Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India – As his auto-rickshaw pulled up at Pari Chowk, the monumental roundabout at the navel of Greater Noida, 24-year-old Imran Uba’s mind was on the scoop of chocolate he was planning to order at a nearby ice-cream parlour.
It had been that kind of a day, pleasantly aimless – a Monday without classes to attend or assignments to complete. The springtime afternoons were already hot enough to slow things down in the National Capital Region, which groups Delhi and its sprawling, skyscrapered satellites.
But Imran found Pari Chowk bristling with energy. A public march for a teenage boy who had died that weekend had become an angry protest of perhaps 500 people.
Imran, who comes from Kano in northern Nigeria and studies at Noida International University, neither speaks enough Hindi to have caught the gist of the protesters’ chants, nor reads it well enough to have clocked the slogans on their banners, so it didn’t occur to him that he might be at risk.
But he did notice a shiver of intensity shoot through the mob – because that was what the protesters had now become – and then, suddenly, that it was focused on him.
As the crowd moved toward him, he caught the word “Nigerian” again and again, though he knew they would have called him that if he was Sudanese, or West Indian. It just meant that he was black.
He stopped walking and stood with his arms pinned to his side, terrified. Imran is quite tall but narrowly built; in this pose he looks small and young. There was nothing he could do, he reflects, because there were so many of them. He remembers the view from the ground, the kicks striking his stomach and head. The next scene he recalls was a hospital room.
Nobody could offer him an explanation, or even a narrative, for the violence until another wounded African man showed up at his bedside the next day and told him the story.
The story involved an accusation of cannibalism before there had even been a death. High-schooler Manish Khari went missing on a Friday evening. He would reappear, unwell and disoriented, the following morning, but by then a crowd of Khari’s community members had already burst into the home of five Nigerian students and reportedly searched their refrigerator. The Nigerians, they alleged, had killed and eaten Khari.
When the boy died in hospital on Saturday, his family demanded that the police file murder charges against the Nigerian neighbours. Familiar stereotypes – Africans as drug peddlers and kidnappers – hardened into “facts of the case” in the gossip on the street. But by Sunday the accused had been released. The police confirmed that they had found no evidence against the Nigerian men, although the investigation into Manish Khari’s death is stalled, awaiting the results of post-mortem testing.
But lack of evidence made little difference to the mob. On that Monday, the crowd at Pari Chowk was hoisting banners demanding the eviction of Nigerians from their rented housing in Greater Noida. That was when Imran happened upon them.
Three other African men were hunted down that evening inside the nearby Ansal Plaza mall, and attacked on camera.
Here is another way the story has been told, again and again, in different words: a match was struck in a racist tinderbox in the backyard of India’s capital.
But that’s not a version the Indian government seems likely to accept. At the time of writing, the Ministry of External Affairs and police representatives stand by an official denial of the racial character of the attacks.
‘You’re not exactly safe’
The same Monday, not very far away from Pari Chowk and Ansal Plaza, Elaine Tiende, a Cameroonian MBA student, drove to the market with a couple of friends to buy cooking oil.
The market, Jagat Farm, is frequented by Africans, of whom there are several thousand living in Greater Noida – the majority of them students.
Some shops at Jagat Farm are African-run, selling African food and cosmetics, and offering African hair styling. On that day, though, the Africans’ shops were shuttered. Elaine and her friends appeared to be the only black people there.
As they left with their bottle of oil, Elaine noticed subtle movement: locals clustering, tracking the three of them with their eyes. In French, Elaine told her friends: “The minute I open the car, you lock yourselves inside.”
She felt alarmed, but she walked at a measured pace. “In my culture we have a thing: If a dog is watching and you run, that dog will chase you,” she says.
A man blocked her path as she tried to reverse her car; she blasted the horn, then slid the car into gear and made him jump. “They really banged my car up in the back, pretty bad,” Elaine says. She shows me the damage: shallow dents and paint transfer. Nothing serious except a record of violent intent.
When she got home, her landlady greeted her at her door with worrying news. Locals – “they call them Gujjars, I think,” says Elaine, referencing the traditionally agricultural caste dominant in Greater Noida – had been there, looking for her. The landlady offered to lock Elaine and her flatmates in; they agreed.
It was the first time Elaine had been a victim of physical aggression in India, but it wasn’t the first time she had felt threatened.
She had arrived in Delhi as a patient at one of the capital’s respected private hospitals. She had been in a serious car crash and needed a series of surgeries, some of them cosmetic. “I looked pretty bad,” she says.
She had assumed that her injuries were what drew all the stares. But when she recovered, the stares didn’t stop. “Sometimes they look at you,” she says, “like you’re something good to eat.”
In class at Sharda University, which has one of the biggest African student bodies in Greater Noida, Indian friends whispered to her, “That person’s not your friend.” Behind her back, she was told, some classmates talked about Africans as cannibals and people-snatchers. “It was basically advice from an Indian to a foreigner: Keep your distance. You’re not exactly safe.”
“It’s frightening,” she says, before laughing: “But there’s comfort: Not all of them are like that.”
