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

Aastha Chauhan
Grist Media


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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.

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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.


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.

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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.