Blackness in brown spaces
14 April 2015
Despite historical linkages, Africans in Southasia endure prejudice and institutional discrimination.
After visiting a friend’s birthday party in southwest New Delhi in late September 2014, international students Yohan Koumba Daouda and Mapaga Yannis from Gabon and Guira Fallal from Burkina Faso boarded a Yellow Line train at the Chhatarpur station. They were on their way home to the southeast suburb of Noida. Thirteen subway stops later, they were being hounded by a mob of more than a hundred young Indians in a major metro station near the centre of the city. What had happened?
According to the young black men, who are engineering students at Amity Institute of Information Technology and Sharda University in New Delhi, some of the Indian passengers started taking photos of them and mocking them on board the subway train. The students felt as if they embodied a ‘human zoo’ for the Indians around them. One of the African students asked the group to stop taking pictures of them. A verbal scuffle unfolded which continued until the students disembarked to change trains at the Rajiv Chowk station. Amidst allegations that the international students had sexually harassed an Indian woman, the Indian crowd’s anger escalated.
A lone security officer intervened and escorted the students to an empty police booth inside Rajiv Chowk station, where they sought shelter. But the size of the mostly Indian male lynch mob grew by the minute and the students found themselves surrounded. Minutes later, they were forced to climb on top of the police booth for their own safety. The mob started to smash the glass façade of the police booth before thrashing the defenceless students for several minutes with sticks and iron rods. Local police didn’t intervene until backup arrived. Two of the African students sustained serious injuries, and one had to be hospitalised and operated on.
The young men’s ordeal was captured by dozens of mobile-phone cameras and made the headlines the next day. The images reveal that a sizable number of people who were present chose to either film the sensational incident or idly stand by. There were only few who tried to protect the black students from the lynch mob. Chants of ‘bharat mata ki jai’ (victory to Mother India) accompanied the raging crowd and provided a sinister soundtrack for the video recordings that have received hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. It is clear that the mob wasn’t just attempting to lynch three African students in one of Delhi’s main metro stations. They were marking their opposition to racial diversity. However, the question that dominated Indian media after the incident was whether the country has a race problem rather than how to problematise India’s current racial status quo and the ideology that supports it. ‘Is India racist?’ was a question raised by many, but conclusive answers weren’t offered.
Similarly, many Indian news outlets spent more time deliberating on how this violence was unleashed rather than on assessing its impact and what it reveals about Indian society. From the Indian standpoint, the ‘causes’ of the mob’s rage range from allegations of anti-Indian remarks to the harassment of an Indian woman by the black students. The Times of India (TOI) even declared that the students were intoxicated as they returned from the birthday party. In other words, the TOI implicitly sought to shift the blame onto the African students and away from the mob of Indians. Similar comments and accusations were evident on the social media as well. These allegations were given more credibility, air time and print space than the perspectives of the three students. For them and many African students, immigrants and refugees in India, this is clearly an issue of racism.
Although modern-day India is largely known as a country of emigration that has given birth to old and new diasporas, the region has historically been a migratory destination as well. This phenomenon has continued in the post-Independence period, as India remains an attractive destination for migrants, refugees and international students alike, particularly from the global South. Today, it is home to more than 10,000 students from a number of African countries, who account for up to 13 percent of India’s foreign student population. In 2012, the largest such contingent in India was reported to be from Sudan, totalling 4759 students, followed by Nigeria with 2339 students, and Kenya with 1038 students. These numbers have steadily risen in subsequent years. The Kenyan High Commissioner, for example, estimated that just one year later the number of Kenyan students had more than tripled to 3500 students.
Historic ties between former British colonies – later Commonwealth states and members of the Non-Alignment Movement – have played an important role in shaping global South-South relationships between African and Asian states. The foundation for these relations can be traced to the Bandung Conference of 1955, which later enhanced people’s mobility and institutional ties between many of the newly decolonised states. With the rise of China and other ‘third-world’ states, India’s position as a sought-after student destination for African students was challenged. As a result, India witnessed a stark decline in the numbers of African students enrolling in its higher-education institutions.
