Somnath Bharti and the Terrible, Everyday Racism of a South Delhi Mohalla: Aastha Chauhan

This article by AASTHA CHAUHAN was originally published on the Yahoo! News India web site. It is being republished  here so that it reaches a different audience because there is an urgent necessity to widen the discussion on racism in India. 

In the decade that I’ve been working in Khirki Extension in south Delhi, I’ve known it as a neighborhood in a constant state of flux.

When I first began working at KHOJ, an international artists’ association located in Khirki Extension in 2004, the neighborhood was home to architects’ studios, a theatre studio and various offices, followed by a wave of musicians and artists. It was a locality comprised mainly of houses, some built by well-known architects such as Ramu Katakam and Ashok B Lall. Even Jaya Jaitly had a house there. Soon enough, these large plots were sold to builders, who put in apartments that could accommodate more people. But given the terrible infrastructure in the area, with its poor roads and drainage and its tendency to get flooded, many of its earlier residents moved out.

After 2007 came a flood of people from different communities within India and abroad: Afghans, Nepalis, Malayali nurses, Somalis, Manipuris, Kashmiris, Nigerians, Ugandans, Cameroonians and so on. Not to mention the call-center executives and students, some pursuing correspondence courses at the Indira Gandhi National Open University. After the malls came up, things changed. The laborers employed during construction and the staff employed there such as security guards began to live there too. It’s a neighborhood that’s now neatly sandwiched between Malviya Nagar and around 11 malls.

Some communities blend in more easily than others; the Somalis, being Muslim, have a lot in common with the other residents of the same religion. Several Afghans here for medical tourism live in the neighborhood, and there are even shops selling Afghan food and helping those seeking healthcare find accommodation. But not all communities are treated with respect, and the biggest problem foreign nationals, particularly those from African countries, face is prejudice based on cultural difference: that they dress differently, eat differently and behave differently is not something that all of their neighbors look kindly upon. A Nigerian friend of mine from the neighborhood once told me he was confused when an Indian friend stopped speaking to him after he complimented the friend’s sister. In his country, a compliment to a friend’s sister would be a just that – a compliment. Here, it seemed to be taken as an insult, and the cultural difference at the center of it was something he hadn’t lived here long enough to learn how to navigate.

For all the different cultural groups that live here, Khirki Extension is neither a neighborhood that erupts in violence, nor is it a locality where people have a strong, shared sense of community. In the course of my work at KHOJ and thereafter, I’ve engaged in several projects with the residents of Khirki Extension, and even though it’s a very difficult neighborhood, I can count among its residents many friends from different communities. I do know that if push comes to shove and there’s ever any trouble, the people I know there would call me before they called the police. But the prejudice is strongest towards people from African countries, and the abuse, the jibes and the physical assaults have gone on for years.

The texture of the discrimination they face is close to the kind my friends from northeast India face. But the intensity of it is much, much more, and the Africans here have fewer defenders. Our xenophobia is hardly concealed when it comes to Africans – and I’ve witnessed it myself repeatedly when walking down the street with my friends, or during other incidents of racism that I’ve tried to raise awareness about.

It starts early. I was once part of a program at a local public school, which has Afghan, Nepali and Somali children among others from the neighborhood. We asked the kids to define what they were not. A young Somali girl who was born here came forward to say in impeccable Hindi, “Main cockroach nahin khathi hoon. Kaun khate hain? Cockroach gande hote hain (I don’t eat cockroaches. Who does? Cockroaches are dirty).” The kids had been teasing her for the color of her skin, and for supposedly eating cockroaches. It was heartbreaking to witness.

There was my friend from Cameroon, a talented cook who started an underground kitchen as no one would fund a restaurant of her own. I saw it after it was vandalized by a mob of men – it was devastating, it looked like a war zone. Her landlady kicked her out, she lost all her money, and she had to set up a kitchen all over again. But after her sister was brutally beaten by a mob recently, she went back home to Cameroon. At the same time, there was a young boy from Nigeria who’d started a barbershop. It was a treat to see pictures of different hairstyles for African men on the sign outside, but it was torn up by a mob. These incidents happen often, and there are local vigilante groups that practice a form of prejudice that is shattering. And they do so in the knowledge that they will face no consequences.

