Racism in India The African Portraits

February 4th, 2016

"Hello, I'm calling from the Straits Times in Singapore. This is with regard to the horrific incident that happened in Bangalore yesterday. I saw your comments on facebook. Do you have any more information?"

"I know only what I've read in the news. I'm just a shocked online bystander."

"Is there anything you'd like to say about the incident?"

"Sure. I definitely think that we in Bangalore—and you can quote me on this one..."

"Yes, yes! Go on..."

"We have become such racist bastards."

"No... No, I cannot quote you on that one."


"Shall I say that you are shocked that this is happening?"

"Yeah. I guess so."

Scene of the crime. Soladevanahalli village. Bangalore, KA.
Soladevanahalli village. Bangalore, KA.
Hassan / Zambia / Marketing / Soladevanahalli / Bangalore / Feb 2016 ‪#africans #‎racism‬ ‪#‎india‬

Hassan, who goes by his football nickname of Dega, studies Marketing at Acharya Institute, where 'the incident' happened. "I thought in India, I would live like a boss!" he thought before he left Zambia. Life in India didn't turn out quite as expected. Hassan became my window into the African community in Bangalore and the everyday racism that they face. "People are so ignorant," he says. "They ask us if we wear clothes in Africa. Do you think we started wearing clothes only after coming to India?"


Vitu / Malawi / Psychology / Soladevanahalli / Bangalore / Feb 2016 ‪#africans #‎racism‬ ‪#‎india‬

She told me her name is Vitu. And that she's from Malawi. Vitu studies psychology at a college in Bangalore.

I felt a little uncomfortable that I knew nothing of Malawi. When I tried to roughly point towards it on the world map hanging above my desk, I missed it by half a continent.

So I went on to do a little research. It turns out that India has been welcoming students from Malawi for decades now. In fact, back in 1964, a student from Malawi, Bingu wa Mutharika, came to India on an 'Indira Gandhi' scholarship to study Economics. He founded the Association of African Students in India.

Mutharika went on to become the 3rd president of Malawi.


Simba / Zimbabwe / Soladevanahalli / Bangalore / Feb 2016 ‪#africans #‎racism‬ ‪#‎india‬

For a long time, I imagined that if ever I had the chance to assassinate one person in this world, that person would be Robert Gabriel Mugabe.

Naturally, when I met Simba, a brother from another murder (sorry!) from Zimbabwe, I bet a zillion zimzim dollars (my 2 cents worth) that we'd connect over this fantasy at once. It wasn't quite so.

Simba looks up to the man who has been president for longer than he can remember, whose circle of life has been a wheel of fortune. "He's the most educated president in the world! Look it up on google..." And so I did. Sigh.

What about that infamous inflation? What's that like? In a manner of speaking, Simba's course fees is hiked by 98 per cent. Every day. Well, hakuna matata to that! Coming from a political family in Harare, it means no worries for the rest of our days...


Prosper / Tanzania / MBA / Byrathi, Bangalore / Feb 2016 ‪#africans #‎racism‬ ‪#‎india‬

I am in Byrathi, a Bangalore neighbourhood that's home to a large community of African students. Over 200 Tanzanians live in Bangalore, making them the largest group of African nationals. Prosper is their leader.

Prosper is no stranger to politics. Back home, his father is a governor of a province (equivalent to Chief Minister) and mother is a minister. He could have led the easy life. But it was decided that he’d study in India to escape the limelight.

For a country so obsessed with fairness, how ironical is it that we’re such champions of unfairness? That is the thought that comes to mind when I engage him in a free and frank conversation about racism and listen to his unending woes about college, classmates, landlord, police, and The System. He’s seen it all. Prosper came to Bangalore as a young pre-university student. He will finish his MBA this year. “I thought it was tough in the beginning but it has only gotten worse.”

Just days after the world infamous incident with the Tanzanian girl in Bangalore, there was another incident a stone’s throw away from where this picture was shot. A Tanzanian student allegedly crashed into an electric pole in broad daylight. His skull split open and brains splattered out.

He was riding a Scooty.

Already under pressure to investigate the previous racial crime, the police hushed this case under the carpet of attention that the other one was getting. Prosper organised a prayer meeting and ensured that the body was quickly repatriated to Africa after the police got a signed declaration from friends that it was an accident. Another story never made it to our news feeds.


Kelvin / Tanzania / Business Administration / Bangalore / Feb 2016 ‪#africans #‎racism‬ ‪#‎india‬
There are only two things you need to fear in India. Corruption and Racism.

