and most popular product. If racism is deep-rooted among Indians, there is denial and defensiveness surrounding it — which isn’t surprising given India’s triumphant political narrative of darker-skinned people liberating themselves from fairer-skinned oppressors and founding the world’s most populous democracy. Still, in northern parts of the country, “wheatish” skin color is considered more desirable than the darker tones predominant in the southern regions. Facial features are similarly rated: Populations from India’s northeastern states, despite being light-skinned, are commonly referred to with slurs such as “chinky” because of their distinct features, akin to those of people from farther east. Africans, it seems, are not the spurs for Indian racism, but they certainly cannot avoid it. They have stepped into a long and complicated history of prejudices that run deep and don’t distinguish among nationalities or individuals. “What we are showing to Africans in India is very much an extension of what we show to our own people in India,” Oommen says.
“Mobs of angry young men mercilessly kicking and beating African guests has set exactly the wrong message about Indian solidarity with Africa — in fact, it totally undermines it.”
Hartman de Souza, 67, is a writer and third-generation Kenyan of Indian origin. In the 1960s, he returned with his family to his ancestral home in the western state of Goa. As far back as the 1980s, when racist incidents were less well covered in the Indian press, he was reporting on discrimination against Africans in India. He recalls a young man from Sierra Leone telling him that he had the option to study in Europe but chose India because it was the land of Mahatma Gandhi. However, the student’s experiences with the local population led him to remark on their cruelty: Some Indians asked him to scrub the dark color off his hands. Yet despite such insults, de Souza says, violence toward Africans of the kind seen today was virtually unheard of.
In recent years, intolerance and lawlessness have been on the upswing in India, with spasms of brutality erupting over dietary politics and other cultural flash points. The rise of the right wing globally — not just in India — has eroded restraint and civility and made minority populations vulnerable. In many countries, the idea of the nation-state is being reassessed, part of a growing backlash against globalization. In India, the fault lines of caste and religion are becoming more pronounced under a Hindu nationalist government that fosters a culture of intolerance.
ABOVE: Takudzwa Averlon Kapfunde (left), who goes by Averlon, and Kudzai Petra Phiri, who goes by Petra, were classmates back in Zimbabwe. Both from Harare, they influenced each other to study dentistry in Jaipur, where they have a busy academic schedule six days a week. Both women are Christian, and on Sundays they catch a bus to the city center from their campus and spend the day in church. Sometimes they are invited to a Christian Indian’s home for lunch. When Averlon needed an operation, an Indian church family helped her through recovery at no cost. The church community is the only semblance of family life for them so far from home. But, living on campus, the women have experienced little of the kind of racism faced by those who live off grounds.
“A country like India where ignorance and prejudice are rampant will always be prone to violence,” says Varadarajan, the Wire editor. The changing political economy offers, at best, “a partial explanation for mob violence,” such as that against Africans. “A failure of political leadership — evidenced by the refusal of the government to even acknowledge that there is a problem — and the absence of effective rule of law, by which I mean professional policing and an efficient judicial system, lie at the root of these ugly incidents,” he says.
Paradoxically, the penetration of social media both compounds this problem and helps raise awareness of it, contributing to the spread of information — and misinformation. In May, seven men — both Hindu and Muslim — were killed in vigilante mob attacks in eastern India over rumors on social media that they were child abductors. The month before that, a Muslim man was lynched in the Indian state of Rajasthan by Hindu vigilantes who believed he was transporting cows for slaughter. (Hindus consider the cow a holy animal.) But African victims of racial prejudice are, at last, more visible to India and the world because of the media. Aside from human rights, India’s bonds with African nations are at stake. As Alyssa Ayres, a South Asia specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, puts it, “Mobs of angry young men mercilessly kicking and beating African guests has sent exactly the wrong message about Indian solidarity with Africa — in fact, it totally undermines it.”
In 2016, a Congolese man was bludgeoned to death in New Delhi’s south after getting into a brawl with a group of Indian men, purportedly in a dispute over an auto rickshaw. This incident occurred days before the annual Africa Day celebrations that the capital hosts every May to mark the formation of the African Union, a confederation created in 2001 to represent the interests of African nations.
The killing prompted a rare rebuke from African diplomats in India: The heads of 42 African missions indicated that they would recommend to their governments back home not to send any new students to India’s universities until such time as their safety in the country could be guaranteed. India’s external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, attempted to allay their fears by assuring them that the police were working swiftly to apprehend the murderers of the Congolese national. (Police later arrested three suspects.) She emphasized that it was a criminal act that should not be misconstrued as a racist one. But the violence in Greater Noida has yet again upset African emissaries. In a written statement issued on March 31, the heads of African diplomatic missions in India collectively threatened to call on the United Nations and other international rights bodies to seek a probe into violence against their people that they believe is “[x]enophobic and racial in nature.” India’s External Affairs Ministry responded, “The Government is committed to ensuring safety and security of all foreign nationals in India, including African nationals, who remain our valued partners.” Indian institutions, it insisted, “are adequate to deal with aberrations that represent act of a few criminals.”
Yet Indian university students have felt compelled to stage protests in solidarity with the African visitors among them. College administrators have also intervened: Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Technical University in Lucknow issued a release regarding its partner colleges in Greater Noida. “We have asked the managements of all our affiliated institutes to ensure that these students are safe on campus and outside,” said the vice chancellor. And on popular TV debate shows, such as NDTV’s The Big Fight, Indians are emerging from a long phase of denial. Segments of that program have asked: “Are Indians racist?” and “Are we becoming an intolerant nation?” Based on the experiences of Africans in Greater Noida, the answer is yes.
Today, Okoyeegbe regrets her journey eastward. “My dream was to study medicine. In Africa, India is known for medicine,” she says. “Many Africans travel abroad for medical treatment. I thought, ‘Why not go to India, get the knowledge and a correlation with Indian doctors so that Nigerians don’t have to travel to get basic health care?’”
Now, the only thing keeping her in Greater Noida is her coursework, which she is on schedule to complete by next year, and her tenure abroad is tinged with bitterness. “I can never let anyone I love take a flight to India and live here,” she laments. “I wouldn’t even advise my enemy to live here.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of FP magazine.