racism at home

Four days of fear among African students, months of mistrust among Bengaluru residents

'They already had it in mind.' Some African students feel that locals were just looking for an excuse to attack them.

African students studying at Acharya Institutes in Bengaluru are still wary of stepping out of their hostels and rented accommodations. Four days after an accident involving a Sudanese driver and a subsequent mob attack on a group of Tanzanians, students at the college from Congo, Malawi, Namibia and other African nations are still worried about backlash.

Called to a meeting of African students with the college management on Thursday afternoon, a group of girls ventured nervously out of their homes. While waiting at a junction for further directions to the meeting, one of them brightened up when she looked towards the bus stop. “I am going to sit near the police man,” she said. “What can anyone do if I sit near the police man?” Her friends followed her to wait at the bus stop next to the man in the khaki uniform.

The incident that had them on tenterhooks occurred on Sunday night. A Sudanese man reportedly speeding down the narrow Acharya Road to the college hit a resident named Shabana Taj killing her on the spot and injuring her husband Sanaullah. A mob gathered at the site of the accident in Ganapathi Nagar. They thrashed the driver and burnt his car.

About half an hour later and half a kilometer away along a same road, a group of Tanzanian students were stopped by a crowd and dragged out of their car. A 21-year-woman told journalists that people in the crowd pushed her around, beat her and tore her t-shirt, leaving her wearing almost nothing. She boarded a bus along with a friend to get away from the crowd but the bus driver refused to move, prolonging the ordeal. While the Tanzanian students escaped into the nearby hospital, the mob set their car afire too.

Looking for scapegoats?

Students in the vicinity heard reports of the violence along with news that angry local residents were stopping vehicles to search African students.

“That night some of the Africans who were working were sent back by some Indian friends who said “you guys don’t go out, it’s unsafe”,” said Tasha (name changed), who is from Malawi and stays at a girls hostel near the college. “There are different reports that came that others were also attacked. I know one of our friends met the mob. They were about to attack him but he reasoned with them and managed to get away.”

The attacks kept most students at Acharya Institutes from African countries indoors on Monday and Tuesday. Some ventured to their classes on Wednesday. But they walked only in big groups when summoned to the college for a meeting with the management and representatives of their respective embassies in India. One student from Zambia, who goes by the name Ajay when in India, messaged directions to this reporter on where to meet him. He added, “It’s not safe for me to walk alone.”

Many like Ajay have chosen to come to Bengaluru to pursue higher degrees in computer applications. “Of course, this is the best place for it having such a big IT industry,” he said. Bengaluru and India are favourite destinations for young Africans aspiring to study engineering and medicine. Many come on scholarships provided by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. Almost all student visitors say that the pleasant weather and much-touted cosmopolitan culture are incentives. “It is not too hot and not too cold, just like back home” remarked Tasha. "And when I Googled, it said the city had friendly people."

Both Ajay, who has been in the city for two years, and Tasha, who has been here for a few months, said that they hadn’t been scared for their safety in Bengaluru before this. The discrimination has been more insidious, according to Michael from the Democratic Republic of Congo. As he walked up the college walkway he passed two of his classmates. "They are local guys and they have been my classmates for two years," he said. "If everything was ok then we would have greeted each other normally. But they tend to stay away from the African students."

What's making Ganapathi Nagar angry?

Meanwhile, the residents of Ganapathi Nagar say that they are fed up of the rash behaviour of foreign students in the neighbourhood. Salespeople in shops that line Acharya Road, while denying having witnessed the incident on Sunday, say that students driving rashly have caused numerous accidents. “It takes a big event like this when someone dies, for the police to pay attention,” said Umesh from behind the counter of the grocery store.

Relatives gathered at Sanaullah’s house are irked that the Shabana’s death has been overshadowed by the news of violence against the Tanzanian girl. “All these ministers are talking about what happened to the foreign student when they can’t look after the people from here only,” said Sanaullah. “It’s ok. Give compensation, or even give my Aadhaar card to them.”

Sanaullah’s cousin refuses to believe that the mob stripped the Tanzanian student of her clothes. “When the public is angry you know how it gets," she said. "People would have pulled them out of the car not even realising that she is a girl. These girls all wear such flimsy clothes that somewhere in pushing among the crowd her dress might have torn. All the people here have wives and daughters at home. How will anyone tear a woman’s clothes like that?”

While adamant that none of the local people could have abused the Tanzanian national, the residents of Ganapathi Nagar also maintain that they don’t know who the people in the mob were. “They all must have come from outside,” said Umesh. "We don’t know any of them."

The police arrested people from Ganapathi Nagar for the attack on the Tanzanians based on CCTV footage, Bengaluru Police Commissioner NS Megharik said on Thursday, though the exact number of those detained was not immediately available.

Ganpath Singh seems to be one of the few people on Acharya Road in sympathy with the African students. A migrant himself who has been in Bengaluru for about six years, Singh runs a stationary and Xerox shop up the road from the site of the attack. “The students from Africa are just like the other students. They are very friendly,” he said. “ Almost 80% of business here comes from these foreign students – in the shops, restaurants and in house rent. It’s good for the locals.”

The perception problem

Sanaullah’s relatives oppose such thought vehemently. “Ever since these foreign students have come there’s only trouble," one said. "They all drink and do drugs and behave badly and drive rashly here.”

It’s a perception problem Moses Mbwale has resigned himself to. “If they see that you are an African student they always think that you are a drunkard," he said. "If they see that you are a black person they think that you are Nigerian. We understand that Nigeria has its own reputation. Not all African countries are like that, and not all Nigerians also. There have been locals also who drink and other people who don’t drink." Mbwae is from Namibia and is the president of the African Committee of Acharya, a group that helps with communication between local students, the college administration and the French-, Arabic and Swahili-speaking students from Africa.

As students consider their security in the coming days, Tasha is worried about a deeper issue. “The way that I see it the mob had its justice by hitting the guy and burning his car. They didn’t have to threaten all of us,” she said. “It shows that they already had it in mind, that they were just waiting for something to happen to gang up.”

A map of the different African countries mentioned in this story.
A map of the different African countries mentioned in this story.
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