Somnath Bharti and the terrible, everyday racism of a south Delhi mohalla

Last week's savage attack on a group of Ugandan and Nigerian women living in Khirki Extension shocked the country. But what if you have been living in this neighbourhood and witnessing this xenophobia for years?

Delhi Law Minister Somnath Bharti. (Getty Images)

In the decade that I've been working in Khirki Extension in south Delhi, I've known it as a neighborhood in a constant state of flux.

When I first began working at KHOJ, an international artists' association located in Khirki Extension in 2004, the neighborhood was home to architects' studios, a theatre studio and various offices, followed by a wave of musicians and artists. It was a locality comprised mainly of houses, some built by well-known architects such as Ramu Katakam and Ashok B Lall. Even Jaya Jaitly had a house there. Soon enough, these large plots were sold to builders, who put in apartments that could accommodate more people. But given the terrible infrastructure in the area, with its poor roads and drainage and its tendency to get flooded, many of its earlier residents moved out.

After 2007 came a flood of people from different communities within India and abroad: Afghans, Nepalis, Malayali nurses, Somalis, Manipuris, Kashmiris, Nigerians, Ugandans, Cameroonians and so on. Not to mention the call-center executives and students, some pursuing correspondence courses at the Indira Gandhi National Open University. After the malls came up, things changed. The laborers employed during construction and the staff employed there such as security guards began to live there too. It's a neighborhood that's now neatly sandwiched between Malviya Nagar and around 11 malls.

Some communities blend in more easily than others; the Somalis, being Muslim, have a lot in common with the other residents of the same religion. Several Afghans here for medical tourism live in the neighborhood, and there are even shops selling Afghan food and helping those seeking healthcare find accommodation. But not all communities are treated with respect, and the biggest problem foreign nationals, particularly those from African countries, face is prejudice based on cultural difference: that they dress differently, eat differently and behave differently is not something that all of their neighbors look kindly upon. A Nigerian friend of mine from the neighborhood once told me he was confused when an Indian friend stopped speaking to him after he complimented the friend's sister. In his country, a compliment to a friend's sister would be a just that - a compliment. Here, it seemed to be taken as an insult, and the cultural difference at the center of it was something he hadn't lived here long enough to learn how to navigate.


For all the different cultural groups that live here, Khirki Extension is neither a neighborhood that erupts in violence, nor is it a locality where people have a strong, shared sense of community. In the course of my work at KHOJ and thereafter, I've engaged in several projects with the residents of Khirki Extension, and even though it's a very difficult neighborhood, I can count among its residents many friends from different communities. I do know that if push comes to shove and there's ever any trouble, the people I know there would call me before they called the police. But the prejudice is strongest towards people from African countries, and the abuse, the jibes and the physical assaults have gone on for years.

The texture of the discrimination they face is close to the kind my friends from northeast India face. But the intensity of it is much, much more, and the Africans here have fewer defenders. Our xenophobia is hardly concealed when it comes to Africans - and I've witnessed it myself repeatedly when walking down the street with my friends, or during other incidents of racism that I've tried to raise awareness about.

It starts early. I was once part of a program at a local public school, which has Afghan, Nepali and Somali children among others from the neighborhood. We asked the kids to define what they were not. A young Somali girl who was born here came forward to say in impeccable Hindi, "Main cockroach nahin khathi hoon. Kaun khate hain? Cockroach gande hote hain (I don't eat cockroaches. Who does? Cockroaches are dirty)." The kids had been teasing her for the color of her skin, and for supposedly eating cockroaches. It was heartbreaking to witness.

BJP workers protest against Somnath Bharti's racist comments on African women. (IANS photos)
There was my friend from Cameroon, a talented cook who started an underground kitchen as no one would fund a restaurant of her own. I saw it after it was vandalized by a mob of men - it was devastating, it looked like a war zone. Her landlady kicked her out, she lost all her money, and she had to set up a kitchen all over again. But after her sister was brutally beaten by a mob recently, she went back home to Cameroon. At the same time, there was a young boy from Nigeria who'd started a barbershop. It was a treat to see pictures of different hairstyles for African men on the sign outside, but it was torn up by a mob. These incidents happen often, and there are local vigilante groups that practice a form of prejudice that is shattering. And they do so in the knowledge that they will face no consequences.

Another friend of mine, Akanbi Olamilekan Mohemmed, an actor in his own right and a huge Bollywood fan, came all the way from Nigeria and was planning to join in the Asian Academy of Film and Television at Noida. He was thrilled to be in India, the land of Bollywood, but was picked up by the police one day as he was crossing the street to go to a mall. They beat him, put his thumbprint on a statement and sent him off to Tihar jail for two years. He's just come out. It turns out that when a Greenply executive was arrested with cocaine on his person, he arbitrarily pointed Olamilekan out to police as his dealer. My friend was in the wrong place at the wrong time two years ago, and in trouble simply for being Nigerian. Now he's determined to have his story heard.


