Assimilation and Racism: Bengaluru’s International Student Community on Wanting to Belong

Many foreign students are keen to fit in while in India. But persistent racism, discrimination and inaction by the authorities makes this extremely difficult.

Students at Chancery Hotel for the iftaar meal. Credit: Makepeace Sitlhou

International students at Chancery Hotel for the iftaar meal. Credit: Makepeace Sitlhou

“They call it beans”, said Mobarak Abdalla, a 24-year-old student from Sudan studying pharma at East Point College in Bengaluru, unsure of the name he had used for the traditional Sudanese dish, Ful Madames, made up of mashed fava beans mixed with boiled eggs and tomato. His friends had prepared it from scratch and served it up with white bread and mango juice. The boys, some 10 of them, were at his rented flat in the city’s Kamanahalli area, for the evening iftaar meal and to watch the Euro Cup. With college shut, they slept and fasted during the day and were up all night feasting or playing football – a drastic change from the high tension that prevailed only a few months back.

“We want to know how to become friendly with the locals. Even if they’re wrong, we have to follow their rules because it’s for our own safety,” he said.

On February 6, Mobarak was at the city’s Freedom Park with a group of international students. They were protesting the mob attack on a Tanzanian student on January 31 in Bangalore and also held a candle light vigil for the local woman who died in the accident that triggered the mob fury. Enraged and shocked, the young students were looking for a way out of this friction. Mobarak said he wanted to learn Kannada because locals sometimes refuse to speak to him in English even if they can. On the other hand, Bakhir, an Afghani student, spoke of a more peaceful coexistence with his Indian friends. “I have so many Indian friends and we are living in perfect harmony. He added, “This recent incident with the Tanzanian student was really shocking and I didn’t really expect that such a thing could happen because Indians are really peaceful and great people”. Bakhir came to India two years ago on an Afghan government scholarship to pursue a BBA degree at Brindavan College.

In fact, at a meeting organised by Alternative Law Forum, a Bengaluru-based legal aid group, many students from African countries expressed their desire to build bridges with the locals. One of them even suggested, “We could have a food festival where we could serve biryani. We are even ready to clean up after”.

Such responses from African students and their effort to reach out to the local community has a wider context. A sense of fear has gripped students from African countries after the January incident and the recent killing of a Congolese student in South Delhi on May 20. Twenty-eight-year-old Bokor Moussa once nurtured romanticised notions about studying in India, but now thinks the security of African students is often compromised. “Since 2015 we’re getting harassed by colleges, policemen, even the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO). Now if someone asked me if India is a good place to study, I tell them to never come [here]”. An undergraduate student from Chad, Bokor serves as the current president of the Association for African Students in India (AASI).

Unchecked institutional harassment

Karnataka alone attracts the highest share of foreign students (36.4%), according to a 2014 study. Out of the 25,000 students from different African countries studying in private and public institutions in India, an estimated 6000 are in Bengaluru alone. Most African students, however, come through agents and fall for advertisements with incorrect and hyped-up depictions of colleges affiliated to Bangalore University (BU). “My cousin was studying here and I checked the website. But the website was totally different from the college”, said Mobarak.

Mobarak Abdalla. Credit: Makepeace Sitlhou

Mobarak Abdalla. Credit: Makepeace Sitlhou

In some cases, students have found facilities in the institutes are not up to the mark or as advertised, forcing them to apply for a ‘no objection certificate’ to be transferred to another college, which becomes another excuse for the college to extort the full course fee from them. Colleges have also been found to withhold certificates from students and ask for a ransom in the form of additional fees. This subsequently lands the students in trouble with the FRRO. The bona fide certificate is a document students are required to submit to extend their visa every six months to a year. In 2014, the People’s Union of Civil Liberties filed a complaint to the Karnataka State Human Rights Commission against Sree Omkar College of Commerce and Management on behalf of  some Ugandan students, who alleged that the principal impounded their passports, and denied them attendance and bona fide certificates, which delayed their visa renewal. In response to the allegations, the director of the FRRO stated “the circumstances [were] beyond the jurisdiction of FRRO [cannot be] controlled by FRRO, and hence the action taken by them [the college] cannot be treated as cruel treatment and torture to students”. However, the FRRO officials are required to make inspection visits to colleges where foreign students are enrolled.

