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

  • 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.

  • The Questions We Should Be Asking Frequently About the Land Acquisition ActFri 30 Jan, 2015

    And answers from an expert

  • His Were the StreetsThu 29 Jan, 2015

    What’s written on our walls is important because sometimes our death warrants first appear there. Mohammed Hanif remembers his friend Asim Butt, an artist whose wall art seemed to have found a way of marrying JG Ballard to Habib Jalib. From hubcap lice to the backs of trucks, from Eject signs during Musharraf ’s emergency to the mythical perfume chowk, Hanif meanders through Karachi indulging his special fondness for the writing on walls.

  • America’s Chanting Guru and His Swaying Indian TourTue 27 Jan, 2015

    He’s supposed to be the bestselling chant artist of all time. He performed at the 2013 Grammy awards. Almost 45 years after he first came here, Krishna Das is conducting his first ticketed tour of public kirtans across India and minting some rather unusual fans of Hanuman chanting. Is it all really a spiritual hit back from the West or a long-awaited cashing in?

  • Nothing to See Here. Move Along. Just The Uncle-ification of Urdu in IndiaWed 21 Jan, 2015

    What else can explain its current he-he-joking, controversy-fearing, good-job loving avatar?

  • No historians were hurt in the making of this objectMon 19 Jan, 2015

    The 75th Indian History Congress this month should have been the site of another skirmish in the ongoing culture and memory wars. And the Congress waited with bated breath, convinced there'd be bloodshed.

  • Who Will Stop The Plagiarists?Sat 17 Jan, 2015

    In the drawing room of a suburban West Delhi home sits an elderly vigilante, the head of an organization that has been tracking criminal vice-chancellors, unethical professors and copycat students since 1981. But with only the force of moral authority to help them battle plagiarism in India's scientific community, can the Society for Scientific Values keep up the good fight?

  • If you're in your second trimester and want to get an abortion in Maharashtra, good luckWed 14 Jan, 2015

    The laws in Maharashtra are pitting those who fight against sex selection and those who fight for abortion rights against each other. Meanwhile it's not fun times for women.

  • When parents pay for international schools what do they think they are getting?Mon 12 Jan, 2015

    And is it paisa vasool?

  • Why are we pretending that there isn’t a growing mountain of menstrual waste we need to deal with?Fri 9 Jan, 2015

    And no, burning them is not the best idea ever.

  • Love may know no locksmiths but teenage lovers in India can now be stuck with rape chargesWed 7 Jan, 2015

    The well-meaning new laws were meant to protect children from adult predators. So why are they now criminalizing underage consensual sex? And how did they become the handy tool of angry parents?

  • What Makes Virat Kohli So Brash, Flash and Eager to Smash?Mon 5 Jan, 2015

    He likes the cameras, he likes his hero status and he likes to play hard. India's new cricket captain is incredibly different from his revered predecessors in his win-and-enjoy-at-all-costs gusto. Is this the beginning of the age of Kohli?

  • Yahoo Originals: The Best of 2014Wed 24 Dec, 2014

    The heaviest, coolest and craziest stories of the year. From Kabul to Chennai, from Kashmir to the Andamans, from Manipur to Jharkhand, our writers went everywhere. And found everything that shook us this year: sex, politics, doughnuts, football, gods, deserts, seas and much more.

  • Why I Like Leaning In. Way In. Into My All-Girls’ HostelTue 9 Dec, 2014

    Is a women’s hostel a utopia or dystopia, or is it even better – a place to ignore the boring universe of men? Our writer reluctantly joined a hostel, only to fall in love with the wheels within wheels, the worlds within worlds she found – a sakhi sammelan, Renaissance Florence, a sandcastle and a place to play academic Thelma & Louise.