With all these instances of discrimination and prejudice playing out everyday, three friends (Malini Kochupillai, Radhika Singh, B-boy Heera) and I have been planning to host a cultural festival in the neighborhood. We plan to call it "Antarrashtriya Khirki", but the subtext is really the relationship between Indians and people from African countries. We'd like to have a number of events, including music jam sessions, b-boy battles, football matches and hopefully host some exhibits from a French photography exhibition that's happening in the city.

The irony is that two days before Nigerian and Ugandan women were assaulted by a mob with the blessings of Aam Aadmi Party Law Minister Somnath Bharti, we visited him to ask him to put in a good word for us with the Delhi Development Authority so we could use the empty plot for the festival. We informed him about the festival and the reason for it, and hoped, as supporters of his party, that he would lend the festival his support too.  But I don't think he really heard what we were trying to say. "If you feel police are not taking enough action against the Africans, how about you conduct a sting?" was one of the bizarre comments he made at that meeting. "You are the first people to speak on their [the African community's] behalf. I will see for myself what has to be done," was another. He said he would come and inspect the neighborhood at night, to see what was happening. We left feeling reassured that here was a man of reason, one who was willing to engage with the local community.

Was the attack with Bharti's sanction any different from some of the incidents Khirki's African residents had witnessed until then? Sadly, there have been too many of its kind. Morale was fairly low before - it didn't have much further to sink. The Africans in Khirki were fired up after the Goa murder, when a Nigerian diplomat tookIndia to task for not ensuring the safety of Nigerian nationals.  For once, the racist attacks on them had sparked an international incident, and it felt good that the government of an African country had come to the defense of its nationals. But it's amazing that there's been no diplomatic action in last week's case.

Did we achieve anything at Sunday's Jantar Mantar protest? If nothing else, we put the message out there that a section of Indian society will not stand for such prejudice towards people from African countries, a prejudice that exists across class boundaries.

The thing is, it's not about the Mummy-Papa battle that the AAP and the Delhi Police are engaged in while we look on. It's about racism.

The question is what we're going to do about it.

Aastha Chauhan is an artist based in New Delhi. Between 2004 and 2010, she headed community-based art initiatives at the KHOJ International Artists' Association.


  • Everyone has their Pashto cinema storyTue 12 May, 2015

    But only some of us have the deep reserves of courage to tell that story

  • Kushinagar: The place where Buddha diedTue 5 May, 2015

    The town in Uttar Pradesh where the Buddha died is of great significance, but remains relatively unknown. A new graphic book recounts a journey to the historical sites associated with the life of the Buddha, and how in the midst of India’s spiritual collisions the author came face to face with his mortality in Kushinagar.

  • Who decides how much my Crocin will cost?Mon 4 May, 2015

    A month ago, the government raised the price of 500-odd essential drugs by 3.84 percent. Is it a fair rise, and does it ultimately benefit the consumer? Is controlling the prices of all drugs sold in India – which the government is considering – a good plan? A manufacturer of low-cost drugs explains.

  • You’d probably make more money in a fixed deposit than a news channelWed 29 Apr, 2015

    Wait. No one watches the news? Then why are there so many news channels. The writer of a new book on the industry explains the real reason these channels are launched.

  • How Reliable is the World’s Most Influential Business Consultant?Mon 27 Apr, 2015

    Ram Charan has worked ascetically for almost half a century consulting with top CEOs and businesses across the world. He claims to live in planes and hotels and own a house only for tax reasons. But as a writer of case studies, Charan has left the historical record poorer without a sense of how businesses deal with corruption and politics. His public analyses are usually simplistic, reducing complex corporate stories to tales of thrilling heroes who succeeded because they did something.

  • The Extraordinary Network Across India That’s Helping Restore Our Film Heritage, One Trashed Reel At A TimeFri 24 Apr, 2015

    From Alam Ara to Black Friday, from Paanch to Thalapathi, the list of Indian films whose prints have been lost is long. Not only have we lost almost 80 percent of our films made before 1964, we continue to lose recent ones too. But there are some extraordinary efforts now underway to hunt and restore these films, some of which involve the very people who used to destroy these prints for profit.

  • How I Began to ReadWed 22 Apr, 2015

    My discovery of reading and the books that inspired me

  • Your Handy-Dandy Guide to the Bihar Assembly ElectionsMon 20 Apr, 2015

    Bihar will see Assembly elections before the end of November this year. But the games will begin long before that. Who are the key players? What are the cool moves? Our writer digs through perception and realpolitik to bring you this primer to the upcoming tournament.

