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.

ALSO ON YAHOO ORIGINALS

  • 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?

  • Is Capital Fever Making Vijayawada Ill?Mon 9 Mar, 2015

    For decades this colorful, swaggering town has dreamt of escape, of leaving, of the US. But now it’s going to be Andhra Pradesh’s capital, and a rush of new money is happily ramming into the old city. There are many with fever dreams for everything ‘World Class’, but does anyone really want to stay in Vijayawada?

  • For the first time in Indian legal history, the Parliament has begun proceedings to attempt to impeach a judge over allegations of sexual harassmentFri 6 Mar, 2015

    Why 58 Rajya Sabha members have signed this petition and everything else you need to know.

  • Why Indian medical research wants you to smile for the cameraWed 4 Mar, 2015

    At the heart of every scandal around drug trials in India has been one question: did the research subject really know what he or she was getting into? For the first time, we might have a clear answer, thanks to a cool new innovation in medical research.

  • Why Do they Protest Being Looted When It’s for their Own Good?Tue 3 Mar, 2015

    In Chhattisgarh’s infamously polluted Korba, Nirupabai came with her aged mother to protest the mine’s expansion that will wipe out her village and put them on the road. In Delhi, Baldiya Rana came with her aged mother to protest the new Land Ordinance that now lets the government grab land without the owner’s consent. Across India, millions are dissenting against the Modi government’s aggressive push to remove checks and balances for acquiring land. The experts on TV say these protestors are ignorant, short-sighted and unaware of the benefits to themselves. But are they?

  • Where do Adivasis stand in Indian law?Fri 27 Feb, 2015

    Adivasis constitute 8.6 percent of Indians. The Constitution has always aimed to protect their interests. Has the law?

  • Siddharth Vihar is gone. And with it, an important piece of Dalit historyWed 25 Feb, 2015

    While the Maharashtra government is going over plans to spend Rs 30 crore to buy the London bungalow that BR Ambedkar once stayed in, Siddharth Vihar, the boys’ hostel in Mumbai that was once the site of important political and cultural activity within the Dalit community, has been demolished. Close to a hundred students have currently been left in the lurch as a result, but here’s why the demolition means so much more.

  • What I Learned by Reading Every Budget Speech Since India got IndependenceMon 23 Feb, 2015

    In 68 years, Budget speeches have provided an idiosyncratic, potted history of the country. And no aspect of the Budget has been more fascinating than that of income tax. From socialist Strict Uncle-style disapproval of high income and a focus on egalitarian ideals to a markedly capitalist approach, here's how income tax has changed over the years.

  • Why Your Car is a Chemistry Lab on WheelsFri 20 Feb, 2015

    What makes cars one of the most successful inventions of all time? The answer lies in science.

  • Which Players Will We Remember from this World Cup?Wed 18 Feb, 2015

    Even in this age of globalized sport, multiple new formats and around-the-clock coverage, the cricket World Cup is unique in how it can transform young players’ performances and reputations. From newcomers to international cricket, like Haris Sohail and Axar Patel to more established young guns like Kane Williamson and Adam Milne, this tournament is already throwing up some fresh faces who are trying to deliver on the promise of a lifetime.

  • The Final Sanjana and Other Truths About the New Horrex HeroineMon 16 Feb, 2015

    Why do horrex heroines in Bollywood rarely get to take charge when it comes to ghostbusting? What should really scare them is a creature that walks on two legs.

  • This Valentine’s Day, should we reserve our love for instant noodles?Fri 13 Feb, 2015

    Is happiness an empty word? Is love only about hormones and neurotransmitters? Our writer ruminates on the confusing urge to send romantic love packing. And why she hasn’t done it yet.

  • Your Sari Is Like A ThermosWed 11 Feb, 2015

    Need the warmth of a sweater in winter and the breeziness of a skirt in summer? A new study finds that the traditional sari is the perfect all-weather clothing – and that everything depends on how you drape it.

  • This is one of India's best psychiatric hospitals. Is it enough?Mon 9 Feb, 2015

    India has about 78 million people with mental health problems, but only one psychiatrist for every 332,226 people, and one psychologist for every 2,127,660 people. Between the vast shortage of treatment options and colonial-style asylums, where does one look for success stories? Our author visits the Schizophrenia Research Foundation (SCARF) in Chennai for a better view.

  • Why Manjunath Kamath Has Returned to His Old and True LoveFri 6 Feb, 2015

    With every new show, Manjunath Kamath promises storytelling, absurdity and wit. As for medium or material, all bets are off since he reinvents his work every time. Leaving behind his digital prints, murals, watercolor animations, claymations and fiber glass sculptures, Kamath has returned to the fragile medium of terracotta sculpture in which he began his journey as a leading artist of his generation.

  • Why is Delhi Looking for a Second Opinion?Thu 5 Feb, 2015

    Here we go again. Delhi is about to elect a new leader amid all the old questions. But this time, the BJP controls both the central government and the municipal corporation. So why are Narendra Modi and his party struggling so much against the perkily resurgent AAP and Arvind Kejriwal? What lode of unpredictability is the capital tapping into?

  • Inside The Fellowship Of The Relentlessly PositiveMon 2 Feb, 2015

    India is said to have the third highest population of HIV positive people in the world. It’s no longer a disease anyone seems to talk about though there are fresh infections everyday. Funds are drying up and everyone’s looking away. But for those newly diagnosed, for those who have been living with it for years, hope comes from within the community. Their fellow sufferers are the ones who fight prejudiced doctors, make sure they stay on the course with drugs, remind them of tomorrow, remind them of love. Across the country, in every district, it is within these tiny rings of hope that the HIV positive find life again.