Rising harassment disrupts drive to sell education and IT to expanding nations on continent
Maxwell Orji says he has been laughed at, spat on and verbally abused on the streets of Greater Noida, close to New Delhi.
A student from Nigeria who has just finished a three-year course at a roadside educational institution called Mahatma Gandhi University, Mr Orji’s time in India has been characterised by persistent low level racial discrimination and intimidation.
“Indians have a bad impression of foreigners,” he says. “I get harassed all the time, [get] laughed at, called names. Once, a group on a motorbike started using racist language and then came up and pulled out a gun, forcing me to hand over my mobile phone.”
The experience of Mr Orji and other Africans living in India have come to the fore following the recent attack on four Nigerian students in the Pari Chowk area of Greater Noida by a mob protesting against the death of Manish Khari, a local teenager.
The youth’s family had accused their Nigerian neighbours of supplying him with drugs. When what began as a candlelit march encountered four African students, with no known links to Khari’s death, they attacked them so badly that all required hospital treatment. A video of the attack in the nearby Ansal Plaza shopping centre shows people hitting one of the victims with a chair and a dustbin while he lay on the ground.
The incident has prompted African students to speak out about the harassment and violence they face on a daily basis. According to the Association of African Students in India, the country has about 25,000 such students, about a fifth of whom live in Greater Noida, a new city 30km from New Delhi.
Many of them, like Mr Orji, have been drawn by the promise of cheap international education at various colleges and universities. They have been encouraged by the Indian government, which has promised 50,000 scholarships for African students over the next few years as part of a wider effort to improve relations across the continent.
But when they get to their place of study, the students say they often find themselves facing daily racial harassment. They are also often refused accommodation, meaning that the developments that will accept them can quickly become ghettoised, separating Africans from the rest of Indian society.
“People here will either avoid you on the streets or shout names at you,” says Gadifi Dalentino John, who is studying for a master’s in engineering. “They make you feel like you are an outcast.”
The rumours that followed the youth’s death contained racist stereotypes, including one that even claimed his Nigerian neighbours had eaten him.
Violence towards Africans in India is not new. Last year a mob in the southern city of Bangalore attacked four passing Tanzanians including a 21yearold female student following a car accident in which a 35yearold Indian pedestrian was killed in an incident involving a Sudanese driver.
But attacks such as this have taken on a greater political significance in recent years as Narendra Modi has sought to improve ties with countries across Africa. In 2015, the prime minister hosted a glitzy summit attended by more than 40 African heads of state, at which he promised $10bn of concessional credit in an attempt to create a new “partnership for prosperity”.
India is keen to sell both education and information technology to fastgrowing African countries. In 201415 it exported $32.6bn worth of goods and services to the continent, which represented 10 per cent of India’s total exports that year.
But that success could be put at risk by events such as the attack on the four students. On Thursday, Nigeria summoned the Indian ambassador and demanded the arrest and prosecution of those responsible for the violence.
Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research, says: “In recent years, India has gone out of its way to reach out to Africa and suggest it is very different from China that it does not have a mercantilist approach, and is not looking to extract its natural resources.
“But incidents like this taint India’s image; not just in Africa, but globally.”
Since the attack Greater Noida’s African community has been living under police guard, with officers stationed outside the tower blocks that are home to many of the students.
Bal Singh, one of the officers outside the Alstonia Apartments, is sympathetic to what the residents have suffered, but adds: “The problem is that the two cultures are very different. Their culture does not suit ours.”
As for the students, many simply want to leave India altogether. “I’m not staying here,” says Mr Orji. “There are much better places I can go.”
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