Journey of a Thousand Miles

"They ask us if we wear clothes in Africa. Do you think we started wearing clothes only after coming to India?"

African Encounters with Racism in India: Episode 1

India takes great pride in its ancient civilisation, inclusive philosophy and internationalist world-view. But the country that many African students, workers and visitors encounter bears little resemblance to that idealised self-image. Racism against Africans makes the headlines when a  violent incident occurs – and there have been too many of those in recent years. What passes beneath the radar, however, is the casual, everyday racism that Africans in India experience.

The Bangalore-based independent photographer  Mahesh Shantaram has spent months documenting the lives of African students and migrants across the country – the lives of those who have journeyed thousands of miles to study, work and live in India.

Tune in to ‘African Encounters with Racism in India’ every fortnight for a new episode.

February 4, 2016

“Hello, I’m calling from the Straits Times in Singapore. This is with regard to the horrific incident that happened in Bangalore yesterday. I saw your comments on facebook. Do you have any more information?”

“I know only what I’ve read in the news. I’m just a shocked online bystander.”

“Is there anything you’d like to say about the incident?”

“Sure. I definitely think that we in Bangalore—and you can quote me on this one…”

“Yes, yes! Go on…”

“We have become such racist bastards.”

“No… No, I cannot quote you on that one.”


“Shall I say that you are shocked that this is happening?”

“Yeah. I guess so.”

Pedestrians gather near the burnt-out shell of a vehicle at a local police station in Bangalore. Credit: AFP

Five people have been arrested for an assault on a 21-year-old Tanzanian business student, who was allegedly stripped and beaten by a mob in the IT hub of Bangalore – an incident that has launched a debate on African nationals facing racism in the South Asian country. 

Five held for assault on Tanzanian in India

Not in my city!

Soladevanahalli. A seven-syllable neighbourhood on the outskirts of Bangalore that I had never heard of. Until this incident. Halli means village in Kannada. Where was this village? Why were Africans living there? I had to do the distance to find out.

Bangalore witnessed a coming of age around the late 2000s. A swanky new airport befitting its silicon valley status. The long-overdue metro rail, tantalisingly visible on the horizon. A precursor to these developments was the redrawing of the city’s limits in 2007. The newly created metropolitan area of Greater Bangalore was home to 9 million people.

Almost overnight, this administrative decision swallowed up 111 villages surrounding it where life otherwise stood still. Vast tracts of forest and farmland gave way to rapid commercial development, which saw the mushrooming of several 21st century colleges. The construction of new blocks is a round-the-year activity.

That’s how Soladevanahalli became the student town that it is today, now oddly merged with the big city whose global identity is fed by the tempting promise of good times.Image 3

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At this hastily stitched interface between city and village, the friction is most pronounced. In the days following the assault of the Tanzanian woman, Sarayu Srinivasan, writing for The News Minute, captures the palpable sense of “fear and mistrust in the stretch of north Bengaluru dotted with several educational institutions.”

First steps

Sarayu introduced me to Hassan, an athletic 24-year old man and an extremely articulate marketing student from Zambia. His friends know him as Dega, that also being the nickname of his idol, the Brazilian footballer Edgar Aldrighi Júnior. But on the backstreets of Soladevanahalli, he prefers to go by Ganesh. Makes life simpler.

Hassan and I spoke at length about life in the halli. That was my introduction to everyday racism. “Before I left Zambia, I thought in India I would live like a boss!” Student life didn’t turn out quite as expected. Hassan became my window into the African community in Bangalore and their daily plight. “People are so ignorant,” he complained in frustration. “They ask us if we wear clothes in Africa. Do you think we started wearing clothes only after coming to India?”

They say all the world’s wisdom is printed on t-shirts. Hassan’s t-shirt today echoed one of my sporting passions (swimming, just to be clear.) I asked if he could spare a moment to be photographed on the roof of his apartment. In the background is the Soladevanahalli skyline.

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End note: We saw spontaneous appeals and heartfelt expressions of support pouring out from across the world. And many Africans in India spoke with passion about their experiences. One of those was by Abigail Femi, a Bangalore resident at that time.

Abigail recently moved to South Korea with her husband, from where she reflects on how life has changed for her:

When you are in a country where PDA is welcomed and not frowned at, and the people move on with their daily activities without staring and looking at you as if you’re from Mars; then hanging out and having fun with the hubby in public is liberating. #Thumbsupsouthkorea #Koreansrock #Fundaywithhubby

Mahesh Shantaram is an independent photographer based in Bangalore. Find more of his work at thecontrarian.in. Email him at [email protected].