Bengaluru is India’s city of the twenty-first century. India’s Silicon Valley, it’s often called, drawing upon our penchant for American parallels. Well, here’s another American parallel: racism. On Sunday, a mob assaulted, stripped and paraded a 21-year-old Tanzanian student, later on setting fire to her car as well. Her only fault was that she was passing through the same neighbourhood where, an hour before, a Sudanese student had run over and killed a resident. The enraged mob simply picked on the Tanzanian woman because she was of the same race as the Sudanese driver.
How did the police react? The Deccan Chronicle reported that when the woman approached the police station to register a complaint, she was turned away. Come back when you have the name of the driver, she was told. Later on, a local politician, BS Shankar, even went so far as to justify the violence.
Bosco Kaweesi, Legal Adviser to the All African Students Union in Bengaluru said, in exasperation, “She’s Tanzanian, the man who caused the accident comes from Sudan, they didn’t even know each other."
Collective mob justice is a pervasive feature of Indian society. Usually it’s based on religion or caste but, in this case, the identity picked up was race, a feature getting increasingly common as significant numbers of Africans move to India for work or education.
In 2013, Nigerians suffered racist attacks across Goa, even as state Minister Dayanand Mandrekar called them a cancer. So severe was that episode that Nigerian diplomats warned of a backlash back in Nigeria against Indians working there. In 2014, a mob assaulted two Africans at a Metro station in Delhi. The incident, captured on camera, depicted a frightening picture of racism, as the mob tried to get at the two men cowering, ironically, inside a police booth. Earlier in Delhi, a state minister himself led vigilante justice against the city’s African residents.
Bigotry based on skin colour has a chequered past in India. At one level, Indians are obviously racist given how much value we attach to light skin, even propping up a huge cosmetics industry to make Indians fairer – an entire nation of Micheal Jacksons. Language and pop culture reflect that as well. One of Bollywood’s evergreen songs tells of how even a “dark-skinned man” can be a good person. Languages like Hindi and Punjabi have their own N-word: habshi.
India’s African elite
Of course, India also does not have the debilitating legacy of western slavery based on race (it was based on caste instead). Black Africans have been a part of India’s elite in centuries past. In the medieval Deccan, for example, people of African-origin were highly-prized as ace sailors and mounted warriors. In the 17th century, the Abyssinian Malik Ambar rose to become the regent of the Ahmadnagar Sulatanate. His army consisted of Marathas, including Maloji, grandfather of Shivaji, and Ambar’s methods of guerrilla warfare came to dominate the Deccan. In 1672, as the Aurangzeb ordered a naval siege on British Bombay, the Mughal fleet was commandeered by a man of African-origin.
Descendants of those Africans who came to India, now make up the Siddi community, also derogatorily called Habshis. After their heyday in medieval India, they now face discrimination for being dark-skinned.
People who have tried to bring attention to India’s frightening culture of majoritarian intolerance over the past year have been shouted down, vilified and mocked. But pushing problems under the carpet usually makes things worse. India has multiple faultlines of bigotry already. To add race to that is an alarming prospect.