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Black mark on India
Campus life in the country is charged with racial undercurrents towards African students.
At Lovely Professional University (LPU) in Jalandhar, Punjab, the mood on campus is quiet. It's a week after 21 African students were arrested following a local brawl and charged with a non-bailable offence of theft, assault and rioting, they are currently in jail. Though over 200 LPU students are from the African continent, most refuse to talk about the incident and fear of repercussions is clearly palpable. "The entire African student community is being branded villains, " says a student from Cameron. Putting his hand on his heart, he adds, "How we are being painted in the local media pains us here. "
The June 15 scuffle took place near the Defence Colony railway crossing where, according to an FIR lodged by photographer Ravi Kumar, three African students snatched the bag of Naveen Kumar. The report states that intimidated by bystanders, the accused called friends to their aid and beat Naveen up. When the police arrived, the accused resisted arrest and at the police station, one of them snatched Ravi'scamera when he was trying to take a picture.
Reportage of the incident in the vernacular press is a clear indication of how racially insensitive Indians are. The accused have been referred to as "Negros" in headlines and the demand that they be deported has been made. The students, who come from countries like Tanzania, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rawanda, Zambia, Ghana and Nigeria and live in Jalandhar and Phagwara have been called "nuisances" and "troublemakers" with "no intention of studying here". Even the police FIR registered against the students repeatedly refers to them as kale (blacks). It's no wonder the other Africans students don't want their displeasure made public. "They prefer to keep their concerns to themselves, and won't share their distress with strangers, " says an Indian student of LPU where nine of the accused studied;the other 12 are from Punjab Technical University and CT Group of Institutions.
African students who pick India for scholastic pursuits often find it a lonely sojourn, riddled with hostility. Campus life is charged with racial undercurrents, and bright young students frequently find themselves left out in the cold. Cliques are common, and African students are often dismayed by the relentless staring, whispering and sniggering they are subjected to. Okoronkwo Hyginus Uchenna, a student of Comparative Law in Delhi, finds it befuddling when he becomes the target of sudden and unprovoked laughter. "I've noticed that when I walk into a room, the Indians will start speaking in Hindi. Or they will laugh, " he says.
The media too, inadvertently promotes stereotypes that make the quest for acceptance an agonising one. Professor Malakar, director of Francophone African Studies at JNU, observes that while several Indian universities have tried to sensitise local students to language and mannerisms that can be interpreted as racist, sometimes there are aberrant cases of teasing and bullying. "There are a few kids who use the word kalu for their African counterparts. The black students understand the import of the word and are naturally offended, " he says.
Other perils of being an African student in this country include being denied a bus ticket. Tedros Abraham, a 35-year-old from Eritera pursuing a postgraduate degree in English Literature in Delhi, recalls how a journey to the Jaipur Literary Festival involved queuing up for hours for a bus ticket. "Thankfully, there was a Hungarian in the queue who helped me get a ticket, " she says. The Ludhiana scuffle, according to African students, actually started over an auto driver demanding extra money from the accused.
The all-pervasive belief that black Africans are mischief mongers and criminals also makes students vulnerable to insult and isolation. Run-ins that culminate in police intervention are common, as was the case in Ludhiana on June 15. With the barrier of language and accents, the police reportedly found it tough to control the students but friends of the accused question why they are detained under a nonbailable offence, even though the FIR recorded was for snatching a camera to delete pictures, which was returned right then. "The Indian kids project us as troublemakers, " says Daniel Ogbe, a Nigerian student of Comparative Law in Delhi. "If a fight breaks out between an African and an Indian, the entire Indian community gangs up against the black student. "
Parminder Singh Bhandal, ADCP II from Ludhaina says he is unaware of the word kale being used in the June 15 FIR. "The country name could have been used," he says. About the complaint being registered with the additional charge of Section 382 of IPC, a non-bailable offence, he says,"The officer has used the section as per investigation. The case is being looked into."
Deep-rooted prejudices notwithstanding, it's undeniable that African students have helped boost the economy of university cities across India. IP Singh Khurana runs two paying guest facilities in New Barandari area where around 35 African students reside. "They are not nosy and are less fussy than Indian students. I have dealt with them for two years and have never faced any problem, " he says, adding that Africans and Indians who share the same accommodation also seem to get along. Aman Mittal, deputy director of LPU, says, "These students are well-behaved and love their privacy. " He admits there was a period in 2011, when the situation was tense after a student from Mizoram was beaten by a rival team of African students during a football match. The victim died and though three students were arrested, they were later acquitted. "But that was an isolated incident, and should not reflect on the students' colour," Mittal stresses.
The ambassador from the Democratic Republic of Congo met with Navjot Mahal ADCP (Hq) and other DRC citizens on campus to appraise himself of the situation. Sources claim he has asked that the students receive fair treatment and assured police that DRC officials will counsel students about local rules. But LPU's African students point to how diametrically different the outcome was of an April 2012 incident, where Yannick Nihangaza, 23, a student from Burundi, was so badly beaten by local Indians that he remains in a coma today, in a hospital in Patiala. Though a case was registered, for over two months no one was arrested since the accused came from wealthy families. It's only after Yannick's father wrote to the chief minister and the media reported there had been no action that the accused were arrested. "Compared to the callousness of the police then, would you not say this is discrimination?" asks a student from Congo. "Would they have handled the situation the same way had the 21 students been white and from Europe?"
Additinal reporting by Radhika Oberoi
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