In September 2014, a video emerged on YouTube of three black men being assaulted by a mob at a Metro station in Delhi. The men, whose alleged crime was “misbehaving with women”, couldn’t find protection even at a Delhi Police kiosk: the crowd rained blows despite the policemen’s attempts to stop it.

Indians’ disturbing racism and their penchant for vigilantism was on display again this year. In January, a 30-year-old African-American tourist in Goa, Caitanya Lila Holt, was mistaken for a robber, chased into a rice field and assaulted by locals and the police. He died from choking on sludge.

The next month, a 21-year-old Tanzanian woman was stripped and beaten in Bengaluru following a car accident involving a Sudanese youth which resulted in the death of a man. Despite the public outrage, politicians justified the racist mob violence.

That February episode deeply upset Mahesh Shantaram, a 38-year-old documentary photographer in Bengaluru who decided to challenge Indian society’s mob mentality through a series of photographs. His project Racism: The African Portraits aims to capture glimpses of the racism in India through photographs and stories of African students in India.

As a Congolese man is beaten to death in South Delhi, and several assaulted in a separate incident in the Capital, Shantaram talks about his project, and the systematic racism in India. Excerpts from a telephone interview with Shantaram:

Natoya, from Jamaica, is pursuing Applied Medicine at Manipal University in Karnataka. Credit: Mahesh Shantaram
Natoya, from Jamaica, is pursuing Applied Medicine at Manipal University in Karnataka. Credit: Mahesh Shantaram

What was the genesis of the Africans in India series?
It began with the racist incidents in January in Bengaluru wherein like-minded people were wallowing in shame and misery. By the time it became news, the Jawaharlal Nehru University incident blew up and we forgot all about this.

I read and think a lot about people, their rights and their freedoms. I was taken aback by the horrific incident. The reaction to such incidents is always along the lines of, "This can't happen in my city." Nevertheless, this incident made me realise that there were so many Africans living in my city about whom I knew nothing about. I decided to see the place where the students were living. Why were they living there? What was their life like? Curiosity motivated me to go.

Why do you think African students still come to India despite the attacks?
In Africa, there is this rampant belief that Indians are well-educated. It might be because the Indians who have settled there may come across as well-educated. That is the current that draws students from Africa to India. It also helps that higher education in India is more affordable than in the West.

The frequency of attacks have increased, but Africa is a huge continent. Education has been a constant dream. People don't change their life plans on the basis of incidents. Maybe next year the education industry might take a hit. But bad news is mostly filtered down. Take the case of Natoya. In 2012, just when she was informed that her application to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi was successful, there was a breaking news alert on TV. Nirbhaya happened. 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.

How do you hope your photo series might help in the fight against racism?
I am attempting to elevate myself from just focusing on the news value of the incidents. Racism clearly exists in India. I am using this as a means to document the issue. We don’t get to respond to racism in India by saying racism exists abroad as well.

In foreign countries, racism is very well-documented. People talk about it. There is huge shame associated for being a racist. There are ways of addressing racism right from the top level itself. In India, we need to recognise what racism means, spot it and talk about it more often. Currently, the word racist comes to fore only when there is an incident. We need to change that.

Why does your project focus mostly on students?
I have limited my view to Africans students because they are the most vulnerable group. Their numbers are really small.

They don't have anyone to go to. People don't even want to look at them – we hate their sight so much. It is difficult for them to get redress – they can’t just go to government offices to get a license or report a crime.

Why did you choose the medium of portraits to document this issue?
There were many ways I could have dealt with the subject. I could have gone to where the African students live very weekend and hung out with them and taken photojournalistic snapshots. But I chose to approach it instead through formal portraiture. In the past, I have been hesitant to make portraits – it is not easy. The motivation was right in this case.

I am not whipping out my smartphone and clicking a picture. I am making a portrait. It is a more formal relationship. It takes me half an hour to make each of these.

What do you expect the government of India to do?
Hopefully, not come up with kneejerk reactions. What we need is not a reactionary action to the systematic racism – we require a solution and not just a mere band aid.

Due to the rise in crimes against women, we now have women-friendly police stations. What are we going to do in this case? Launch an Africans-only bus service? That just doesn’t make sense.

I hope this project spreads social change like the campaigns of the '70s. By virtue of being an Indian, I have also been a racist at some time or the other. Everyone needs help in understanding this about themselves.

All images courtesy Mahesh Shantaram. Read more about the series here.