The dark side of Delhi

Acts of violence and discrimination against Africans are common in Delhi. African students tell V. Kumara Swamy of their experiences

By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 26.01.14
  • Hall of shame: Delhi's Khirki Extension and (below) the houses of the African nationals who were allegedly assaulted by Somnath Bharti and his men

In the midst of neatly stacked books on computers and religion, a photograph stands out like a sore thumb. It is a picture of a bloodied eye.

Innocent Heanyi, 26, has kept the photograph to remind him of the time when he was waylaid by a mob of 10 drunken goons on the streets of Delhi. They called him names, took out their mobile phones and asked him to pose for them. When he objected, they thrashed him, and somebody punched him in the eye. He somehow managed to escape.

That was in June. Then, last week, the 26-year-old Nigerian was on his way back home from a friend's place when two policemen stopped him and asked him to produce an identity card. Despite carrying a card and a photocopy of his visa in his purse, the computer student hesitated.

"I had a lot of cash with me, and I didn't want them to see it. I feared they could take it away," Heanyi says. He told the police they could accompany him to his room where he had his identity papers. After some persuasion and a telephonic chat with his friend, the police let him go.

"I somehow wriggled out of it," he says in his room on the third floor of a matchbox-like building in a narrow lane of Arjun Nagar, a lower middle-class colony in South Delhi.

Heanyi, however, says that the problems continue. Passers-by poke fun, some throw things at him and vegetable vendors overcharge him. "In other words, life is normal," he shrugs.

In many parts of Delhi where Africans live, acts of violence and discrimination are common. In the middle-class areas, harassment is particularly rife, though life in a more affluent neighbourhood like Vasant Vihar, where many diplomats stay, may be relatively better.

"But it doesn't mean I feel at home. I am called kaalia or habshi (derogatory words for blacks), and I hardly have any Indian friends," says Okito Christophe, 28, who pays Rs 13,500 for a tiny room with a kitchen in Vasant Vihar.

The president of the Association of African Students in India (AASI), who studied engineering in India and is now a computer student, is a busy man these days. Last week, a crowd led by Delhi law minister Somnath Bharti in Khirki Extension allegedly abused and manhandled a group of Africans, including a few Ugandan women. Christophe, who is from the Congo, says he spends most of his time these days trying to calm down frayed tempers.

Africans have often been harassed on the streets of Delhi. One student recalls that an egg was chucked on him in Khirki. Another says they cannot travel by buses because passengers shove them around. "I was once asked to get up from my seat by an Indian passenger," a student says.

But, with the Bharti incident, they fear such acts of violence will be on the rise.

The narrow lanes of Khirki Extension, where hundreds of African students stay, wear a deserted look. The locals have charged them with drug trafficking and prostitution. "We have asked the students to come out of their homes only if they have to, and they should also avoid going out alone," Christophe says.

Kijai (she doesn't reveal her full name), a friend of one of the harassed Ugandan women, wants to move out, but can't. "My parents back home want me to stay in a decent area, but most landlords in Delhi avoid us like the plague. And I feel safe amongst friends here, although it's nothing more than a ghetto," she says.

Not getting accommodation easily is one of the most common complaints of African students.

"Landowners don't even lie as a mark of respect for another human being when they turn us down. I have been told to my face that they don't rent out to habshis," Heanyi says.

Amy Diabate, 25, from Ivory Coast, found it so difficult to get a house in South Delhi that she had to move to Greater Noida, which is a two-hour commute to her B-school. "It could be ignorance, it could be fear or it could be racism," she says about the landlords' behaviour.

In many middle-class areas, their lifestyles are viewed with suspicion. "People here are not used to our lifestyle. If boys and girls interact, they think the girls are prostitutes. The problem is here," Kijai says, pointing to her head.

The situation, many of them believe, is worse in Delhi than elsewhere because of the average resident's mindset. "People in Delhi don't seem to travel much, and they don't know about the world outside," says Mbaya Guy Davis, a student of the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi.

But Davis points out that he and many other students like him are on scholarships offered by the India government. "Your government wants to win the goodwill of Africans, but I am not sure how many students from Delhi will go back with good feelings for your country," he says.

The situation was not this hostile when the earlier generation of Africans studied in Delhi. Christophe says that he was inspired to revive AASI after a meeting in 2010 with former Malawi president Bingu wa Mutharika, an alumnus of Delhi University. "He asked us to revive the institution that he had established in 1966. He told us that India is a great country and we should have strong social and cultural ties with the locals here, but selling that line to African students is not easy," Christophe says.

Kijai agrees. "There may be a few criminals, but that doesn't mean every African is a criminal. Please tell me how many African students with a legal visa have been arrested for criminal activities," she asks.

In fact, crime involving Africans is rare in the city. While the Malviya Nagar police station (under which Khirki falls) refused to divulge the number of foreign citizens accused of crimes in the area, an official of the Mukherjee Nagar Police Station in North Delhi, an area where a sizeable African student population lives, says that they haven't registered a single case against an African citizen in the last one year.

According to government statistics, more than 10,000 African students study in various parts of the country. "We wouldn't be here, but for affordable education. Social life in Delhi is virtually nonexistent for Africans," Edson Mnkande, a Tanzanian student, says. African students are often denied entry to clubs because of their colour.

Discrimination, they say, is lowest in cities such as Pune, Chennai, Hyderabad and Kochi. Delhi and Punjab figure at the bottom of the list of preferred places. "Elsewhere, we hardly face any discrimination and are treated as fellow human beings," Christophe says. "We simply want Delhiites to treat us like fellow human beings. That's it," he adds.