When discussing the rural-urban divide in India, scholars say there is a huge contrast between Bharat that lives in the villages and the India that lives in cities. You could take that as a cue and say that India’s technology capital has two sides: A prosperous, globalised Bangalore and its uneasy underbelly, Bengaluru.
Though the city has officially changed its name to the latter, ironically, it is becoming less of a celebration of its original identity and more a mark of cultural fault-lines that pop up time and again, like it did this week when a 24-year-old Tanzanian woman student was stripped and beaten in an apparently racist incident.
Though Karnataka’s home minister called it an isolated incident and not a racist attack, the stereotyping involved in the incident clearly suggested so. The woman was targeted after a Sudanese ran over a local girl much earlier. A whole nation, Uganda, stands between Tanzania and Sudan. There can be little doubt of the racist urge simmering in the technopolis.
Bangalore now has Audi and BMW showrooms in its colonial-era lanes, and its startup billionaires are chronicled in Forbes and other symbols of global affluence. But only small drops of the wealth trickle down to its lowly inhabitants, who may not hold the passports that spell a real ride up the economic ladder – such as an engineering degree or English language proficiency.
An estimated 12,000 foreign students study in Bangalore, which has a thriving set of educational institutions. The colleges also attract students from other parts of India, especially the Northeast. They both have become targets in the past. Small incidents have only served as sparks to ignite simmering discontent – though the official triggers may not have communal or racist origins.
The students, cutting corners to save money, often end up in suburbs where the losers of the Great Bangalore Dream live. Cultural differences and suspicions can be common. This can lead to a tinderbox situation, like it did in Delhi last year, when Aam Aadmi Party leader Somnath Bharti faced charges of racism after leading a vigilante raid in the Khirki village inhabited by African students.
In March last year, three African youths, including a girl were thrashed in a Bangalore suburb in an incident that locals linked to drunken behaviour. Separately in the same month, city police said 540 African nationals had overstayed their visas, as they launched a hunt to track them down. Also last year, an Australian couple was allegedly harassed because the man sported tattoos of Hindu goddess Yellamma. He was let off after an apology in an clash involving local politicians.
A Rwandan student later told a newspaper: “We are called names sometimes. Travelling alone in buses is out of the question. Some people, mostly men, get angry just by looking at us.”
Such anecdotal evidence drums up support for the widely held belief that Indians can be racist towards Africans, even when the colour of their own skin is brown or darker.
In a Twitter poll run by this writer this week, 65% of 465 respondents said they believed Indian were racist.
Cosmopolitan Bangalore is often held up as an example of cultural diversity, thanks to its bustling public sector, technology companies and fashionable main streets where a babble of languages greet the tourist. But it has always had pockets of cultural chauvinism, just like Mumbai.
Kannada Chaluvali, a local political outfit, is often in the news for invoking local language interests in fiery protests by its cadres who wave yellow-and-red flags.
In 2014, an engineering student from Manipur was attacked by men who demanded he speak in Kannada or get out. In 2012, violence between Bodo tribals and Muslims in faraway Assam cast their shadow on Bangalore, leading to thousands of people from the Northeast trying to flee the city before things cooled.
Bangalore also occasionally sees Hindu-Muslim tensions, though they are subdued compared to northern states.
The biggest of the old tensions have been between Tamilians and Kannada hardliners, mainly over the sharing of Cauvery waters between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. As many as 16 people died in 1991in anti-Tamil violence in Karnataka in protests against the orders of the Cauvery Water Tribunal.
Bangalore and nearby Kolar Gold Fields, not far from the Tamil Nadu border, account for most of the Tamilians in Karnataka, estimated to be nearly 4% of the population.
In protests involving Cauvery waters, Tamil TV channels have been occasionally blocked.