In 2007, the Indian government aimed to reverse this trend – considered a loss in terms of lucrative revenue and soft-power – by investing millions into collaboration programmes with higher-education institutions in Africa. Indian colleges and universities launched aggressive recruitment programmes across the continent, particularly in eastern Africa, that projected India as a place with great academic opportunities. Following the India-Africa Forum Summit of 2008, the Indian government started to hand out thousands of scholarships to African students through the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and other government-funded programmes. These measures, in addition to simple visa requirements, lower tuition fees compared to Western institutions, and a reputed and established English-language higher-education system, helped India re-emerge on the map for international students. Subsequently, growing number of African students from Nigeria, Uganda, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Somalia came to study in Indian universities.
Students, however, make up a relatively small segment of the African communities living in the region. Today, the population of people of African descent in India, and Southasia as a whole, numbers in the hundreds of thousands. The roots of Africa’s pluralistic diasporas in Southasia can be traced to 13th century CE, much earlier than the recent labour and educational migration might suggest. And that merely represents the part that is recorded. Historic migration from Africa to Southasia was to a large degree violently enforced by the east African slave trade, whose subjects – predominantly east-African Muslims – arrived as slave soldiers, palace guards, bodyguards, domestic servants, bureaucrats, clerks, labourers, musicians or concubines. But African migration was multifaceted. Over the decades, east African traders and sailors also maintained close trade relations across the Indian Ocean and freely settled on the Subcontinent as well.
In more recent history, European colonisers sometimes brought black slaves from their African and South American colonies to the Asian ones to work under similarly oppressive conditions. In the case of Sri Lanka, African slave soldiers were used by the Portuguese to defeat its native rulers and conquer the island. Similar tactics were previously also employed by Mughal emperors, who used entire regiments of black soldiers in their armies. Though black lives resided, for the most part, at the margins of the region’s vast social landscape, some former slaves were able to climb the social ladder and become part of Southasia’s ruling elite, unlike in most other African diaspora in history. One prominent example is Ethiopian-born Malik Ambar, who raised an army in the Deccan region that fought successful battles against the armies of Mughal emperors. The descendants of these immigrants and slaves, Afro-Southasians, are today known as Makranis in Pakistan’s Sindh Province, Siddis and Jamburs in the Indian state of Gujarat, or the Kaffirs in central Sri Lanka. Pakistan is home to the largest Afro-Southasian population, with as many as 250,000 located primarily on the country’s Makran coast. Thus, black presence in Southasia is a part of the region’s history. Afro-Southasians aren’t strangers or foreigners; they are Southasian as much as any other racial or ethnic group in this diverse region.
Between the margins and mainstream
Despite the historic presence of Afro-Southasian elites, and the great number of interracial marriages, cultural transfers, adaptations and assimilations that took place over centuries, the majority of Afro-Southasians today live on the social margins. They experience racial discrimination by state institutions and in the wider society. In India, the Afro-Indian population, known as Siddis, is classified as a Scheduled Tribe, and therefore benefit from wide-ranging affirmative action programmes that aim to reverse structural forms of discrimination against Dalits, Adivasis and other oppressed groups. But their presence, histories and cultures continue to be overlooked and neglected. They are viewed as ‘foreign’, and are displaced from our narratives, writings and consciousness. And when they are mentioned, it is almost always problematic: they are exoticised and fetishised by an upper middle-class and upper-caste audience keen to ‘explore’ the surface of ‘racial difference’ on the Subcontinent. But, black presence in Southasia cannot be reduced to stories of historic or contemporary immigration and slavery alone.
Indigenous blackness exists and predates more recent migration movements. It is embodied, for instance, by the Andamanese people of the India-administered Andaman Islands. Their histories and settlements are ancient and outdate the majority of other Southasian groups. However, they remain largely invisible from mainland discussions about black Southasians and the racial and ethnic diversity of the region. We may from time to time hear stories about the destruction of indigenous lands or state-facilitated and racially-charged ‘human safaris’ on ‘remote’ islands. But even then, their presence is distant from and external to the Subcontinent’s mainland population.