The police report, which concluded “this is not a case of human rights violation but a case of students violating conditions laid down in the agreement between the students and the college management”, was pronounced erroneous by the commission for “failure to look into the allegations against the college management and the arrest of one of the students contrary to the provisions of the Registration of Foreigners Rules”.

In another complaint by a student of St. Hopkins College of Management who could not write an exam due to non availability of question paper at the centre, the state human rights body directed the FRRO to “avoid forcing the student to produce an undertaking from the college stating that he will not engage in any illegal activities during his stay in India, except where compelling reasons of national security requires depriving his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedures established by law”. In both cases, the commission upheld the human rights of the students against unlawful harassment by the college or the FRRO.

It is this nexus between the college, FRRO and the police that has trapped many African students into overstaying their visa. None of the non-African students I spoke to had paid for a bonafide certificate.

Abigail Femi (23), who completed her bachelors and masters degrees at the Indian Institute of Science, said that parents back home still relied the most on word-of-mouth or a friend’s recommendation for institutes to send their children to . “In Nigeria, students cross check a list of accredited universities on the website of the ministry of foreign affairs. So you look at the website and check if the school is on the government website, then it’s okay”. The information on the government website, however, may not always be updated.

African students more vulnerable to discrimination

Bokor said it is mostly African students who face institutional harassment, but he still finds it difficult to call the problem one of race. “Universities like Christ College don’t treat students like this. It is only the colleges under BU because they don’t have any control over the affiliated colleges. When we approached BU with this problem, they told us they’re only responsible for results and conducting exams,” he said.

Twenty-five-year-old Safra Riswan Hussein, a Sri Lankan student and general secretary of the Federation of International Students Associations – Bangalore (FISA-B), said she hasn’t been treated any differently than an Indian. But that’s largely because she speaks Tamil, the second most common regional tongue in the city. FISA-B mostly comprises of students from developing countries in Asia, West Asia and Africa through scholarships provided by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR).

Twenty-three-year-old Anik Chowdhury from Bangladesh, studying at Acharya Bangalore Business School, has seen students from African face more challenges in finding a house or with the police. “While getting police verification report, I was asked to get my landlord’s signature but an African friend of mine was asked to bring his landlord to the station”, he said.

Mauritian student Gavesh Kumarsingh Deonanan (20) made local friends with relative ease as opposed to fellow FISA-B member Djery Doucoure (25) from Mali whose eight course mates in Teachers Academy are either from Mali or Congo. Gavesh talked about wanting to make more international friends while Djery mostly was comfortable with moving around in “his own” circles. “When we come here, we mostly get in touch with our own brothers. We want to hang out with other international students but we have to make some sacrifices. They can treat you in a different way that makes you feel bad but you’ll still be there because you want to be friends”, said Djery, who came to India through an agent. Gavesh came to Bengaluru to study commerce at Brindavan College through the ICCR scholarship and speaks English well. “When I go to the dhabas and hang with my local friends, they’ve told me that they hold some kind of a grudge against African students. I don’t know why,” he said.

Abigail Femi. Credit: Credit: Makepeace Sitlhou

Abigail Femi. Credit: Credit: Association of African Students in India

Abigail explains that many of the students from African countries are from low income backgrounds and have come to study through ICCR scholarships, unlike students from US, UK or Australia who make it to the institutions directly. Referring to institutes like Christ College, she said, “These universities are expensive and the students come on exchange programs from developed countries. For African students, it is a privilege to be able to come to school that is not so expensive compared to universities in their own country. They feel so grateful for the opportunity and the colleges take advantage of it”.

She was asked to pay a different amount during admission but she held her ground. “I can’t stand injustice. They wanted me to go but I paid the same amount as everyone else did”. Despite paying the entire three-year tuition fee in her first year, her college had asked her to pay the fee again in the subsequent year. “The office lady told me there was some mix up and the person who made the mistake has left the job so I needed to pay,” she said, adding that the college has now changed for the better.

Despite a directive being issued in October 2015 by Karnataka State Higher Education Council’s overseas centre for foreign students, 30% of the universities have not yet appointed a nodal officer to address the grievances of foreign students, a Times of India report said. Meanwhile, FISA-B plans to start an international cell in every college to address the problems faced by foreign students and a website that would cover FRRO relations and guidelines in all Indian states. “When students come here they’re totally blank. They don’t know where to go, what to do or what are the procedures. So this cell will have one person from the college administration and international students”, Safra said.