That's not Kelvin speaking. It is, in fact, the advice of his father who came to Bangalore all those years ago for his B.Sc. His very first experience in India, as soon as he landed, was that the immigrations officer confiscated his passport and demanded a bribe to release it. As Kelvin now follows in his father's footsteps, we see how some things never change.


February must have been a dream month in India's newsrooms. Barely did we have the time to comprehend the re-discovery of gravity ‪#‎ChirpForLIGO‬, when yet another incident of racial attacks on African students in Bangalore blew up on our faces ‪#‎HateinIndia‬ Barely had we finished outraging over the bad press our oh-so-tolerant society was getting when the country got sucked into the completely unnecessary but now historic ‪#‎StandwithJNU‬ episode. Then the Budget session of Parliament opened with full thrust, and so the commentary mills had their hands and ears full. Somewhere in the middle of it all was Valentines Day, but who noticed?

I'm a bit old-fashioned, unable to keep up with the news cycle. Instead of sitting around waiting for the hitlerian takeover that my left-winging friends have been promising for a long time, I've been going back to the edges of Bangalore to meet the African students and have plenty of conversations. There's good news and bad news.

The bad news is brought to us by this report in the Economic Times by Indulekha Aravind - that racism is an everyday experience for Africans in India.

The good news is something that we're going to write together in the days and years to come. By talking more about racism. Acknowledging the problem is the first step to solving it. This is that first step.


PhD students are generally anti-social rather than anti-national. I have a hard time keeping in touch with my PhD friends because they're too busy with their research or thesis or whatever.

The general view is that a University is a place for academics. An alternative view, and one that is being glorified today, is that the University is an incubation lab for politics. I'm told that it is a tried and tested career move in Delhi and Kolkata to enrol oneself in 'easy' courses just to bide time while developing one's political practice.

"My family lives on 3000 rupees. Would I be able to pursue a PhD in any big university?" asked Kanhaiya Kumar in his just-out-of-jail speech. On JNU's books, he's a PhD student in the department of African Studies. My own aspiration for a future Dr. Kumar is not very different from his chosen path, although more focussed - it involves human rights and dignity of life. I hope that one day he'll go on to educate his fellow Indians about Africans and fight the xenophobia that is so entrenched in our society.

Charity & Friends / South Africa / Applied Medicine / Manipal, KA / Feb 2016 ‪#africans #‎racism‬ ‪#‎india‬

Last week, I spent a few days at Manipal University. I had long conversations with some of the great minds in the Life Sciences department about racism and allied topics. Then I spoke to some African students who are living out the daily practicals. I spoke to Charity and her friends, who are a group of 30 scholarship students from South Africa. They understand racism where they come from because it is well-documented. But what they face in oh-so-tolerant India came as a shock to them.

When I first spoke to Charity, she told me, "I'm not in an area where we face real racism. If racism is there, I haven't come across it yet." But when I met her, it took only minutes to get a different story. For example, African students are not welcome to sit at the common areas of the hostel lobby. The security guards chase them away in no time. But exchange students from the Netherlands are often seen hanging out there and nobody tells them anything.

Sounds like classic Rosa Parks-era racism to me.


March 8th, 2016 #HappyWomensDay

Natoya / Jamaica / Applied Medicine / Manipal, KA / Feb 2016 ‪#africans #‎racism‬ ‪#‎india‬

Everybody remembers where we were and what we were doing when the news broke out on that fateful day in December 2012. So does Natoya. In the port town of Ocho Rios in faraway Jamaica, she had just been informed that her application to AIIMS in Delhi was successful. Just as she was getting ready to leave for the bank to wire the money, there was a breaking news alert on TV. Nirbhaya.

Natoya decided against going to Delhi. It took her two years to get over her shock and find a place suitably distant from Delhi to pursue her medical studies. That’s how she came to Manipal.

Little did she imagine that being a black woman in India would become a matter of daily combats. People would literally stop and stare at her, sometimes spit. All she understood was “African!” If she tried to stop and give them a geography lesson, they'd run away or verbally abuse her. And then those awkward solicitations from men who don’t know how to take No for an answer.

Natoya's fellow students, several years her junior, haven't seen the world as much as she has. They are fair-weather friends who enjoy the exotic value of her company but hesitate to be seen in public with her.

Close to two years in Manipal, Natoya’s found her peace and her space. Her mantra is to keep her head up, stay focussed on studies, and forgive people for their ignorance. I photographed her in new two-bedroom apartment where she lives by herself with only her Bible for company.