But discussions about blackness in Southasia go beyond ethnic blackness. The so-called ‘politics of blackness’ – a politics based on common interests and international solidarity with ethnically black communities – exists in Southasia as well, and has taken root over centuries in areas most people would never seek to discover or locate it. Some of the region’s Dalits, for example, have come to connect with the experience of black struggles in the US and elsewhere. These relatively new trajectories of identification and solidarity are built upon shared experiences of historic oppression, enslavement and resistance. They have given birth to political and intellectual groups like the Dalit Panthers, formed in 1972, who organised in ways similar to activists of the Black Power movement in the US. Their legacy deeply influenced today’s Dalit-intellectual consciousness and navigated many towards a form of ‘black consciousness’. Similarly, Dravidian-language speakers are also sometimes brought up in discussions by some black internationalists academics and activists as possibly closely related to Africans. This, however, has less to do with constructing a ‘black-Dravidian’ consciousness than it does with presenting a counter narrative to dominant ideas centred on Indo-Aryan heritage. Over the decades, ‘blackness’ has grown to become a platform for some to locate their lived experiences and build political identities and solidarity movements that surpass the limits of Southasia’s geography, ethnic and racial paradigms as well as its so-called ‘Indo-Aryan’ narratives.
As most Afro-Southasian communities today live – with the exception of Pakistan – in impoverished conditions in rural and isolated areas, their presence remains largely peripheral to the mainstream Southasian understandings of self and other. In Pakistan, however, many Makranis live in country’s largest city, Karachi, where their profile is relatively more elevated than elsewhere in the Subcontinent. Some Makranis have made a name for themselves as excellent athletes and even represented Pakistan during international sporting events. However, while their narratives may be marginally more public, racial discrimination continues to be a reality for many Makranis.
Into the heartland
The wave of postcolonial migration from African states to India brought relatively small, yet noticeable, demographic changes to what appeared on the surface to be a largely homogenous brown space of the urban heartland. The increasing numbers of black peoples, specifically students, was no longer marginal in terms of geography, and had become central to the imagination of the nation. A large majority of them settled in India’s northern and western regions, where questions of race are marked and negotiated differently than in India’s south or northeast. These settlement patterns are directly linked to Indian higher-education recruitment efforts on the continent. The northern and western regions are, in many ways, the centre of political, economic and cultural power and hegemony in India. These regions most strongly influence what constitutes ‘Indianness’, ‘brownness’ and ‘desiness’, and who exist outside these categories. African students and migrants who live in the south and other parts of the country also face racism, but the dynamics and degree differ. So when assessing racism in the region, it is important to avoid homogenising people’s experiences, as well as their historic relationships to difference, particularly blackness.
Urban India has had to deal with a form of ‘racial difference’ that it continues to consider ‘foreign’ and ‘other’ despite longstanding ties to the African continent. The current dynamics between majority brown and minority black communities go beyond mere perceived difference; they are related to widespread ideas of racial supremacy and inferiority. Anti-blackness has a complex legacy in Southasia and is deeply entrenched with notions of caste, language and geography. This comes as no surprise. In India, racial ideology builds upon centuries-old myths that have little correlation to the genetic and cultural plurality as well as the historic relations among its people. The myth of the Aryan and Dravidian divide, promulgated during colonialism, feeds into these distorted ideas and functions as a de facto racial truth – an imagined legacy which bears no resemblance with reality or scientific evidence. In the present context, it is this legacy that many people take pride in and draw upon to construct ideas around sameness and difference.
Today’s African communities in India differ from earlier Afro-Southasians in the sense that they are no longer part of a structurally disadvantaged and geographically isolated native population, but rather a relatively mobile middle class that can access socioeconomic territory shared by the growing Indian urban middle class. Their increasing upward mobility puts them in a competitive position vis-à-vis the Indian middle class and its future aspirations. Thus, their presence is viewed as economically threatening in addition to being a ‘disturbance’ to dominant racial ideas.
