New Delhi/Greater Noida, India – After a year in India, Zaharaddeen Muhammed, 27, knows enough Hindi to understand what bander means. Monkey.
But it isn’t even the daily derogatory comments that make him doubt his decision to swap his university in Nigeria for a two-year master’s degree programme in chemistry at Noida International University. Nor is it the questions about personal hygiene, the unsolicited touching of his hair or the endless staring. It is his failure to interact with Indian people on a deeper level.
“People often look at me as if I am different, and hard to be trusted,” the tall, softly spoken student explains. “I try to be friendly. I speak Hindi and always laugh. But when I offer biscuits to the neighbours’ children, they don’t accept.”
After a year, one of Zaharaddeen‘s biggest wishes remains unfulfilled: to be invited to an Indian wedding.
“I am a big fan of Bollywood,” he explains about why he wanted to come to India. “I did not come for the school because there are enough good universities back home. But I wanted to learn about this other culture and interact with the people here.”
While he speaks with his Indian classmates at the university, a 75-acre campus accommodating students from more than 20 countries, and some of them also showed up for an international cultural event he helped to organise, none of these encounters lead to friendships.
“I have never been at an Indian person’s home, as a friend. No one has visited me,” Zaharaddeen says.
Zaharaddeen rents two rooms on the first floor of a three-storey house in Greater Noida, a residential area on the outskirts of Noida, a satellite town east of New Delhi and part of what is called the National Capital Region. The house is about an hour’s drive south after crossing the River Yamuna which runs along Delhi’s east side.
Noida International University, one of five private universities in the city attracting students from all over the world, is another 20 minutes’ drive by bus or auto rickshaw along a newly constructed expressway, surrounded by barren fields and opposite a Formula 1 racing circuit that was built in 2011.
The university hostels are all off-campus. Zaharaddeen opted out of living in them because he likes to cook his own meals and he’d heard that the hostel canteens only serve vegetarian food.
A friend from Nigeria, who was already in India, found his current house for him. The ground floor is also rented out to a student from Nigeria.
“My landlord is an extremely good person,” Zaharaddeen says. Although he has had some bad experiences with Indian people, many of them are good, he stresses. And he doesn’t want to generalise.
“That would be a huge mistake. Because it is Indians often generalising about all people from Africa that makes us feel unsafe.”
‘Racism at every turn’
Zaharaddeen is a member of the Association of African Students in India, which last month announced a protest rally at New Delhi’s protest street Janter Manter.
“African students no longer feel safe in India; we have to deal with racism at every turn,” said the announcement.
The rally was planned after the Congolese teacher Masonda Kitanda Olivier died in an attack in Delhi in May. A week later, six Africans, including two women and a priest who was on his way home with his wife and baby, were attacked by men with cricket bats.
Earlier this year, a female student from Tanzania was beaten and stripped in Bangalore by an angry mob, in response to a fatal accident caused by a Sudanese student unknown to her.
Zaharaddeen speaks with horror about the attack in Bangalore: “She was just walking there. It could have happened to any of us.”
In each of the cases, the police said that racism had nothing to do with it. But for the student association and the Group of African Heads of Missions, it had, and the time had come to take up the issue at a higher level.
‘Followed and harassed’
Zaharaddeen was supposed to coordinate transport for the students from Greater Noida wishing to attend the rally, but it was cancelled when the student leaders and diplomats were invited for talks at the Ministry of External Affairs and the police commissioner made commitments to ensure their safety.
After that, Delhi police organised several community meetings with residents from African countries and their Indian neighbours and landlords.
Zaharaddeen attended one of the meetings in Chattarpur in southwest Delhi, an area full of narrow alleys popular with students.
“It was very useful,” he says. “Both sides got to raise their issues.”
African residents spoke about the difficulties they often have in finding accommodation.
“When landlords find out where you are from, they just say ‘no’,” explains a female student, who asked us not to reveal her name or nationality for security reasons.
“I don’t want to be targeted. Even when people ask me at parties where I am from, I often lie … you never know who you are speaking to. You might be followed and harassed.”
She used to live in an area similar to Chattarpur and says she was evicted by her landlord without any notice. “Even if they rent out their place to you, they remain suspicious and start asking for the rent halfway through the month. I was late with paying once and was told to leave immediately.”
Rohtas, a young broker who mediates between landlords and potential tenants, says he often gets requests not to show houses to “black people”, because they’re presumed to deal in drugs and be involved in other criminal activities.
And its not just landlords who think like that, the female student explains. “Shopkeepers often check the money I give them to make sure it is not fake,” she says.
“It is rude and unfair. We are a happy, cheerful people. But in India we just get angry.”
‘Demons or drug dealers’
As a secretary of the Nigerian Citizens’ Welfare Association of Greater Noida, which holds meetings twice a month, Zaharaddeen encourages other members to “live peacefully with the host community”.
That echoes the stance of the All India Nigeria Students and Community Association, which operates from New Delhi and imposes a 1,000-rupee ($15) fine on its members if they are found to be dressed “inappropriately”.
Zaharaddeen does not drink or smoke, but says he has adjusted his lifestyle. He has classes from 10am to 4pm, eats lunch on campus, usually with other international students, and goes home afterwards.
He might go to a restaurant or the grocery shop, and on Fridays he goes to the local mosque, but, he says: “I don’t go out. In India, you cannot roam the streets at night. In Nigeria, I used to hang out till midnight. Here I make sure to be at home by 9pm-10pm [at the] latest.”
At a recent meeting organised by the Africa-India Solidarity Forum, a traditionally dressed Zaharaddeen spoke to an audience of about 50 mostly Indians about the generalisations he feels Africans are subjected to.
This was seconded by Ibrahim Djiji Adam, a 25-year-old business student from Libya.
“We are often seen as demons, drug dealers or prostitutes,” Ibrahim said.
Unlike Zaharaddeen, Ibrahim made Indian friends during the three-year programme he recently completed at Noida International University. He learned Hindi and even “dated an Indian girl”, he says. This is how he says he realised that many Indians “are racist amongst themselves”, as well.
The caste system
Professor Archin Vanaik, who retired from teaching international relations at Delhi University and also spoke at the forum, agrees with Ibrahim and links the widespread racism African people experience in India to the caste system.
“The caste system makes it easier for people to accept other forms of exclusion,” he explains.
There might also be what he calls “psychological compensation” at play for those Indians who experience prejudice as members of lower castes or the so-called “other backward classes”.
“They could feel better by looking at African people and thinking ‘at least I am better than that’,” he says.
Zaharaddeen felt positive after the forum. “I am happy that so many people truly care,” he says. “Thanks to meetings like this, we can start to feel safe again.”
He hopes that India and Nigeria will continue their decades-old ties, built during their struggles for independence and strengthened in the post-colonial years of non-alignment, when thousands of students and business people would travel between the two countries.
But would he advise a good friend from Nigeria to pursue their higher education in India?
“Then I would perhaps tell him to go elsewhere … The purpose of studying abroad is to learn about another culture. If that cannot be achieved, then you might as well not go.”