Finding Peace in the Pink City

Ameenou / Nigeria / Economics / Jaipur / March 2016 ‪#africans #‎racism‬ ‪#‎india‬
Hamza & Shukura / Nigeria / Social Work, Nursing / Achrol village / Jaipur / 2016 ‪#africans #‎racism‬ ‪#‎india‬

Hamza came all the way from Nigeria to study human rights in India. This I found surprising. I didn't know one could study that subject here except perhaps to study its spectacular absence.

During my conversation with Hamza, I could only do him a favour by counselling him to look the other way for small matters. Especially since his definition of human rights is so broad as to indict the bus driver of smoking a beedi right under a No Smoking sign.

It was a beedi that ignited flames in Achrol, the remote village near NIMS University where some students live. A quarrel between one of Hamza's friends and a shopkeeper over unfair pricing of a beedi turned really ugly. An uninvited onlooker decided to settle the dispute by spitting paan on his face.

The way this story ends, long after knives were drawn and blood almost spilt, owes much to the dean of the university. He called a meeting of village locals, the Africans, and the police (who were, as usual, a willing part of the problem) and calmed tempers down. The dean went so far as to immediately offer accommodation in the university hostel to any student who felt threatened.

Hamza is by far the most sensitive guy I've ever met on this pursuit of Africans in India. When I asked to photograph him in his wallpapered dwelling, he requested that he be joined by his love, Shukura, a student of nursing. In this conservative community of Africans, a love life may be hard to come by. He says of this relationship...

Thank you for being patient with me. Together we can prove those bitches wrong.
Hafeex / Nigeria / Geosystems / Amer / Rajasthan / March 2016 #africans #‎racism‬ ‪#‎india‬
Ameenou / Nigeria / Economics / Amer / Rajasthan / March 2016 #africans #‎racism‬ ‪#‎india‬

Amer is a town just outside Jaipur. It flanks the world-famous Amer palace (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). It is also home to the elephants that serve the tourists who visit the palace. In fact, those elephants are parked in the apartment building where several African students live. The building owner's goats are stationed on the terrace, which has spectacular views of the palace.

Amer is a predominantly Muslim town. The African students of NIMS University are mostly Nigerian Muslims. The elders of the town invited the Africans to move to Amer instead of staying out in the boondocks of Achrol village. Never mind the over-an-hour commute to college. Amer is well-connected to Jaipur by public transport and affords a much better lifestyle.

But more importantly, it has two mosques to cater to everyone's needs. Sometimes, the Africans are asked to lead the prayers. In this town, Indians and Africans pray together and stay together. All is well and balanced.

Abdul-Kareem / Nigeria / Information Technology / Amer / Rajasthan / March 2016 #africans #‎racism‬ ‪#‎india‬

Abdul-Kareem used to be a slapper. There was a time when he'd get seriously offended by minor transgressions. Like that one time when a woman in a bus pulled his hair out of curiosity. He slapped her. I was trying to find the words to let him know how lucky he was to get out of that situation with his memory intact.

Some people are not that lucky. Today's news of a Nigerian national protesting his being drawn into a holi war ended badly for him. Somehow, it makes sense and can be explained. In India, the logical outcome is often the irrational one.

Many Nigerians are here on scholarship. Many more, like Abdul-Kareem are on study leave from their government jobs and get paid a full monthly salary during their time in India. They are sincere, hardworking. And can't wait to go back once they're done with their course. Far from the world of drugs and debauchery, here is a faith-based community that prides itself on being clean. I'd be hard-pressed to find anybody to share my personal stash of single malt that I always carry with me on my travels.

Abdul-Kareem's regret, and one that I've heard echoed amongst other Africans, is that it's virtually impossible to make friends with their Indian colleagues. Indians treat them as social outcasts, almost embarrassed to be seen with them. His companions are his fellow Africans and the people at the local mosque in Amer where he prays in the evenings.

Abdul-Kareem is far more at peace with himself now. On the day that I met him, he had rejoined college after a long break. He had been to Mumbai to do a 45-day course on "comparative religion" with the irrepressible Dr. Zakir Naik. He made a lot of friends there. Birds of a feather, they say, flock together.

to be continued...


One of them is me. We're on a bodaboda on the streets of Kampala.

Mahesh Shantaram is a documentary photographer based in Bangalore, India. This project is an ongoing story that attempts to capture the complex subject of everyday racism in India seen through the experiences of African students. The story isn't going to end anytime soon, unfortunately, so stay tuned. Please send comments and suggestions to ms@thecontrarian.in

Created By
Mahesh Shantaram

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