  • Good People and Bad People Meet in ShimlaFri 17 Apr, 2015

    The UK television show ‘Indian Summers’, set in the 1930s Raj summer capital of Shimla, has been Channel 4's most expensive drama ever. As it concludes its finale this weekend and readies for a second season, will it go beyond an understanding of the British Empire as largely a case of bad manners and political incorrectness?

  • Are Farmers Going to Be Modi’s Biggest Blind Spot?Wed 15 Apr, 2015

    Narendra Modi declares his commitment to farmers all the time but his government has steadily acted against them. The political cost is going to be steep. From rail rokos and stone-pelting to urea trucks being looted, farmers across the country are increasingly ranged against the NDA government.

  • Three Supreme Court Orders Later, What's the Deal with Aadhaar?Mon 13 Apr, 2015

    By law, you should not be denied any government service in India if you don’t have an Aadhar card number. So why do various government programs continue to ignore three Supreme Court orders and insist on the dreaded number, and how are they getting away with it?

  • Five problems ailing veterinary medicine in India that you should know aboutFri 10 Apr, 2015

    Besides our attachment to pet animals,India’s livestock industry alone contributes almost four percent of the GDP. So why does veterinary medicine in India languish with perennial problems?

  • The Slave Ship that Ran from Kerala to New OrleansWed 8 Apr, 2015

    Post Hurricane Katrina, a whole new American dream was designed for some Indians — how to get trapped in a guarded labor camp by an American company. Five of these Indians just won $14 million in damages in their fight for justice and dignity, in one of the largest labor trafficking cases in US history. There are more than 200 other plaintiffs awaiting justice in this explosive, racist example of how America's broken visa program continues to exploit international migrants.

  • Why Spanish Is On Its Way to Becoming One of India’s Favoured Foreign LanguagesMon 6 Apr, 2015

    The New Delhi branch of the Instituto Cervantes had the highest number of enrollments in the world in 2014. In Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh, young people are betting on Spanish for their big city dreams. What’s going on with desi learners of Espanol?

  • Hello? Anyone seen my swine flu mutation?Thu 2 Apr, 2015

    An MIT study says the swine flu sweeping India might be a deadly new mutation. The National Institute of Virology in Pune firmly disputes this. How can there be such a vast difference of opinion? Could both be right or both be wrong? Is there a scientific conspiracy, a cover up, a screw up or something else entirely? We sought an independent scientific analysis and, as the Internet phrase goes, our conclusions may surprise you.

  • Does Kerala need a share of the Rs 200 crore Naxal pie?Mon 30 Mar, 2015

    This month the Kerala Home Minister approached the Union government to declare three districts from the state as Naxal-affected. But does the state have a Naxal problem and who would it benefit to have it declared so?

  • That Thing About Creating NalandasFri 27 Mar, 2015

    If India were to have one library for every 3,000 people it would need around 4,23,333 libraries. It is estimated that India has 54,856 libraries. A recent national conference talked of ways to fix this, but are numbers all that we are falling short on?

  • How to Go From Boyish to ByomkeshWed 25 Mar, 2015

    Sushant Singh Rajput and the man behind the star. And how Dibakar Banerjee moulded him into the beloved everyman detective, Byomkesh Bakshy.

  • What is terrorizing Marathwada’s farmers?Mon 23 Mar, 2015

    The hailstorm and unseasonal rains in 2014 that destroyed the rabi crop were thought to be freak events until they happened again this year, spurring fears of a sharp rise in the number of farmer suicides, bidding to outrun Vidarbha in its tragic scale. Is the weather the sole cause of Marathwada’s agrarian crisis, and how can this crisis be tackled?

  • Can a Counterculture Become an Ethical Industry?Fri 20 Mar, 2015

    These days several Indian cities are enlivened by splashes of color: an imaginative mural, a stylish tag, a critical stencil. Street art and graffiti seem to be sprouting everywhere, but there is growing skepticism in the community on what it means when our consumer culture starts patronizing this usually unsanctioned art form.

  • Is the AAP Crumbling? Again?Wed 18 Mar, 2015

    Despite its incredible win in the Delhi polls, the party’s implosion started a while ago. A look at how all the infighting and backbiting has been steadily coming to a boil.

  • When I Die, I Want A PartyMon 16 Mar, 2015

    In June 2013, the writer met Suzette Jordan a week after she’d decided she would no longer be stifled by the name, ‘The Park Street Rape Victim’ and all that it implied. And there began a quiet friendship. This week, shaken by the news of Jordan’s sudden death, the writer attends the funeral and joins the family in remembering this extraordinary woman.

  • Things I learned at the Asian Women’s FestivalFri 13 Mar, 2015

    The International Association of Women in Radio and Television held its Asian Women’s Film Festival again this year, showcasing the work of women, but not necessarily about women. Here’s what our writer found.

  • Everything you need to know at the legal end of the Masarat Alam controversyTue 10 Mar, 2015

    And what's with Jammu & Kashmir’s Public Safety Act?