During the six days after the incident at Jagat Farm, she left the house just once, and then only with a police escort. On her third day behind drawn curtains, Elaine broke and called her parents, whom she had hoped to spare the worry. “My father immediately said: The moment you can step out of that house, you take a flight back.”
‘The law of mobs is always there’
Elaine wasn’t the only African in Noida under self-imposed house arrest the week after the attacks. After news of the Pari Chowk and Ansal Plaza assaults broke, the Association of African Students in India (AASI) posted a volley of notices via Facebook and WhatsApp instructing members not to go out. “The situation around the city is still VIOLENT,” read one post, dated Wednesday, March 29.
Abdou Brahim Mahamat, AASI senior adviser and former president, had little doubt it was a necessary caution. When he got word that the protest march for Manish Khari had “degenerated”, Abdou paid the nearest rickshaw driver whatever he asked for to rush him home along the back roads. “Rumours spread fast in the communities,” he says, adding: “[In India] the law of mobs is always there.”
Since Abdou began his architecture degree at Sharda University in Greater Noida four years ago, he has been a kind of distant witness to several attacks on Africans by Indians. In 2014, a New Delhi mob cornered and thrashed three students from Gabon and Burkina Faso in a metro station, accusing them of harassing Indian women.
In his studio flat, postered with sketched blueprints and study notes, Abdou flips open his laptop and pulls up online video footage of the assault. “If my friends or African community members somewhere in India feel unsafe, I can feel it also,” he says. “Their pain is my pain.”
Abdou was plugged into the AASI WhatsApp nerve centre when, last year, a mob in Bangalore dragged a Tanzanian student from her vehicle, stripped her and set her car alight, after a Sudanese man she had never met was implicated in a fatal road accident.
In May, he was in meetings with representatives of the Ministry of External Affairs after a 23-year-old Congolese man called Masonda Ketanda Olivier was beaten to death in an upscale Delhi neighbourhood. A week after his murder, a spate of assaults left seven Africans injured in Delhi’s Chhatarpur area.
After the latest attacks, Abdou and his fellow AASI officers were in crisis management mode, liaising between the police and stranded students, handling calls from reporters, communicating with embassy staff.
Racism: An undiagnosed ‘sickness’
At a meeting of African student representatives with Superintendent of Police Sujata Singh, the mood is cordial, and the coffee is served in tiny china cups. Abdou and his colleagues thank Singh for the measures her force has instituted; they seek assurances and are given them.
Police officers will continue to provide security to worried African students, says Singh, and she herself is “just a call away”. But the situation is now under control; “your people” should feel free to leave their homes. Six of the attackers are in custody; 60 had been identified by local spies and from CCTV footage. These “goons” are running scared, she told me in a later interview.
At the end of the meeting, a grey-haired Nigerian nanotechnology PhD student called Chris Onuegbu stands, and after remarking that he had been impressed with the police in recent days, makes a request for a public condemnation of the attacks from the police and the government. Singh responds: “It will be there. We are very particular about your security.”
No one seems to doubt the sincerity of Singh’s commitment, or the reliability of her advice. But, as Chris explains after the meeting, it isn’t enough. “Government must be seen to come out in every seriousness,” he says.
On March 31, the heads of African diplomatic missions in India issued a blistering rebuke to the Ministry of External Affairs. They had reviewed historic incidents of violence against Africans and concluded that “no known sufficient and visible deterring measures were taken by the government of India”.They found that the Greater Noida attacks were “not sufficiently condemned by the Indian authorities”. They were in agreement that the aggression was “xenophobic and racial in nature”. They would call for an independent investigation by the UN Human Rights Council.
On April 5, the response of Sushma Swaraj, the minister of External Affairs, came in an address to parliament. The African envoys’ statement was “unfortunate and surprising”; India was committed to ensuring the safety of all foreign nationals in the country. “Please do not say that the crime was motivated by racial reasons till the inquiry is over,” she said.
A couple of days later, a former MP from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, Tarun Vijay, made headlines when he offered his own denials on Al Jazeera’s The Stream. “If we were racist, why would we have all the entire south … Tamil, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra … why do we live with them?” he said, referencing the often darker complexions of southern Indians. “We have black people around us.”
Over the phone, Abdou responded: “If there is a sickness in your body and you do not recognise it, then you cannot get the proper treatment.”
Long before the attacks, Nigerian chemistry student Zaharaddeen Muhammad had learned to expect daily abuse on the streets of Greater Noida. “Hey bandar,” he hears: hey monkey. Hey kalu, hey habshi: children call out derogatory names for black people.
The accusations after Manish Khari’s disappearance weren’t the first time he had been told that people who looked like him were cannibals, but, he says: “It hurt, seriously. I bitterly cried for that.” He speaks softly and looks tired. “You know, Afghans are here. They don’t face such challenges, such insult.”