If we consider the case of the three African students, it also points to the intersection of race and sexuality, specifically in terms of stereotypes surrounding black masculinity. These racial tropes have historically been used primarily by white people – but also brown people – to vilify, oppress and marginalise black communities, and particularly to target black men as sexual predators. The allegations made by some in the mob at the Delhi Metro platform correspond with sociocultural ideas of womanhood and the role of the ‘Indian woman’ in relation to others, particularly foreigners and especially black men. Their bodies are metaphors and symbols of nationhood, purity and integrity. The aim of policing Indian women’s behaviour and relationships is to prevent ‘contamination’ caused by intermingling with outsiders along both racial or caste lines. The Indian nation is built upon both caste and racial segregation, and thus fears the breaking down of these barriers that have so far regulated the pillars of its pluralistic societies.
It is also important to consider the gendered politics of anti-blackness in Southasia with regard to black women. Black women in India are often, as elsewhere, hypersexualised and victims of sexual harassment and abuse. This experience of racial and gender violence greatly amplifies their vulnerabilities in India and Southasia as a whole. African women have reported instances of being ‘mistaken’ for prostitutes and subjected to humiliating treatment by the Indian police, who often raid black neighbourhoods on suspicions of illicit sex work and drug dealing. Some black women have been detained merely based on racial and gender prejudice. In January 2014, for instance, Aam Aadmi Party’s Cabinet Minister Somnath Bharti instructed a raid in a Delhi neighbourhood, in which a group of Ugandan and Nigerian women were detained. The women were accused of being involved in a ‘sex and drug racket’ and were forced to take urine tests in public. These racial and gender tropes projected upon the black female body circulate widely and contribute to the widespread discrimination and violence black women face. Undocumented black women such as refugees from Somalia or Uganda are potentially at even greater risk as they have little to no legal protection. Their stories remain disproportionally absent in most reporting on the experiences of Africans in Southasia.
The brown mob’s Hindu nationalist chant of ‘bharat mata ki jai’ while attacking the three helpless students in the crowded Delhi metro station underlines the modus operandi of the attackers: to mark difference and belonging, ‘us’ from ‘them’. The attack falls into a pattern of violence, and even lynching, that have historically been employed to subjugate particular populations, especially women, Dalits, Adivasis, queer people and others across the Subcontinent. These public spectacles are aimed at teaching individuals and groups about their place in a specific social setup. The attack on the black students is just one of a number of similar incidents of violent racism to occur in India. There are many more that have gone unnoticed as a result of deliberate institutional and social silencing. News coverage may draw attention to a few cases, making them seem exceptional, and thereby preventing sensitisation and development of an active consciousness around the everyday violence that inhabits Southasian social spaces.
In June 2013, 21 Congolese students from Lovely Professional University in Jalandhar, Punjab, were arrested after an altercation with a group of Indian men at a local bus stop. While the media was quick to report the cause of the arrest as resistance by the foreign students to police investigation of a theft, the young Congolese men provided a different story. According to them, the incident was triggered after the use of a racial epithet. But the alternative account was largely ignored by the Indian media. In this case, a Congolese student was attacked by a group of Indian men which led to a scuffle between the student’s friends and the Indians. When the police finally arrived, none of the Indian men involved were arrested or taken to court, and only the Congolese students were imprisoned.
A year prior to this incident, 23-year-old Burundian student of computer science Yannick Nihangaza was brutally assaulted by a group of Indian students in Jalandhar – which included the son of a superintendent of police – to such an extent that he was in coma for more than two years. He was beaten and stoned by his attackers and left to die on the roadside. The assailants did not face arrest until two months after the attack. Meanwhile, Nihanganza had to be put on life support and later, in June 2014, airlifted back to Burundi while still in critical condition. The state government of Punjab covered the costs of transport and treatment at the risk of losing face for its inaction and disregard for Nihangaza’s plight. Days later, in early July, two years after the attack, the young Burundian student succumbed to his injuries.
