New Delhi: The Association of African Students in India (AASI) held a press conference in Delhi on Monday, May 15, to address growing racial tensions in India. They also expressed solidarity with other communities who face similar discrimination. They were joined by Irom Sharmila and representatives from the northeast as they appealed for greater awareness. They also put forth a statement enlisting a set of demands for the government to act on.
There has been a spike in the number of racially motivated incidents of violence recently. In February this year, a Tanzanian student was stripped naked and assaulted in Bangalore. In March, two Nigerian siblings were beaten by mobs in Greater Noida and a Kenyan was dragged out of her cab. Similarly, there have been reports of racial violence against people from the northeast as well. Differences of appearance, colour and language have translated into malicious and unwarranted prejudicial stereotypes. Members of the African community are regularly stereotyped as drug dealers or cannibals and face several forms of racism.
In this environment of growing xenophobia in the country, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj attempted to play down the threat of racial hatred by suggesting that not all such attacks were racist in nature. At the universal periodic review of the United Nations Human Rights Commission on May 4, the Indian delegation, headed by attorney general Mukul Rohatgi, had tried to quell questions about racism in a similar manner by saying that “we cannot have a racist mindset” since India is the land of Gandhi and Buddha.
It is in response to these casual attempts at hushing up racism in the country that the AASI decided to directly address the media. “The idea is to have a joint conference and joint statement together to build platforms to create awareness and also send signal to government that these issues are prevalent in the society and it is high time to tackle these issues and find solutions,” said AASI president Samuel Jack. “We are opposing the government with facts, claims and evidence, that these issues are very prevalent. You move on the streets, you face discrimination. It is quite disappointing to see such a thing said by the attorney general of India.” Furthermore, he stressed the need to sensitise Indians about Africa and African culture, and highlighted the need for cultural exchange between communities to increase empathy and understanding.
The AASI also added that increasing police presence would not solve the problem and instead put forth a few demands that would help facilitate better safety and awareness. The first of these demands was the setting up of a special panel with lawyers and counsellors to look into incidents of racially motivated crimes. Another demand was to return the passports of Nigerian nationals that were confiscated in March during investigations on the incidents in Greater Noida in March. The AASI also appealed to the government to organise activities and events to showcase African culture and overcome barriers of communication. A suggestion for language classes for African students to learn Hindi was also voiced. “To know each other is really important,” added a member of the AASI.
Sharmila, who has been protesting against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts in Manipur for the last 16 years, was also present at the event and encouraged “peaceful mutual coexistence and respect for each other” while expressing solidarity with the African students. “We know we are different when it comes to appearance, but being different does not mean being disunited when it comes to the majority of India,” added Seilenmang Haokip, general secretary of the Kuki Student’s Organisation Delhi, a body that looks after the interests of students from the northeast.
The AASI and northeast student’s associations also plan to reach out to other marginalised and oppressed student communities, such as Dalit and Bahujan student bodies, to unite them and make the voices of resistance against discrimination stronger.