Two Ugandan women based in India were recently thrust into the centre of a storm which has once more reinforced the idea that Indians are racist towards black Africans.
At midnight on January 15th, Delhi minister for Law, Somnath Bharti, accompanied by a group of men, illegally raided a property where a number of women from Uganda and Nigeria live.
The minister claims that he had received complaints that these women were part of a drugs and prostitution racket.
Two of the Ugandan nationals have now filed a police complaint, stating that Bharti and his men had harassed, groped and beaten them, told them they should leave India and made them urinate in public in order to test them for drugs. The minister has denied these allegations but commentators and activists argue that his actions reek of racism and sexism.
While the circus around this controversy continues, an uncomfortable reality shows its face once more: that of the shaky relationship marred by prejudice, between Indians and people from sub- Saharan Africa. Racist attitudes are ultimately an individual choice, so sweeping generalisations against a country or community are unfair.
Historically, India and Africa share an understanding of what it means to be colonised and trade between both parts of the world goes back to centuries.
Furthermore, the Indian community has a strong presence across the African continent. According to Indian government statistics, there are approximately 1,000 Ugandan students in India while numerous nationals of other sub- Saharan African countries also maintain a presence.
Ugandan students Rita and Edmond, are currently studying in two different Indian cities, yet their experiences are similar. Edmond faces a myriad of verbal abuses while Rita has been on the receiving end of more subtle discrimination.
Countless other incidents have made headlines over the years; a Nigerian national alleged to be a drug dealer was found dead in Goa, a murder claimed to be racially motivated.
Plastered around were posters that read, “Say no to Nigerians, Say no to Drugs”, while Goa state minister, Dayanand Mandrekar, referred to Nigerians being like ‘a cancer.’
In 2012, weeks before the horrific rape of a young woman in Delhi which brought India to its knees, a Rwandese woman was raped in the same city but the story filled a few column inches and was soon forgotten. Stories of students from sub-Saharan Africa being beaten, abused and even murdered are no longer one-off incidents; they are frequent enough to illustrate an urgent need for change.
This, despite the fact that India’s own youngsters have been racially attacked in Australia. A number of expatriates from the DRC, Cameroon, Kenya, and Nigeria speak about feeling unwanted in India and describe an ‘unspoken expulsion’ driven by some locals. The word expulsion brings to mind former president Idi Amin’s order to the Asian community to leave Uganda in 1972.
It is ironic to see that some Indians have adopted the same attitude of intolerance and exercise this even in Uganda today.
“Exploitation, harsh attitudes in the workplace, very little interaction socially or through marriage and being outwardly racist to Ugandans in their own country are not rare occurrences,” says activist Carol Athieno.
Youngsters like Keith Barigye argue that there are many Ugandans of Indian origin that represent the country worldwide such as businessmen Sudhir Ruparelia and Ashish Thakkar, and that generalisations should be avoided.
So, what is the root cause of these attitudes?
Shefali Syed, a Ugandan of Indian origin, says: “Indians work on a caste system, if we look down on each other, then why would we have an attitude of equality towards outsiders? Furthermore, Indians were taught by the British that the Africans were beneath them, we were the superior colony.”
While Nilanjana S. Roy writing in the New York Times believes prejudices against Africans in India are “aggravated by our tendency to prize fair skin over dark.”
In an alternative argument, Mumbai-based lawyer Aparna Shahni blames the media and politicians for “stereotyping the African community based on a few experiences and using them as scapegoats which has worsened relations between both communities in India. We are not racist, we are intolerant.”
Whatever the reasons, it is a shame that there are sections of the Indian population which continue to reinforce this legacy of racism. Dear India, yours is a country renowned for its colour, beauty and hospitality, but right now in the eyes of many, this is just a mask under which lies your own perpetual darkness of prejudice and discrimination, one which ironically, you yourself have suffered.
The author is a UK citizen who has
lived and worked in Uganda.