African students who have staked all to come to study in universities in India have been facing different levels of racist attacks. Some recent incidents of such attacks were reported in Noida, where students of a private university were attacked by mobs outside the campus. The attackers called the African students Nigerians, which has become a term of abuse in the area. In other incidents, African students have felt isolated, conscious of their colour and difference in various public places. In many universities where they study, African students feel some kind of racism in practice.
The consequence is that African students tend to stay together in their own groups, are not able to make friends, are scared when alone. The major attraction of coming to study in India is becoming a hazard. The goodwill that India has had with Africa is at risk.
In India, there are many problems and contradictions when dealing with the issue of racism. First there is a denial of the existence of racism. Even while we see ourselves as victims of external ( western) racism, we refuse to look critically at our own biases. Our biases about colour and privileging the ‘fair’ and seeing them as superior, is evident from our matrimonial advertisements in every Sunday newspaper. It is evident when North Indians see themselves as ‘wheatish’ and fair and identify the South Indians as ‘blackish’. Every shade of this ‘wheatish’ from light, to lighter to more ‘ish’ is considered superior.
Our obsession with fair was expressed recently by some senior RSS functionaries who proposed nurturing and producing fair skinned babies as a superior group. Bollywood shows its preference for fair heroes and even villains need to be a certain colour.
Then there is also the issue of caste. There is a denial that caste is linked to race. But some castes identify themselves as born superior to others is a racial attribute. The obsession with fairness creams and formulas has made India a cosmetic industries’ paradise.
‘A University stands for humanism, for reason, for the adventure of ideas… ‘ an Indian prime minister had said. Why then is there such racism and intolerance in universities itself? The reason is that this humanism, tolerance and adventure of ideas, is restricted to small enlightened circles. Otherwise, a university is just an extension of society. And society’s values, biases, intolerances creep into the University system unless battled against.
The multiculturalism taught in some liberal arts and social sciences does not penetrate even into the sciences. In some cases it remains in the class rooms and is not practiced outside. In other cases, there is fear of bucking the trend and confronting the general lynch mob.
When the last attack on African students took place the dominant Indian argument was that India is not racist and that we do a lot for Africa in terms of development assistance. Yes, India does contribute significantly to African development assistance. It has written off the debt to the Highly Indebted Poor Countries. It has voted with Africa in international institutions against racism. But this has not been matched with a public discourse that critiques and challenges all forms of racism, exclusions and discriminations.
There are of course also the opposite examples, where African students have had excellent experience in some Indian Universities, and gone back as important figures and as ambassadors of Indian values. In Jawaharlal Nehru University for example, African students and African Studies has been encouraged. Students have come from Africa for Masters, M.Phil and PhD programmes. It is a pity that no such admission will take place in 2017, and will decrease in coming years, since research is being discouraged in this institution, which is among those that encourages multiculturalism and actively resists racism in all its forms. And such examples of critical thinking should become the dominant trend, instead centres for the study of exclusion are being shut down.
The attacks on African students was strongly condemned by African envoys, and there was concern in the Indian Government. This concern has translated into some security measures in sensitive places. It has not generated enough of social pressure so as make sure that there is a more harmonious atmosphere where racism is taken seriously as a social crime.
In is not only African students, but even some from the Northeast India, from Nepal and other places complain of racism in public places, markets and in universities, where they were derided as ‘chinky’ and Chinese. There is therefore a tendency to demonise, vilify, homogenise and see as inferior people who are ‘not like us’, while there is little acknowledgement or truth of who this ‘us’ really is, and how much difference and plurality there is in us itself.
Ultimately, it is clear that we need a better public culture. The media is a major area of public education. The night after night debate on the same issues of the great Indian nationalism, should perhaps harp on this aspect also. Racism is based on bias against colour based on a self superiority. A collective of such community thinking turns into a lynch mob. Those who have such bias on the basis of colour, also have bias against another religion, against gender, against difference. They cannot even understand that there can be different types of nationalism.
In India, as in many places this fight against racism is a major challenge, as biases are steeped and being entrenched in society and in institutions, from universities to courts. So the fight against racism is a major process of changing public and social culture.