As Indians, we face racism across the first world, and yet, we are guilty of being one of the most racist nations in the world. The recent ostracization of Nigerians in relatively liberal Goa, paints the darkest picture ever, of our nonexistent anti-racist consciousness. Nitasha Kaul reports.
Racism is ubiquitous in India. And like many other overlapping prejudices – sexism, casteism, regionalism, homophobia, Islamophobia – it thrives on the public denial of its presence. A poll published in the Washington Post earlier this year found India to be the second most racist nation in the world. India’s smallest state, Goa, in spite of its relatively liberal attitude to attire, alcohol, and nightlife aspects of being a tourist beach destination, is no different from the rest of India.
In 2013, A Nigerian man was stabbed to death and five others wounded in Goa. Clearly lacking faith in the Goan administrative system, 200 Nigerians protested by marching on a national highway, demanding that a Nigerian official be present at the deceased man’s autopsy. They believed the murder was carried out by a local drug mafia called Chapora Boys and that the police was unwilling to act against them. Mismanaging the protest, the police looked on as clashes between the locals and Nigerians escalated and a Nigerian was brutally beaten up. Later, fifty-three Nigerians – but no locals – were arrested in connection with the violence.
Voices in the local media made it clear that if any FIR was booked against the locals, they would not tolerate it and would “come out on the streets”. The Goa Chief Minister, Manohar Parrikar, said the stabbing of the Nigerian man was related to the drug mafia. He also promised to track down any Nigerians living illegally in Goa and deport them, thereby collectively scapegoating all Nigerians as illegal drug Mafiosi. Some village councils (Silom and Parra) started a campaign to expel all Nigerians from their villages. The Goan ‘Rent-a-Bike Association’ (a government scheme for tourists) decided that it would not rent bikes to any Nigerians. They put up banners in Mapusa, a market town and home of the Goan CM, stating “Say No to Drugs. Say No to Nigerians”, and led a rally (also on a national highway) from Mapusa to Porvorim, demanding that Goans not rent houses or vehicles to Nigerians. The Goan Minister of Art and Culture, Dayanand Mandrekar said, “Nigerians are like cancer”, a statement for which he later apologised.
Meanwhile, the CM sneered at the media, asking if they could take on a Nigerian one-to-one. In his view, Nigerians were “seven-feet tall, huge and aggressive”, and that it would take “at least 100 of our policemen to handle a crowd of 50 Nigerians”. Subhash Phaldesai, another MLA of the same ruling BJP party, said Nigerians were like “ wild animals pumped with drugs”. Some of the arrested Nigerians went on a hunger strike in jail demanding that human rights panel members meet them to record their statements. A newspaper in the UK concluded “The Goa police does keep its hands off European tourists, but the Nigerians aren’t so lucky”.
By presenting this entire episode as a case of lawlessness carried out by illegal Nigerians, the Goan CM requested more police resources from the central government, complaining that the BJP government in Goa was being given “step-motherly” treatment by the centre.
The BJP, with its Hindutva agenda in general, is a party whose politics derive from the quest for a morally pure society where all problems are ascribed to those perceived as “outsiders”. The ascendancy of such right-wing intolerance in India across the board has made prejudice more entrenched in a politics of self and other. This widespread prejudice and stereotyping is the real cause of the violence, and policing is not a solution for addressing that. When the Nigerians in Goa are referred to as “wild animals on drugs” or are equated with drugs and diseases, what we see is not just xenophobia but an inexcusable de-humanisation of people.
In this case, the de-humanisation and collective punishment draws upon a larger armoury of racist prejudice against black people in India. There is a strong racist subtext in many Bollywood movies and advertisements that depict Africans in less-than-human terms as ignorant, primitive cannibals. In a newspaper report on racism in Delhi’s residential areas, a local broker was quoted as saying “We accommodate chinkis, but never habshis”, displaying a hierarchy of racist prejudice that ranks black people lowest.
There are numerous cases of abysmal discrimination and hostility against people from various African countries who are legally in India, either as students and professionals or accompanying their spouses (who are either Indians or other foreigners who in India for lawful purposes). These legal visitors and residents routinely face racist chants, assault, and infringement of their rights and liberties. A similar situation exists even in supposedly more liberal cities like Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore.
In a land where whiteness creams are peddled for everything from male faces to female intimate parts, being black is seen as somehow sub-human. Remarkably, there is very little in the way of anti-racist consciousness or struggle, either in the state or in civil society. On a visit to Goa, I saw the words “Goa is like a fridge. Everyone comes to chill here!” painted on many walls. Not all Goans are racist, but for most Nigerians today, Goa is indeed a chilling place.