Lal Dora, the red thread that colonial city planners used to mark Delhi's urban villages outside city limits, gives Khirki village special status. Exempt from regular construction laws, Lal Dora areas are the site of unplanned development and civic facilities tend to be poor. Most outsiders walking into Khirki see a public art painting on a wall on their right and a Sai Baba temple on the left. They are most likely to turn left before the temple and go to Khoj, an international art collective, for an exhibition opening. But instead of entering Khoj, if you keep walking straight, you will not realise when you have entered Hauz Rani village. Around these two Lal Dora urban villages are the “unauthorised colonies” of Panchsheel Vihar and Khirki Extension. In one end of Khirki Extension are fancier DDA (Delhi Development Authority) flats.
If that sounds like a place on the margins, it isn't. Khirki is the heart of south Delhi, opposite spanking new malls, making it an affordable and convenient location for international migrants and young professionals looking to rent a flat.
“Most of the trouble is in Khirki Extension,” says Nadeem Ahmed, a property dealer. “Here in the DDA flat nobody rents out their flats Africans.” The trouble, he explains, is not so much drugs as it is the flesh trade. On the main road outside the village, every night, cars pull up and roll down the windows. “Nigerian women” living in Khirki Extension negotiate the rate and get into the cars. How does he know they are from Nigeria? “They're mostly Nigerians in Khirki Extension,” he says
Rohtas Singh, a former president of the residents welfare association of the DDA flats, walks into Ahmed's office, repeating the same story about cars pulling up. How does he know whether the interaction between two people is about sex trade? “I can show you and you can judge if it's anything else happening,” he says.
Ditto for drugs, he says. “Do you realise that woman who used to walk home every evening with a bag, she's disappeared lately?” Singh asks Ahmed, who nods. They explain she was a drug seller, and, like the sex workers, has disappeared after Delhi law minister Somnath Bharti's midnight raid on 16 January.
They insist they are not racist or xenophobic. Despite this, Singh says only 1 percent of Africans are “not bad”. Ahmed puts the figure at 20 percent. “But the Afghans and Yemenis are all good,” Singh says. “Their women cover their heads when the walk down the road. Not even by mistake will you find a single one of them involved in anything wrong.”
To further prove that his motivation is not racist, he talks about one African he had befriended, a footballer. “Even he was shady but he never did anything inside the colony,” Singh says. “He claimed to be a footballer but I wonder who he played football with in Delhi!”
Sex work involving foreign nationals is flourishing in Delhi. While sex workers from eastern Europe are better known, Khirki's residents say they are not seen in public. “Parde mein rahein to chalta hain,” says Ahmed. If it's behind the curtains it is ok. “But the Africans parade on the streets and make an open culture out of it,” he said. “That is a problem.”
Illegality aside, how is consensual trade in flesh and marijuana hurting the locals? “Area to kharab hota hai na,” is the refrain. The area gets a bad name. “Would you like your neighbourhood to be known as a red light area?” says Singh. “If yes then please take them there.”
Singh and Ahmed say that one pick-up point was the Sai Baba temple from where you turn in for Khoj – and a number of residents of Khirki and Hauz Rani villages independently pointed out the same spot. Sameer Naqvi, a young finance professional, meets me outside the temple and agrees to take me around the area. “Before 16 January, after 10 pm, they would be standing here as if in a beauty contest, all lined up,” he says. “They have all now disappeared.”
Sameer lives in the Muslim-dominated Hauz Rani, where he says he has some African neighbours and they are just fine. “About 10 percent of them are good people,” he says. As he takes me to Hauz Rani, we meet his uncle on the way, who tells him not to speak to the media. “You people are only going to say we are racist and the minister should be sacked. There is no use,” the uncle says. Another young man joins in threatening violence against the media if they didn't stop what he sees as false propaganda.
In Hauz Rani, a local woman running a boutique refuses to reveal her name and requests that her boutique's name not be published. “The problem with Africans is that our night is their daytime,” she says. “They walk around these lanes and openly smooch each other. They are my customers, I know them. One man keeps buying a lot of bedsheets. I wonder why.” We are joined by her neighbour, an alumnus of the Jawaharlal University who works in Parliament. “One day one of them was doing obscene activities on the road, around 11 pm,” he says. The woman running the boutique says she saw that. “They do drunken brawls all the time and don't let us sleep,” she adds. “Just last night there was one. LCD monitors were broken.”
But no one says the Africans harass Indian woman or steal anything or cause any direct harm. Does the seller of bedsheets mingle with them? “They don't mingle with us and we don't mingle with them. Why should we get familiar with bad people?”
Seema Pathak, a school teacher, has just returned after giving the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi a letter in support of the raiding minister, who is also the local legislator. “So many times have we complained to the police station but the police never did anything,” she says. “Even if they didn't want to raid any house, they could have increased patrolling or come and seen for themselves what the problem is. Why did they not even do this much?”
In these conversations, the locals regularly use racist words such as 'habshi' and negro' but not in a racist tone. “Not all negroes are bad,” is typically the line. They complain about drugs but can't say what these drugs are. “I know they sell them because I have bought it from them!” says one young man called Shoaib, who lives in neighbouring Malviya Nagar but comes here often. Realising the irony in his complaint about Africans, he adds, “I don't smoke up any more.”
Locals say “the problem” increased manifold in the last two years and they needed to do something about it. But “the problem” began really with three big malls coming up across the road in 2007. The best known among them, Select Citywalk, has become one of the key places for south Delhites to spend evenings and weekends – it was from here that the gang rape and murder victim popularly known as Nirbhaya had boarded the fatal bus along with her boyfriend on 16 December, 2012. The arrival of the malls raised rents in Khirki, and the locals are now less forgiving of the rental culture that is happy to deal with Africans for a premium.
The 21st century shopping mall opposite a 14th century village is not a problem for village residents, as it has helped raise rents and generate employment. Yet it is the malls that have also brought the Africans and the sex work they complain about.
As dusk falls, a lot of people are returning home from work, including many Africans, men and women. But they refuse to speak. Even when approached through their Indian friends over the phone, the Africans are now completely tight-lipped.
After Somnath Bharti's midnight raid, a key role in mobilising media and activist opinion about racism in Khirki was played by Aastha Chauhan, an artist who worked at Khoj until recently. Chauhan has been concerned about everyday racism in Khirki for the past few years. “The worst affected are the children, who grow up learning Hindi and English and can understand the racist jibes hurled at them,” Chauhan says, “And the African women are often harassed and molested.”
It is clear in Khirki that morality is a bigger issue than racism, that sex work around the area is a reality, and the least one can say about the interaction between Africans and Indians is that it is a culture clash. “One African friend of mine, a 50-year-old woman, told me something very interesting,” says Chauhan. “She said that men here see African women independently and confidently walk wearing Western clothes, and feel threatened that their women might do the same.”
Chauhan investigated the sex trade charge and found that the sex workers came from elsewhere and did not actually live in Khirki or its surrounding neighbourhoods. “They mostly stand outside the malls but when the police is tough or hasn't got enough bribes, they come inside to Sai Baba mandir and call the clients there,” says Chauhan.
Along with her friends, she was trying to organise a festival that would provide a common ground for Indians and Africans to interact. Ironically, they approached the new law minister for help. Instead, he told them, "If you feel the police are not taking enough action against the Africans, how about you conduct a sting? You are the first people to speak on their [the African community's] behalf. I will see for myself what has to be done."
He saw it for himself, and now it may be too late for dialogue. The Africans can see on TV news that it is the minister versus themselves, and are planning to move out. The locals will only be happy.