Denial of racism: absence of any real engagement by the authorities and political leaders

The government’s blanket denial of racism has only served to further mask the racism African nationals are subjected to practically everyday. Bengaluru police called the attack on the Tanzanian student a case of ‘mistaken identity’. Sadanand Gowda, a BJP MP from North Bengaluru, went on the offensive and urged the state government to constitute a special squad to monitor foreign students, alleging that many in the city had overstayed their visa. The reference to ‘African students’ here is hardly veiled.

There’s a visible resistance from non-African students to call Indians racist and they attribute these incidents to “a small minority”. Mobarak said the gulf between cultures in African countries and India leads to a huge clash and hostility towards the former. “Even if you watch TV, they deny racism. If you deny racism, then you let locals do the same thing again”, he said.

Mobarak’s fears are not unfounded. Days after the Congolese student was killed, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj tweeted that the government would “launch a sensitization program to reiterate that such incidents with foreign nationals embarrass the country”. Minister of state for foreign affairs V.K. Singh called the incident a “minor scuffle blown up by the media” and asked citizens to question the “motive of the media”. All this while African nationals were being targeted in a series of attacks in Mehrauli in what seemed to be a further backlash to the stone pelting of Indian shops in Congo.

“The response is very weak”, Bokor said about the government’s response to these attacks. He said he had approached the state home minister with a petition that is yet to see a definitive response. Student associations, which otherwise guide foreign students with the procedures and their way around colleges and the FRRO, have yet to be lent a serious ear by state and central authorities. FISA-B had approached Bengaluru’s police commissioner for a meeting with international students to address their problems, which was postponed thrice before it was cancelled. “We even got six colleges who agreed to participate and the last time P. Harishekaran, the additional Commissioner of police (east division), promised to give us a date after speaking to the home minister. They told us to share the presentation before the seminar, which means they want to know what exactly will be discussed and we refused to do it”, said Mobarak. Bokor, however, credited Harishekaran for being the only helpful official.

Far from assuring students of their safety, local police raided student hostels and paying guest (PG) accommodations for unannounced checks after the January incident. The police visited Safra’s PG, where she lives with four other Sri Lankan students, everyday and asked her owner to fill out some papers and took the girls to the station in the police jeep. “We wasted two-three hours waiting for the commissioner who asked us if we had any problems because ‘the media is showing everyday there’s a problem with international students so tell us your problem’, on the evening before an exam. They asked to take some pictures with the assistant commissioner and said it is ‘just for the media’.  We felt like they don’t want to take proper action but just show that they are doing something,” she said. After this incident, the owner of the PG vowed never to take in international students and her friends blamed the African students for the inconvenience. “I have a lot of African friends and I felt that they started treating them differently,” Safra adds.

For now, AASI has set up a legal cell for African students with Alternate Law Forum and Manthan Law, another legal aid group. “We will be sitting every Thursday evening at Alternate Law Forum for anyone to walk in and seek legal advice. Students can also call the helpline number (7338422514) for immediate assistance,” said Darshana Mitra, a lawyer with the forum.

Students at Chancery Hotel for the iftaar meal. Credit: Makepeace Sitlhou

Students at Chancery Hotel for the iftaar meal. Credit: Makepeace Sitlhou

Last Sunday, the student members of FISA-B convened at the Chancery Hotel for an iftaar dinner, with dates and fruits served as entrees followed by some run-of-the-mill hotel food. The event was more symbolic as students from different faiths to break bread together. Joining their merriment were K. Ravi Shanker and Benoni Doss who run International Students Hospitality Organisation and Friends of International Students respectively. In the absence of any deliberate effort by the government and colleges to assimilate them, international students look up to Ravi and Benoni as paternal figures in a foreign land.

Benoni and his wife are among 12 families in the city who have volunteered to act as local guardians to international students. “What these students experience here will be the impressions they carry back home. We aspire to make lifelong relationships with them,” said Benoni, who works at a software company. An engineer by profession, Ravi has been assisting foreign students facing discrimination from colleges and landlords since 2000. Ask him about his source of funding and he quickly rebuts that he never intended to do this work “commercially”.

“After all,” he said, “making foreign students feel welcomed is at the core of India’s atithi devo bhava (the guest is equivalent to God) tradition”.

Makepeace Sitlhou is a freelance writer based in Bangalore. She tweets at @makesyoucakes.