The lives of African students in India in the time of racist attacks, told through the lens of Bengaluru photographer Mahesh Shantaram
Indians’ disturbing racism and their penchant for vigilantism has reached its peak during the past few years. In September 2014, a video emerged on YouTube of three black men being assaulted by a mob at a Metro station in Delhi. The men, whose alleged crime was “misbehaving with women”, couldn’t find protection even at a Delhi Police kiosk: the crowd rained blows despite the policemen’s attempts to stop it. In February 2016, a 21-year-old Tanzanian woman was stripped and beaten in Bengaluru following a car accident involving a Sudanese youth which resulted in the death of a man. Despite the public outrage, politicians justified the racist mob violence. That February episode deeply upset Mahesh Shantaram, a 38-year-old documentary photographer in Bengaluru who decided to challenge Indian society’s mob mentality through a series of photographs. His project Racism: The African Portraits aims to capture glimpses of the racism in India through photographs and stories of African students in India.
“In Africa, there is this rampant belief that Indians are well-educated. It might be because the Indians who have settled there may come across as well-educated. That is the current that draws students from Africa to India. It also helps that higher education in India is more affordable than in the West.The frequency of attacks have increased, but Africa is a huge continent. Education has been a constant dream. People don’t change their life plans on the basis of incidents.” Mahesh explains in a phone interview.
The attacks show no sign of dying down. Last week, a 23-year-old Congo national was bludgeoned to death in South Delhi after a tiff with some men over hiring an auto-rickshaw. Following this, African diplomats boycotted this year’s Africa Day celebration while minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj called for urgent action, stating that “such [attacks] against foreign nationals embarrass the country."
"We are a racist nation. We have a discriminatory attitude towards everyone, from Dalits to people from North East India” Mahesh adds.
His current ‘art project’ starts off with the ‘incident’of the Tanzanian girl. It then turns into a digital scroll, dealt with the interest of an anthropologist, a diarist and friend, of Black student life in metropolitan Bengaluru to the southern coastal town of Manipal to Jaipur and Amer in Western India.
"Before I left Zambia, I thought in India I would live like a boss!” Life in India didn’t turn out quite as expected for Hassan, a Zambian student who studies in Bengaluru. "People are so ignorant,“ he says. "They ask us if we wear clothes in Africa. Do you think we started wearing clothes only after coming to India?”
Little did Natoya, a medical student originally from Jamaica imagine that being a black woman in India would become a matter of daily combats. People would literally stop and stare at her, sometimes spit. All she understood was “African!” If she tried to stop and give them a geography lesson, they’d run away or verbally abuse her. And then those awkward solicitations from men who don’t know how to take No for an answer. Natoya’s fellow students, several years her junior, haven’t seen the world as much as she has. They are fair-weather friends who enjoy the exotic value of her company but hesitate to be seen in public with her.
Though all hope is not lost. The town of Amer in western Indian state of Rajasthan which houses the historic Amer Fort, is now the home of African students of NIMS University Jaipur. The students are mostly Nigerian Muslims and the elders of the Muslim majority town have invited them to move there.
“In foreign countries, racism is very well-documented. People talk about it. There is huge shame associated for being a racist. There are ways of addressing racism right from the top level itself. In India, we need to recognise what racism means, spot it and talk about it more often. Currently, the word racist comes to fore only when there is an incident. We need to change that. By virtue of being an Indian, I have also been a racist at some time or the other. Everyone needs help in understanding this about themselves.” Mahesh says.