Criminalising Africans and the Politics of Delhi’s Urban Villages

The authors- Persis Taraporevala and Rohit Negi– are urban researchers and co-conveners of Africa Forum-Delhi, a platform for conversation and debate on African and India-Africa matters. 

There is an eerie silence, masquerading as peace, in Khirki Extension. Previously home to a variety of nationalities, the recent fracas in the area has turned it into a shadow of its former self as many African residents have fled. The raid and self declared exposé against the perceived criminal activities in the area conducted by Delhi’s former Law Minister have earned him and his party one of two responses – criticism for illegal vigilantism and racial profiling or praise for upholding public safety and morality in the area. These reactions have little to say about the state’s role in conflict mediation, the changing landscape of Khirki, and the larger geopolitics of the expanding ties between India and African countries. The general point of this article is not to deny or downplay racism, but to acknowledge that primordial ideas of race do not in and of themselves lead to actual conflict: it is, instead, usually triggered by mechanisms that may not be immediately observable.

In the aftermath, the Aam Aadmi Party  (AAP) continued to state that the raid was not driven by racial prejudice but by the prevailing ground reality in Khirki. As the Law Minister of Delhi and the MLA of the area, Somnath Bharti felt that it was incumbent on him to take action against the numerous complaints by the local Resident Welfare Association (RWA) with regard to the trafficking of narcotics and prostitution undertaken by the African community. The RWA also stated that the police were complicit in these activities, hence unwilling to take action. While Mr. Bharti and the RWA continue to stand by this contention, it is important to note that the language and actions of the latter are decidedly racist. It seems unwilling to tell apart the few residents who are engaged in criminal activities from the entire community of Africans in Khirki.

Since the raid, there is a perceptible air of vindication as residents reaffirm their beliefs in the criminality of the Africans based on circular logic –the Law Minister supported the RWAs, which implies the RWA was right; since they fled the area, the Africans were surely guilty. Mr. Bharti’s actions may not be racially motivated, but the myopic solution to the problems he allegedly witnessed on the 15th of January undoubtedly reinforced existing prejudices in the area. As a public representative Mr. Bharti should have understood the prevailing tensions and acted with more foresight, initiating, for instance, a systematic study of the situation that gave voice to both the RWA and Khirki’s African residents. Something similar was later attempted by AAP but this was cut short by the government’s collapse on Valentine’s Day.

The second issue is the cause of the RWA activism directed at the African community. The resentment is typical of patterns of prejudice that emerge when previously homogenous neighbourhoods are transformed by processes of gentrification. In the context of Delhi a new generation of young men and women, attracted by post-liberalisation employment opportunities and gleaming spaces of high-end consumption, come to South Delhi, only to be corralled to urban villages by the spiraling rents in planned middle-class colonies. These villages have become urban planning’s zones of exception; intricate honeycombs of haphazardly constructed structures lacking basic norms of safety and comfort. Local villagers have, by and large, cashed-in on these changes by transforming themselves into big and small landlords.

photo courtesy: Facebook page of Association of African Students in India
photo courtesy: Facebook page of Association of African Students in India

In many of South Delhi’s urban villages like Munirka, Ber Sarai and Lado Sarai, pardah-wearing local women are as much a part of the fabric as girls in shorts, while dyed-in-the-wool patriarchs share the narrow lanes with liberal young men from around the country. Here, women from Northeastern states are racialised as ‘available’ and ‘loose’ just as Africans become carriers of serious criminality. These villages are still in what can be termed the first wave of gentrification, centred on locals’ provisioning of rented accommodation for students and young professionals. Other villages like Hauz Khas and Shahpur Jat, to a lesser extent, are in the second wave where higher-end restaurants, bars and boutiques have replaced the first generation migrants, thereby fetching higher rents. Like many other contexts across the world, in these villages too, ‘creative’ professionals and establishments have served as the catalyzing agents of gentrification.

Khirki, it can be argued, is in the midst of such a transformation and the construction of upmarket malls across the road has accelerated the process. For local landlords—typically the most active constituents of RWAs—the representation of Africans-as-criminals, the raid, and their impending invisibility and eventual exodus effectively ‘cleanses’ the area for a fresh round of gentrification, this time for an up-market clientele. Africans’ presence prior to the spike in property values, though not tension-free, was nevertheless tolerated for the sake of the rents they paid. Now, with a far greater choice of potential patrons, locals are much less patient. An appreciation of this underlying process, and the recognition that the RWA is not a neutral party but an agent deeply invested in a particular outcome, has been mostly absent from Mr. Bharti’s immediate response and AAP’s subsequent assertions.

Finally, one must contextualise the sudden rise of African migrants in Delhi. Since the turn of the century India has increased the engagement with the continent manifold. This is clearly illustrated by the increase in the value of trade between the two regions from USD 7.5 billion in 2000 to USD 66 billion in 2013. Trade is estimated to touch USD 100 billion by 2015. India has attempted to create a niche by focusing its geopolitical strategy around capacity-building initiatives: investing in information, communication, and educational infrastructure in Africa on the one hand, and extending thousands of scholarships to young men and women from Africa to study in Indian institutions, on the other.

For decades, India has cited anti-colonial discourses emphasizing Indian-African solidarity to gain traction and trust. It is, however, one thing to proclaim mutual understanding form afar, but quite another to ensure it is practiced in universities, neighbourhoods and streets of Indian and African cities. If the insularity of Indians in Africa and the circulation of racist discourses about locals in their gated enclaves have been historically well documented, it is the Africans’ predicament in India, which now attracts attention. Regardless, international trade and state policies have increased people’s movement between both the regions and it is imperative that steps are taken to ensure that there are better support systems for Africans in India. This includes a more coherent and prudent state-level methodology of engaging with the criminal activity which may take place with increased immigration, better communication systems for Indians and Africans towards countering prejudice and resulting discrimination, and finally there is a need from the relevant diplomatic missions to speak more categorically on behalf of their people in India and work towards improving the quality of life of the Africans who come to work, study, or holiday in India.

(Another version published in The Hindu, 27 February 2014)

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