The belief that Africans are depraved and perverse lingers in India

  • Linda Peasah Owusu
  • Updated: Feb 08, 2016 22:28 IST
African students participate in a protest against the alleged assault of a Tanzanian woman in Bengaluru. (AP)

It started with Gandhi, continued with the non-aligned movement and now the recent India-Africa summit. The affinity between India and Africa has a long history, so to think that the continent is alien to the people of India seems improbable.

However, this is a reality. The belief that the African is depraved, poor and perverse still lingers in the minds of many Indians. The belief that the Africans are of lesser mind and needs saving from themselves informs the thinking of many.

The incident in Bengaluru emphasises this — an African was involved in an accident, another student who had nothing to do with this incident was pounced upon by a mob of mostly males, who ripped her clothes, were abusive and explicitly targeted her for being African, for being a girl, for being vulnerable, for being alone, for being at a public place at a particular time.

The incident caught the attention of the media probably because of its brutality, but this is not the first time an African has gone through such an ordeal because of her identity. We have been constantly reminded of our ‘blackness’ and of being African. The look of suspicion and differential treatment we receive at various levels; both in school and offices are just a few of the many things we encounter as African students in India.

When I heard of the mob action and the treatment meted out to my compatriot, I began to recount my own experiences. I discussed this with my professor Dr Anuradha Chenoy, who has been a great support. As an African student in India, I came to understand what Frantz Fanon meant in the beginning pages of his books The Fact of Blackness and Black Skin, White Masks, and his sudden consciousness of his identity and the apparent difference he felt when he left his home for Paris. I came to realise that I am an African, and a West African for that matter. For the first time. I was constantly reminded of my identity by the gazes of people who passed me by.

As Africans we face discrimination at many points and it is even more pronounced if you are a woman. We are laughed at, ridiculed and I sometimes wonder, “Has an African no god?” The institutions in India, both the schools (universities we are enrolled in) and the government have failed to deliver on the promises of protecting and sheltering us as international students. We are left to deal with the harsh and adverse reality of a people who have a misconceived perception of an African.

But should my identity and where I come from really matter in this day and age? And should being a woman warrant such mob treatment? What happened to treating people equally and fairly regardless of gender, tribe or nationality? Clearly, what was operating in this case of the mob attack on the Tanzanian student was a mindset, a misconceived notion and a constructed view of the behaviour of the African. A perverse image of the African which is reinforced by our intolerance towards people we deem different.

This mindset, unfortunately, does not only target race, but also targets other identities that are different from their own; like being a woman. Being a woman brings with it its own dangers and challenges for you are an embodiment of your race and continent. We are prone to ill treatment because of our perceived vulnerability and difference in physical strength.

We see the injustices described being lived in front of our eyes. We have a categorical duty to respect the dignity of persons and the reason for this respect is we are all rational beings. Clearly, this was absent in the mob’s action. The African woman in question here was bereft of this dignity. This calls into question the very idea of justice. How do we punish a mob? Does being in a collective group give the mob impunity? Are we living in a society where a mob will be allowed to take any action it considers right, but are actually criminal and then get away just because they are a band of brothers?

I was happy that the MEA has sent a team to examine this incident in Bengaluru, because India is like a magnet for African students. Thousands want to come here to study. The competition is very keen but we compete fairly for this opportunity. The Indian government has been in the past and even more now, establishing greater links with African countries through trade, lines of credit, investment and Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation programmes. But to make all this possible, local people must be taught to be gracious, humane and tolerant of difference. India has announced 15,000 foreign scholarships, these will be well used if students are assured of their safety and are welcomed by people.

How would this be possible and how do can we achieve this feat?

First such an incident should not repeat itself and justice must be served and those complicit in this incident should be appropriately punished. Again, justice here means more than due process. The victim should be properly compensated, counselled and reassured of the due process that exists. Last but not least, the citizenry should be educated and re-oriented.

We realised that India-Africa friendship is only known at the highest level, with little being done at the local level. It is unfortunate all the leaders failed to deliberate on the issue of the plight of African students during the recent summit. Both the leadership of India and Africa must endeavour to include issues pertaining to the life and general situation of the African diaspora in India at high-level meetings and platforms.

Linda Peasah Owusu is a student at the School of International Studies, JNU. She is from Ghana. The views expressed are personal.

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