In Delhi, a feminist movement is agitating against sexist, infantilising university hostel rules. But here, at Sharda University’s Mandela Hostel, Adetutu Deborah Aina, a 33-year-old Nigerian lawyer and PhD student, says that the curfews and tight security make her feel safer, especially after she was harassed by a first-year student at another Greater Noida university. She had given him a questionnaire for a piece of research she was conducting. He called her and said he would fill it out if she slept with him. “Are you seeing the insult?” she asks, angry hands gesticulating. “It’s because I am black.”
His calls didn’t stop; she grew afraid that he would try to break into her room and alerted campus security. “They think that all Africans are prostitutes,” she says.
Out in public, strangers might grab at you, children tug at their parents’ hands and point, or duck away to hide, explains her friend Kumba Mbage, a 26-year-old Gambian law student. People sprint to overtake you, just so that they can turn and stare from the front. “Sometimes, the looks they give you – you’d prefer they just beat you up and you die.” She and Deborah laugh at the bitter hyperbole.
“You come to India, and ‘Nigeria’ is like a metonymy for Africa. Africa is like one thing, and the whole thing is just reduced to blackness.” She reads the hatred she has encountered as a projection of self-loathing by a population that spends more on skin-lightening cream than Coca-Cola. “I have learned something from their ignorance,” she says. “I see myself more clearly for it.”
The word “ignorance” is on many lips in Greater Noida. It feels like a kind of situational irony here, in India’s shiny new education hub. Ansal Plaza, the site of three of the attacks, is papered over in banner adverts for private schools and colleges, many of them “international”, and sits just outside an area called “Knowledge Park III”. Schools such as Sharda University take out ads in Nigerian newspapers, selling themselves on their cosmopolitan credentials.
But a manager at Ansal Plaza’s KFC, witness to the mob attacks, says the Gujjars of Greater Noida are not part of this outward-facing, aspirational universe. They are uneducated villagers who, he says, got wealthy too quickly when the developers moved in. They tended to read cultural difference as cultural affront, and to police it with the sort of language that he could not bear to repeat in front of me, a woman.
Chris Onuegbu, the Nigerian nanotechnology researcher, says: “I don’t think that this emanated from the enlightened class of society,” and describes the “local Indians” as “people who have never left, and never want to leave, the four walls of their own society”. It tallies with Superintendent Singh’s view that the problem is in essence a cultural clash, a deficit of trust, which must be remedied by opening wider channels of communication between foreigners and locals.
But the implication that ignorance is restricted to the illiterate classes bothers Kumba. It sounds like a kind of justification, an excuse to her. “Some people here are very educated, and they still don’t like blacks,” she says.
Of course, elite racism might not shout kalu, bandar, habshi on street corners. It might, for that reason, be easier to deny. According to Samuel Jack, president of the AASI, it might exist in the denial itself. “If you don’t address the problem,” he tells me on the phone, “you are almost promoting it.”
Praying for peace – and wisdom
The Sunday after the attacks, at a church service held in the auditorium of one of Greater Noida’s plush private schools, a Congolese woman called Ruth sings into a microphone: “And if our God is for us / Then who could ever stop us.”
On stage behind her, Elaine Tiende is on back-up vocals. The congregation sways, their palms raised. An African woman in a red kurta points to the ceiling and closes her eyes; a little Korean girl fans out her skirt and twirls in the back row.
This church, Elaine says, has been the best part of her experience in India. “I came to the land in the world that knows the least about Jesus and I found him here,” she laughs.
Despite her father’s pleas, she won’t go home until she finishes her degree in a couple of months. But once she graduates, she won’t come back to India: “Not for any reason. Whatsoever.”
This is the memory of India that she, and many other students in Greater Noida, will take back home with them. Kumba and Deborah say they would urgently counsel Africans studying in India. “The indignity you face every day. It’s too much. It is not worth it,” Kumba says.
When I met Imran, who spent most of his term’s tuition fee on hospital bills, he was considering leaving partway through his degree, although he has since decided to stick it out.
This negative legacy is something the African student leaders have warned of. Abdou, who, despite the difficulties and feelings of isolation says he would remember India as “incredible”, explains: “These people who come here, they are the future leaders. They could build that connection [between India and their country]. But not if they treat us like this.”
Elaine hasn’t quite worked out what she plans to do after her degree, other than go home. But when I ask her if she is worried about missing classes recently, she dithers modestly for a second before flashing a grin and declaring: “No, I’m not worried. I’m smart.” I learn that since she arrived, broken-bodied at Delhi airport, she hasn’t only undergone multiple surgeries and navigated a degree, but she has also juggled a full-time traineeship at a logistics firm and started a business manufacturing maternity clothes for export to Cameroon.
For the next month, she plans to keep her head down, and shuttle between work, school, church and home. She is more worried, she explains, for the Africans who have years left in Greater Noida. She gestures at the church’s empty seats. As many as half of the Africans she usually sees here on Sundays haven’t made it today.
After the sermon, the pastor, an Indian man, addresses the absence: “Many of our African brothers are not here, and we pray for them – for their safety and security,” he says. Then the congregation forms a circle, links hands and prays for the families back in Africa worrying about their children, and for peace. They also pray for the wisdom of the authorities.
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