The victims of both these attacks attended Lovely Professional University, one of the many Indian higher-education institutions that have actively recruited and advertised to students in Africa. But the university has shown no signs of being responsible or accountable toward its black students. In both cases, allegations of racism were quickly rejected by the Indian authorities. Local and national governing bodies saw no need to name ‘racism’ as the primary motivation for the violence. Instead, they preferred to deflect and externalise the issue, or silence it all together. The state showed no interest in a discourse that could lead to national introspection. It also had no intention of giving attention to an issue that could risk India’s hard-fought position in a highly competitive market for international students. After all, the Indian state is keen to protect this business model.
The pattern of violence directed at blacks in India and the apathy it garners is indicative of a deeply racialised state and society where there is an active negation of racial discrimination. Indeed, racism is something that is often thought of as inherently foreign to Indians and Southasia as a whole. When raised, the issue is discursively limited to white tourists or exchange students without consideration of the experiences of Afro-Southasians, Adivasis, Dalits, Dravidians, non-white international students, refugees and immigrants. Their stories are often overlooked despite the great need for critical examination of racism and xenophobia, as well as the hierarchies that exist at the margins of society.
Racism enacted against dark-skinned Southasians is also linked to notions of caste. For many Southasians, dark skin gets conflated with lower-caste origin, although there are several examples that run counter to this association. This distinct caste narrative predates much of European colonialism and intersects with issues of race, ethnicity, gender, economy and culture. However, there is an absence of constructive discussion about what prejudice against dark-skinned Southasians constitutes, and how people negotiate it when experienced. This prejudice – the violence related to it – takes a disproportionate toll on women’s bodies, and has manifested in a variety of ways in private and public spheres. One of the most notable examples is that of the multi-billion dollar ‘beauty industry’. Popularly known for an abundance of ‘fair skin’ products, the industry has essentially promoted an appreciation for whiteness, thereby simultaneously committing to notions of anti-blackness. In the age of ‘Fair & Lovely’ and ‘Fair and Handsome’, time is spent deliberating on Southasian aspirations to whiteness and distancing from blackness rather than considering the negative repercussions of these ideas on society.
The experiences of racial discrimination against people from India’s northeastern states are also worth considering. Their situation is often overlooked in the context of the majority population’s relations with other racial, ethnic or caste groups. In 2012, a hoax SMS was circulated widely announcing attacks against people from the Northeast. The fear of violence led to an exodus of tens of thousands of Northeasterners from cities and towns across India to their home states for safety. More recently, a Manipuri student was assaulted in Bangalore in October 2014, just one of several racially-motivated attacks against people from the Northeast. People from the region have been subjected to a long history of racial and sexual violence, both in India’s mainland communities and by the Indian Army in their home states. Unlike the African students and immigrants, and similar to Afro-Southasians, they are also Indian citizens.
The racial and ethnic hierarchies underpinning such violence exist within and outside, and circulate globally through the production of racialised knowledge that reinforces and maintains the privileging of certain bodies over others. White Europeans are thereby placed on top of a broader system of racial hierarchy that pushes black bodies to the very bottom. Anti-black animus provides the foundation for most forms of racism. Since blackness itself cannot be separated from historical experiences of slavery, colonialism and economic exploitation, anti-black racism goes much deeper than simply being a response to ‘racial difference’. Brown Southasians have inhabited ambiguous positions in this hierarchy depending on the context, and have in some instances internalised the logic of dominant racial structures and reproduced them. Though Southasian forms of anti-black racism existed prior to the European colonialism, today they are very much informed by that encounter, and find articulation in the large and growing Southasian diaspora.
While Indians ask themselves whether racism is part of their society, and while the Indian state is vehement in its dismissal of allegations of institutional racism, it is important to recognise the hypocrisy at play.
