© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Ugly Side Of Being An African Student In India

On March 24, Manish Khari, an Indian teenager in Greater Noida, a city on the outskirts of India's capital New Delhi, went for a walk and did not come home.

Someone said he had been seen with some Nigerian students who lived a few doors down. An angry crowd barged into their house but could not find the boy. A rumor spread that boy could not be found because the Nigerians were involved in cannibalism.

The teenager eventually showed up but was thoroughly disoriented. He complained of heart palpitations and was rushed to the hospital, where he died. The cause of death is not known, although the family suspects that drugs were involved.

Indian police and onlookers surround African nationals at a shopping mall in Greater Noida.
Virendra Singh Gosain / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Indian police and onlookers surround African nationals at a shopping mall in Greater Noida.

Five Nigerian students were booked under charges of murder but let off when no evidence was found linking them with the boy or drugs.

On the 27th, a candlelight vigil was held for the teenager outside a mall in the neighborhood. But the vigil turned violent; a mob attacked some Africans with sticks, metal bins and chairs. Nigerian students Precious Amalawa and his brother, Endurance, were eating at a KFC in that mall and were caught in the melee as they tried to leave.

"There were kicking at us and shouting at us," Precious Amalawa told the media outlet Scoopwhoop News from his hospital bed. "We kept asking what had we done. Even dogs are treated better." Four Nigerians were hospitalized that night.

A few days later the Association of African Students in India (AASI) issued a statement: "[Because of the] failure to secure the lives of African students and to ensure maximum security in areas where African students live, we will write to the African Union to cut all bilateral ties with India."

Many do not realize that in its own modest way India is a magnet for African students looking for an international experience during higher studies. In his paper about perceptions of African students by the local community in the Indian city of Pune, anthropologist Wondwosen Teshome-Bahiru says there are several "push and pull factors" behind this. The push factors include "shortage of higher academic institutions" in parts of Africa as well as "political instability" in some African countries. The pull factors are the affordability of higher education in India as compared to the West, the fact that the medium of instruction is English and "fast and less complicated" admission procedures. Many come to study IT since India is well known for that globally.

India's government and private universities are anxious to sell the country as an affordable destination for higher education, so they've been laying out the welcome mat for African students for a while. In 2007 the Indian government set up its Pan African e-Network Project, linking some African and Indian universities to exchange expertise. And in 2016 Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced 50,000 scholarships for African students over the next five years.

In 2014 over 10,000 African students were studying in India with Sudan, Nigeria and Kenya leading the pack. In 2016, there were 42,420 foreign students in India, and Sudan and Nigeria were both in the top 5 countries of origin for those students, while the other three top spots occupied by India's immediate neighbors.

Universities have hired registration agents in Africa and run seminars with prospective students and their parents. "They do a lot of marketing, video conferencing and workshops," says Samuel T. Jack, a Nigerian student in India who is the president of AASI.

The slick promotional video for Sharda University, for example, stresses its "global vision" and has idyllic images of smiling African students mingling with local students. An African student strums a guitar, others walk down the hallway with their backpacks alongside Indian classmates. African students are all over the video, sometimes in suit and tie discussing career options, sometimes in traditional tribal costumes dancing at the "mega cultural festival." It all has a very 21st century Kumbaya feel to it.

The reality these students face in India has been rather different. "I have been here five years," says Jack bitterly. "My classmates might laugh and talk with me in school. But no one has ever invited me to their house. No one has ever said 'Sam, come home and meet my parents.'"

What's worse, he says are the assumptions. "I don't smoke but when I walk on the street I am asked, 'Bro, can I get some hash?'" Africans are stereotyped as criminals, drug dealers, prostitutes and now, in a new low, cannibals. Jack does not deny that some African students are involved in the drug trade but angrily asks why Africans are singled out and racially profiled for what is a much broader social problem.

The stereotypes have made life hard for the African students as they struggle to make a home in India's teeming cities. Jack says he hears many complaints about how hard it is to find housing. Taxi drivers fleece them. He says it's very difficult to get internships. Local landlords complain that the Africans drink, party and drive rashly. "We are conservative people and these African women dress up badly," a landlord in Delhi told Mail Today. Our children are influenced."

That culture clash has turned into something uglier.

In 2016 in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru, an allegedly inebriated Sudanese student driving a car accidentally ran over a woman on the sidewalk. An angry mob attacked a carload of Tanzanians who happened to be passing through the area, set their car on fire and tore the top off one of the Tanzanian women.

In 2012, Yannick Nihangaza, a student from Burundi, was beaten up by locals who mistook him for someone they had an altercation with outside a liquor shop. He died after two years in a coma. In 2014, Delhi's law minister led a post-midnight raid in a house where four African women lived on the suspicion of a drug and prostitution racket and allegedly forced them to give urine samples. The minister claimed community support for his vigilantism but eventually resigned. In 2016, Masonda Ketada Olivier, a young Congolese French teacher, got into an altercation with three men over an autorickshaw. He died after one of the men allegedly hit him on the head with a stone.

The Indian government always calls the violent incidents "deplorable" and promises "stringent action" but also insists they are not racially motivated. In the Greater Noida case, the local district magistrate insisted "It is absolutely not a hate crime, nor is it some kind of anger against a race."

Even as he said that, banners and posters appeared in the area, hanging at traffic intersections, calling for a "Nigerian-free Greater Noida."

"The government is saying this is not a racial issue. Then I want to know what it is," says Jack.

"Whiteness has always been a preferred category in India," says social scientist Shiv Visvanathan of O.P. Jindal Global University in Sonepat, pointing to the proliferation of newspaper and TV ads for skin-lightening creams. He also notes that even within the Indian caste system there was a gradation of color with the lowest castes and so-called "untouchables" often the darkest. But Visvanathan says that this is "stereotyping beyond racism." He says that those who attack Africans think they are not just black "but ugly because they are lumpen, uncivilized and here just to have a good time." He says there's always an excuse for the provocation — a radio playing too loud, a traffic altercation, alcohol — but it boils down to neighborhood vigilantism where the "crowd shows it knows how to deliver justice to the alien."

While the government shies away from terms like "racial attack," the envoys of Africa stationed here are not mincing their words. Categorically describing the attacks as "racist" they said on Monday that they would take India to the Human Rights Council of the United Nations.

Jack says African students are nervous and their parents back home are terrified. Local embassies are advising the students to not panic and keep calm and remain indoors. The universities are providing food, medical supplies and other essentials until the situation returns to normal.

Jack hopes the fallout over the Indian teen will blow over soon. African students have also met with the police to discuss sensitization and were assured that the Indian government would compensate them for damages and medical bills.

A football match between Indians and Africans is being planned by Sharda University to defuse the tension.

But for jittery African students, such efforts may not be sufficient to make them feel safe.

Jack says he's doing his best to reassure them but he admits if today an African student tells him he is thinking about coming to India, he will have some tough advice.

"Don't make India your study destination. I'll tell them stay home, my friend."

Based in Kolkata, Sandip Roy is the author of the novel Don't Let Him Know. He tweets @sandipr.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.