As Tamil Nadu gets ready to celebrate the New Year, a small community of Nigerians in the textile town of Tirupur has little to cheer about. The police have told the community to ensure its members are not involved in the garment trade without work permits.

“The Nigerians who come to Tirupur on tourist visas or student visas are not allowed to do business here,” said P Nagarajan, the Tirupur commissioner of police. “Only those who have an employment visa can do business. We told the Nigerian Welfare Association that we want them to abide by the rules, or we will take action.”

The police’s warning prompted the Tirupur Nigeria Community Welfare and Garment Traders Association to put up a notice in Khaderpettai garment market, banning Nigerians from conducting business from January 1. “All Nigerians who [are] presently into partnership businesses with Indians must not continue the operation inside Khaderpettai market,” read the notice, signed by the association’s chairman Philip Nicolas. “Anyone who wish[es] to start a new business individually or in partnership with any Indian must submit copies of business documents to respective police authority and the Nigerian Association.”

The notice warned of “serious action” for disobeying the rules, which are meant to assuage the “continuous and increased agitation” of local people at Khaderpettai. “This is issued for the interest of peace and respect to our host country and our Tamil Nadu neighbours,” the notice stated. “We will continue to make every effort to keep the good relationship between Nigeria and India.”

Disgruntled local traders

Tirupur has a Nigerian community numbering more than 200 people. They first came to buy garments to sell back in Nigeria, a major importer of Indian textiles. “At that time, local traders were happy because of the bulk purchase of hosiery items,” said the lawyer Balamurugan, former state general secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties. “But after some time, the Nigerians began to settle in Tirupur and start their own businesses. Local traders started feeling the pressure of competition.”

The Nigerians are largely into “seconds sales”, buying garments rejected by exporters and selling them in Nigeria. Police commissioner Nagarajan claimed they have been “buying goods at higher prices and selling them in the Nigerian market at normal rates”. Some of them have set up their own production units, he added.

Claimed Babuji, general secretary of the Collar Work and Hosiery Small Industries Association: “They are obtaining licences under the names of their Indian partners. So our local businesses are being affected.”

Sundarapandian, a state spokesperson for the Aam Aadmi Party, has filed several complaints with the local administration over the past three years, seeking action against the Nigerians doing business in the town without the required permits. “Local businessmen have been complaining for a while, but are too afraid to come forward with their problems,” he said. “So, I decided to take it up.”

He claimed it was his latest complaint, sent directly to the Chief Minister’s Special Cell earlier this year, that forced the police into action. “Some of them have taken business permits,” Sundarapandian said, referring to the Nigerian traders, “we do not have a problem with them.”

The police, meanwhile, have decided “to take action in steps”. “We will go one by one to check their passports,” said Nagarajan. “Because it involves another country and international relations, we will go slow and steady. We are not going to take action en masse.” made several attempts to contact Philip Nicolas, the head of the Tirupur Nigeria Community Welfare and Garment Traders Association but were unsuccessful.

Media to blame?

Besides accusing the Nigerians of doing illegal garment business, Tirupur residents alleged that many of the foreigners are also selling illicit liquor and running a prostitution racket. Reports in the local media have alleged that Nigerians are involved in smuggling narcotics, have violated their visa conditions and even attacked a policeman in 2014.

Following a series of such reports, the People’s Union of Civil Liberties in 2014 sent a fact-finding team led by S Balamurugan to Tirupur. It found that in addition to the economic competitiveness, the “xenophobia-like attitude” of the locals had resulted in hostility towards the Nigerians. Some people were even unhappy that a few Nigerians had married Indian women and settled in Tirupur.

The media, too, was perpetuating a negative opinion of the Nigerians in the town, Balamurugan said, pointing out that a recent report on News 7 channel painted all members of the community as criminals. Because of such reports, a local reporter who asked not to be identified said, many Nigerians in Tirupur have grown wary of the media.

“The locals see the Nigerians like Dalits because they eat beef and are dark-skinned,” said Balamurugan. “There are some fanatical, caste Hindu forces who are inciting hatred towards the Nigerians.”