Shantaram’s portrait of Amina, a Nigerian who is studying journalism in Greater NoidaShantaram’s portrait of Amina, a Nigerian who is studying journalism in Greater Noida
By Mahesh Shantaram

On the night of January 31, 2016, a mob attack on a Tanzanian student in Bengaluru sent shockwaves across India‘s consciousness. As a curious individual who doesn’t readily trust what is printed in the media, I went to the far-flung neighbourhoods of the city to meet the African students who live there and understand their points of view. What started as a simple inquiry went on to become a year-long, nationwide study of the everyday racism faced by the African diaspora.

I met African students and expats, had extended conversations, and collected never-heard-before anecdotes that illustrate what it feels like to live life as third-class citizens in a country that claims to be welcoming of them. As I made friends, I also made photographic portraits to put a human face to the incredible stories I’d heard. It was in this context that Al-Jazeera Stream invited me to their studios in Washington to join their discussion on racism in India.

During the discussion, India’s compromised morality on the matter of racism – to deny that it exists – was up for full public display. Tarun Vijay, a former Rajya Sabha MP, was there to represent the problematic positions that arise from ideology steeped in patriarchy and nationalism – or perhaps plain ignorance of ground realities. He came on the show to protect the image of the country, and went on to unwittingly achieve the exact opposite.

He chided everyone on the panel, as a father would his errant children, and gave us a crash course on Indian culture in the form of specious arguments: How can there be racism in India when we worship a ‘black god’? How can there be racism in India when we ourselves have been victims of racism? And the one that got propagated by the media the next day: his infamous Freudian slip about the magnanimity of fair-skinned north Indians that allows for peaceful coexistence with ‘black’ south Indians.

There is a feeling among many who subscribe to a particular strain of nationalism that India can do no wrong but for some inexplicable reason, the rest of the world is ganged up against us. Vijay represents this mindset. How could we ever have a productive discussion on racism in India when its denial is so entrenched? The answer to the question about racism in India has always been – “How can there be racism in India? Indians can never be racist. Because.”

What do we tell the Nigerian brothers, Endurance and Precious, the most recent victims in the news? A crowd of candlelight ‘vigilantes’ came down on them swiftly to dispense mob justice meant for the whole black community of Greater Noida. The attackers weren’t merely criminalised individuals, to quote the government’s line. They were agents of India’s great middle class: the typical apartment dweller and mall-goer. For merely pointing out the well documented propensity of Africans to find themselves in such precarious situations (resulting in loss of life on a bad day or loss of dignity on a good day), Vijay called me ‘vicious’ and asked that I stop spreading ‘poison’.

None of the young African men and women I have met as part of my project came to India to peddle drugs or sell their flesh. Nor did they intend to become the next Mandela or Nkrumah. They came believing in an open society and a progressive environment in which they can study and prosper. We have let them down. Fortunately, there is now a mood among Indians in India and abroad to call out the beast for what it is and examine what sort of a country we are and want to be.

Sushma Swaraj is nothing short of Superwoman when it comes to tackling crime with a tweet or ten. But in Parliament, she stood sincerely astonished when the cries of racism rang aloud. The crux of the problem lies beyond the scope of her ministry. It’s not her job to send submarines to the depths from where xenophobia takes birth. Africans are seen as not having agency – the auqaat – to act in public environments or even speak against Indians when they feel wronged by them.

That explains what happened one Sunday morning on a local bus in Bengaluru in October 2015. A student football team from Ghana occupied a few too many seats. Some people believed that Indians had priority over seating; the Ghanians stuck to their seats in true Rosa Parks-style. The situation quickly turned into a bloody mob attack. By the end of the week, a third of the students packed their bags and left for Ghana, never to be seen again.

That unreported incident never made it to the public’s attention. Yet others cause tremors on an intercontinental scale, like the one involving the Congolese man, Olivier Kitanda, in Delhi. In a brawl between him and a gang of hot-headed boys fought over the right to an autorickshaw, Olivier was the one who gave up his life when he should have only given up his auto. An ambassador I spoke to told me that when he saw the pictures from the assault, he was paralysed for a moment. He sat up the night to pen a poem. He read it out to me slowly and patiently.

Every other stanza ended with, “Someone must tell me…what did I do wrong?” Simple skirmishes and petty crime inspire neither dread nor poetry . It takes something more sinister. The government needs the independent research of artists, activists, academics, scientists and others from civil society to feed into their understanding of ground truths. We don’t need our motives to be squared up against some narrow definition of patriotism. Anyone who is standing up against racism and discrimination is standing up for human rights. They are working for the greater good and towards fairness in the sense of egalitarianism, not skin colour.

I want to leave the reader with an exercise for the harsh summer days ahead. Befriend a black person in your city, anywhere in India. Befriend even three. Don’t tell them “India loves you” as Ms Swaraj would have you do. It could get awkward these days. Instead, take them swimming.Show up unannounced at the local corporation pool, a public beach, or swimming pool at a sports club or apartment complex. Be mindful of how a seemingly innocuous public activity has now been made unnecessarily complicated.Write about your experience in 150 words or so.