About six years ago, a young woman came to stay in my house while she joined my mother’s work at a non-profit organisation. Nikki, as she asked us to call her, was from Nigeria – tall and gorgeous, I was in awe of her and everything she did.
Even though she was in her early twenties at the time and almost 10 years older than I was, we became fast friends. She shared with me her tales of living in Mumbai. She told me about how often she would be loudly mocked and teased while walking to work in the mornings; have onlookers spew hateful Hindi words at her she could not understand. At that time I was surprised at the terrible racism she had faced in the country, but I never fully fathomed the severity of the situation, waving it off as something that would eventually pass and die down in the next few years as society would progress. But I couldn’t have been further from the truth.
The fact that racism in India is on the rise can hardly be contested and taking into account the increasingly vicious attacks on African citizens it’s clear that verbal condemnation is a thing of the past. I can’t help but think, that if Nikki didn’t like living here six years ago, today she would absolutely despise it. Although it’s possible that many incidences of racism against India-based Africans have slipped past the authorities there are some major events over the last four years that have left us sufficiently terrified. In 2014, when a furious mob brutally beat up 3 African students in a metro station in New Delhi, yelling, ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’, racism was hidden under the guise of patriotism; of Indian nationalism. On January 31st, 2016, yet another Indian mob attacked an innocent Tanzanian student in Hessarghatta. In March this year, 5 Nigerian students were blamed for the death of Manish Khari, a 12th grade student of a school in Greater Noida. Although Khari’s autopsy reports turned to a heart attack as the cause of his death, the Nigerian students continued to be blamed for supplying Khari with drugs, allegedly causing him to overdose.
Africans in India find themselves constantly dealing with ridiculous stereotyping. To some, their skin colour means nothing more than an indicator of drug dealing and social under-development. On the one hand, the Indian government encourages African students to pursue their higher education in India, in the hopes of improving relations between Africa and India, and on the other, these very African students are faced with a kind of racism they could never have expected from a supposedly modern society. All of these recent events encouraged Bangalore-based photographer Mahesh Shantaram to document the lives and experiences of Africa through his series, The African Portraits. Through his series, he aims not just to depict the lives of his subjects in the best way he knows how, but also to educate the thousands of Indians that are unaware of the African community in India and the kind of discrimination they face on an everyday basis. Shantaram describes the primary objective of his series to Scroll.in - “I hope this project spreads social change like the campaigns of the 1970’s. 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.”
We have posted below images from the series, courtesy of Mahesh Shantaram and Tasveer. The African Portraits will be on exhibit from June 2 to June 16 2017 at Exhibit 320, in New Delhi.
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