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Once victims, now perpetrators of racial abuse, a story of Indian racism

Delhi’s migrant populations have long been ghettoised, none quite as the African community has, but Abhirup Dam sees that voices of dissent are slowly gaining volume, as “outsider” communities finally stake their claim in the great urban conundrum.

Abhirup Dam  24th Aug 2013

African students protesting against racial discrimination on Delhi streets

aise yeh neighbourhoob kaafi safe hai, bahut working log rehte hain. Chinki logo ko ghar to hum phir bhi dila dete hain, lekin habshio ko kabhi nahi.
"Arrey kya bataun Sir, kuch do habshi rehte the yahan, pata chala ki ek bachche ko maar ke fridge main rakh diye. Pata nahi kya khate hai yeh log!"

"[...] otherwise this neighbourhood is quite safe; a lot of working people stay here. We accommodate chinkis, but never habshis."


"What do I tell you Sir? There were a bunch of them staying here when we heard that they have killed a kid and stored the body in their fridge. Can't imagine what all these people eat!"

I was at a loss, definitely, for words, reactions, rationale and whatnot. It had struck first as tragedy and then as farce. The aforementioned is what a broker decided to share with us while finalising the lease for my friend's recently rented apartment — the single point of interrogation perpetrated at the expense of my verbal exchequer. Both chinki and habshi are racist slangs for people from the northeast, and of African origin respectively, used by a wide cross section of Delhi, with habshi being a colloquial term denoting 'black slaves' surviving from the days of the Raj.

Racism is a deep rooted and layered phenomenon among Indians and is complex to understand in a country where social stratification is structured around various markers. The classic occidental assumption of caste being an extension or form of racism was undoubtedly flawed, but it is not difficult to understand what informed such inferences. The Aryan domination of the Dravidian races was based on the superiority of fair skinned people, superincumbent on a finer culture, as opposed to the dark-skinned, savage dasyus. In contemporary times, prejudices based on skin colour and features still permeate the social fabric of this city and country at large. Surely we have come a long way treading the boulevard of modernity and rationality — racism and casteist behaviour are unpardonable offences under the law — but discrimination such as these are often so internalised that they become almost pathological. It is this clinicality of attitudes that also produces racism and casteism in urban spaces as absurdly outrageous practices and assumptions (Case in point: The pot-bellied broker accusing people of African origin of cannibalism).

It is established that Indians are racist. Urban cities, which grew up as the liberated, modern other of the hinterlands have altered the modalities of racial discrimination, but definitely not done away with it.

It is established that Indians are racist. Urban cities, which grew up as the liberated, modern other of the hinterlands have altered the modalities of perpetration, but definitely not done away with it. These 'outsiders' while negotiating space in this colossal urbanscape often find themselves inhabiting ghettos, which one doubts they had any idea of forming in the first place. Walter is from Ethiopia and lives in Safdarjung Enclave's 'poverty pocket' (a poverty pocket for the writer constitute those relatively run down areas which exist around or within posh localities in Delhi). He works for a Pentecostal church which funds his education here. Walter is pursuing a course in animation, alongside attending spoken English classes. On being asked for how long he has been in Delhi and why did he choose to stay where he does, he says "It's been two years. For the first four months I used to stay in a hotel. It was difficult to rent a place. People were unwilling. Then I heard that a lot of Ethiopians stay here. I got in touch with an acquaintance who helped me rent this place. But the owner charges me more than the other tenants. I tell him that I am not rich like other foreigners, but he doesn't get it." I egged him on to tell me whether he has ever been racially discriminated against. He said, "It's not like that. People don't abuse you. But they don't treat you well. Shopkeepers, brokers, landlords, there is contempt in their behaviour. Sometimes I feel people snigger and pass remarks at me."

he serpentine lanes and by lanes of Krishna Nagar and Arjun Nagar, right in the heart of Safdarjung Enclave, is one of many ghettos that our immensely heterotopic national capital harbours. A sizeable population of northeastern people and people of African origin rent places here. Christie is from Nagaland and lives with three other girls in a two bedroom flat here. She says, "I have always found it easier to rent houses where there are other people from the northeast. In a city where we face enough rubbish every day, sticking around with your own kind does not come across as a bad idea." She commutes to her workplace at Noida every day, a considerable distance, but is happy to sacrifice travel time for safety and ease of living. Places like Malviya Nagar, Khirki, Bhagwan Nagar and Munirka in south Delhi, and Mukherjee Nagar, Kamla Nagar etc around DU in north Delhi comprise major urban ghettos where northeastern and African origin students and working professionals live. The stories they tell are often punctuated by shared lived experiences and are rarely typical of the locale.Image 2nd

Yet there are other communities, other ghettos whose racial profiling almost always takes on the comportment of legal prosecution. Delhi has a considerable number of Afghan immigrants living in areas such as Lajpat Nagar, Bhogal and Jangpura. Most of them come here temporarily to avail of medical facilities, but a large section moved and settled here due to political reasons, especially the Taliban persecution. In the face of recurring terrorist attacks, the police often pick up unassuming people from within the community on alleged charges and claims of terrorist links. Ali, who left Kabul seven years ago, now owns a small retail outlet in the Lajpat Nagar market. He recounts, "After the 26/11 attacks, my brother was taken in for questioning though he had just arrived in Delhi. More so, he had been living in Lebanon for a while and we could not figure out what led to his two day long custody." Majnu ka Tila, the prominent Tibetan ghetto, has occupied headlines for a while now as being a politically volatile space, with the Free Tibet movement gaining momentum every day.

Ghettos are dodgy places, where regressive 'foreign' cultures are on the loose (does not matter even if the 'culture' is from the north eastern parts of the country which the state so dearly wants to cling on to). But when you walk through their alleys, you see welcoming faces, faces which rarely confront you with hostility. Isn't persecution and discrimination supposed to produce anger and dissent? But there is dissent, there is growing annoyance and people have organised to make their voices heard. Yet no amount of deputations and demonstrations can bring in any change until we stop hailing out to the other, as 'other' — "Hey you, chinki, habshi, or whatever..."

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