In 2009, there were several attacks on Indian students in Australia. The Indian government at the time reacted with outrage and was quick to make claims about racism, discrimination and inequality in response to the violence against its citizens. Then Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh wasn’t shy in directly expressing his concerns to his Australian counterpart Kevin Rudd and to condemn the apparent wave of racist assaults. The issue was not downplayed or covered up by the authorities as in the cases of racist violence against non-citizen black students in India. Instead, Manmohan Singh and the Congress-led government went head on and confronted Australian authorities. This led to an unprecedented bilateral crisis between both countries. The Indian government launched an investigation, issued a travel alert for Indian students in Australia and held bilateral discussions, while warnings of a possible informal boycott of Australia were issued by sections of India’s urban middle-class and predominantly upper-caste population. Mainstream media in India covered the attacks extensively, dedicated entire talk shows to it and were later accused of stirring a national hysteria. Protests were held in India and Australia which drew large crowds of middle-class Indians and their supporters. The affair garnered international attention and stained Australia’s reputation as a prime destination for international students, particularly those coming from Asia.
The Australian government, for its part, felt compelled to react quickly. They intervened, condemned the incidents, and made arrangements to safeguard Indian students from further attacks. This came as no surprise. The international student sector amounts to Australia’s third largest export earner, totalling USD 10 billion in 2007-2008. Australia’s market for international students primarily draws upon Asian countries, attracting thousands of students from across the continent. At that time, there were more than 90,000 Indian students enrolled in Australian higher-education institutions – many more than the current number of students from the African continent in India. Australia’s economic interests, therefore, rendered the issue a high priority for the state, which could not simply dismiss the accusations and had to tackle the evolving bilateral crisis in order to safeguard the country’s reputation as friendly and welcoming country for international students. In other words, rather than being driven by benevolence or a commitment to anti-racism, the Australian response was driven by economic imperatives.
While India identified racism in the attacks against its citizens abroad in 2009, it has refused to acknowledge the racism faced by black students and others in India. Though African embassies occasionally released statements following attacks against its citizens in India, none of these have led to high-level discussions that could push India to take action. With little interest among the parties involved to politicise the attacks, the plight of black students and immigrants today remains largely unresolved and underreported.
It is worth noting that in one case, however, the wave of violent anti-black racism in India did produce a significant reaction. Following the arrest of the 21 Congolese students in June 2013, anti-Southasian violence erupted in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, resulting in injuries for one Indian man and property damage for several Southasian merchants. The violence reflected an expression of rage and frustration about impunity, institutional complicity and silencing with regard to anti-black racism in India. It also illustrates the interconnection between historically-rooted black and brown presence in both continents and the complex and often loaded relationships they are founded upon, which were often informed by colonial encounters.
When Yohan Koumba Daouda, Mapaga Yannis and Guira Fallal boarded the Yellow Line in the Delhi Metro last September, they didn’t expect to be met by the rage of a brown mob. Neither did they think that their journey would end up with them in a hospital and later on national and international television screens. What the three students encountered that day in India’s capital, however, was more than just a mere lynch mob, which is seen in parts of India on occasion. Their experience revealed the underlying structures of violence in Indian society and the Indian state’s complicity in maintaining and co-producing them. The episode of violence was a public spectacle that made national headlines and led to occasional discussions, but the focus quickly diverted the moment another sensational news story came on the scene.
While events like these may capture short-lived attention, the everyday violence of racism is much more subtle, insidious and easy to negate and deny. It rarely makes the news and doesn’t lead to public debates, or institutional acknowledgements or redress, despite the fact that racism plays a crucial role in the region’s sociopolitical landscape and manifests regularly through a complex web of intersecting forms of oppression. Today, Indians still ask rhetorical questions about their society’s racism rather than seek to confront the structures of violence that it is built around and thrives on. In the meantime, the everyday encounters of discrimination, subordination and violence faced by racialised groups in India remain largely unacknowledged and displaced.
~ Sinthujan Varatharajah is a PhD student in political geography at University College London, University of London. He holds a Masters in Race, Ethnicity and Postcolonial Studies from the London School of Economics. His research focuses on race, caste, space, asylum policies, migration and postcoloniality. He can be followed on Twitter @varathas.