Three decades ago, the impression an urban Indian had of an African, especially a Nigerian, was that of an athlete or someone deeply involved with music. But through the years, things have turned different.
On Wednesday night, it was evident how different it had become when a minister, along with activists of Delhi's ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), allegedly cracked down on foreign nationals residing in south Delhi. Delhi Law Minister Somnath Bharti ostensibly asked locals to draw up a list of foreigners residing in their locality and volunteered to check each of these houses.
"There were lots of vehicles and foreign nationals either from Nigeria or Uganda. The local SHO (station house officer) was there. When we got down and starting walking towards them, the police fell behind. We ran forward and tried to nab four people. We apprehended two and handed them to the police; the other two fled," Bharti was quoted as saying in The Indian Express. After the incident, some Ugandan women alleged AAP supporters had molested and harassed them. Bharti also demanded police to conduct medical tests on foreign nationals and even searched a house, without a warrant, which some locals believed was a den of vice. He rebuked a police officer for refusing to act without following due process, The Indian Express reported.
An official spokesperson of AAP, however, denied party workers had taken the law into their hands. "The sequence of event being given out is a lie. There is a vicious campaign against us going on in the media. We did not detain or molest any woman. When you act against an organised crime syndicate operating under the blessings of the local police, these allegations are bound to come," he said. This, however, wasn't an isolated incident in which a bias had crept into the functioning of an administration. Last year, the Goa Police had cracked down and arrested about 50 Nigerians for various offences. The police action followed inter-gang rivalry that killed a Nigerian national in a case related to the sale of drugs. The incident had snowballed into a diplomatic row between India and Nigeria, with the latter issuing a strong warning over forceful and alleged eviction of its nationals from Goa; it threatened similar treatment to about a million Indians residing in Nigeria. It is estimated about 50,000 Nigerians live in India.
The Nigerian High Commission in India could not be immediately contacted for comment.
"I am concerned about the current situation. There are a lot of people who face discrimination in India, but it can happen in any country. There is a strong need for the two societies to come together and reduce Goa-like incidents," said Chima Okorie, a well-known Nigerian footballer who has played in Indian leagues for long. Okito Chriscophe, president of the Association of African Students in India, said a media bias, police inaction and the attitude of Indians towards Africans were reasons behind the attack against Africans in cities such as Delhi, Punjab and Bangalore.
"There may be a few people, but most Africans are not on the wrong side of the law. Indians commit similar crimes in other countries, but the media never portrays them as criminals globally. We are scared and have started to feel insecure in India," said Chirscophe, a Congo national.
The bias, perhaps, stems from the arrest of Africans and their lack of communication with the society. Statistics from Delhi's Tihar Jail show of the 366 foreign prisoners, most (134, including 117 undertrials) are from Nigeria. The number of Bangladeshi and Nepalese prisoners stood at 51 and 48, respectively. Tihar Jail spokesperson Sunil Gupta said the number of Nigerians in the prison had increased in the last few years. A former senior official at the Narcotics Control Bureau said, "These people come on valid travel documents, but most stay back after their visas have expired. India doesn't take strong action because of its business interest in Africa."
Africa is a major supplier of crude oil to India. In 2012-13, it supplied about 31 million tonnes (mt) of crude oil, according to reports from the petroleum ministry. Imports of 12.37 mt were recorded from Nigeria alone.
"Though Indian companies are making their presence felt in the power distribution space in Nigeria, I don't see any correlation it has with India's national policies," said Deepak Mahurkar, director and an audit expert, PricewaterhouseCoopers.