Another friend of mine, Akanbi Olamilekan Mohemmed, an actor in his own right and a huge Bollywood fan, came all the way from Nigeria and was planning to join in the Asian Academy of Film and Television at Noida. He was thrilled to be in India, the land of Bollywood, but was picked up by the police one day as he was crossing the street to go to a mall. They beat him, put his thumbprint on a statement and sent him off to Tihar jail for two years. He’s just come out. It turns out that when a Greenply executive was arrested with cocaine on his person, he arbitrarily pointed Olamilekan out to police as his dealer. My friend was in the wrong place at the wrong time two years ago, and in trouble simply for being Nigerian. Now he’s determined to have his story heard.

With all these instances of discrimination and prejudice playing out everyday, three friends (Malini Kochupillai, Radhika Singh, B-boy Heera) and I have been planning to host a cultural festival in the neighborhood. We plan to call it “Antarrashtriya Khirki”, but the subtext is really the relationship between Indians and people from African countries. We’d like to have a number of events, including music jam sessions, b-boy battles, football matches and hopefully host some exhibits from a French photography exhibition that’s happening in the city.

The irony is that two days before Nigerian and Ugandan women were assaulted by a mob with the blessings of Aam Aadmi Party Law Minister Somnath Bharti, we visited him to ask him to put in a good word for us with the Delhi Development Authority so we could use the empty plot for the festival. We informed him about the festival and the reason for it, and hoped, as supporters of his party, that he would lend the festival his support too.  But I don’t think he really heard what we were trying to say. “If you feel police are not taking enough action against the Africans, how about you conduct a sting?” was one of the bizarre comments he made at that meeting. “You are the first people to speak on their [the African community’s] behalf. I will see for myself what has to be done,” was another. He said he would come and inspect the neighborhood at night, to see what was happening. We left feeling reassured that here was a man of reason, one who was willing to engage with the local community.

Was the attack with Bharti’s sanction any different from some of the incidents Khirki’s African residents had witnessed until then? Sadly, there have been too many of its kind. Morale was fairly low before – it didn’t have much further to sink. The Africans in Khirki were fired up after the Goa murder, when a Nigerian diplomat tookIndia to task for not ensuring the safety of Nigerian nationals.  For once, the racist attacks on them had sparked an international incident, and it felt good that the government of an African country had come to the defense of its nationals. But it’s amazing that there’s been no diplomatic action in last week’s case.

Did we achieve anything at Sunday’s Jantar Mantar protest? If nothing else, we put the message out there that a section of Indian society will not stand for such prejudice towards people from African countries, a prejudice that exists across class boundaries.

The thing is, it’s not about the Mummy-Papa battle that the AAP and the Delhi Police are engaged in while we look on. It’s about racism. The question is what we’re going to do about it.

[ Aastha Chauhan is an artist based in New Delhi. Between 2004 and 2010, she headed community-based art initiatives at the KHOJ International Artists’ Association. ]

18 thoughts on “Somnath Bharti and the Terrible, Everyday Racism of a South Delhi Mohalla: Aastha Chauhan”

  1. If you were to look at matrimonial ads, even among dravidian families, the requirement is fair and good looking bride
    This mirrors the society we live in where fairness creams sell more than life saving drugs

  2. Some of us were discussing the success of AAP in Delhi election and its aftermath while standing under the the crass racist posters put up at a central point near the bus stand in Mapusa, Goa, soon after the murder of a Nigerian national at Porvorim, nearby. My lawyer friend from Goa who was earlier an unabashed supporter of AAP turned around and urged us with some air of prescience, “AAP will collapse into a fascist outfit, if the left and liberal like you guys dismiss them and boycott them. Join them, boss”, he said!!

    1. The Leftists and liberals who joined AAP to ‘save it from itself’ are silent or worse – vocal in denying any racism by the goons like Somnath Bharti, in cloaking that open, ‘naked dance’ racism with respectability… In this first test, AAP has failed. Had they gone on with the agitation to bring delhi police under delhi govt, but dropped the demand to sack the Malviya Nagar SHO who acted – unpopularly and with a rare concern for democratic rights – we’d be with them. But they;ve called off the dharna after SHO Malviya Nagar has been sent on leave. So the Africans of Khirki now have officially no thin veil of police authority between them and Bharti’s pals.

      1. Kavita, I saw you in a television debate making the same allegation as you have here and you did mention that there were videos available on youtube which shows Somnath Bharti making racist comments. You also mentioned specifically that he uses the word ‘sab’ instead of addressing those particular individuals. Can you please post a link of such a video ? There is very little faith remaining in the media today because of all the paid journalism that goes on. So, I would like to see for myself what he actually said.

            1. Here is an interesting link. http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/nigerians-drugs-narcotics-goa-police-drug-trafficking-nigerian-murder/1/326094.html
              My question is, is this a racist article ? Our beloved media shouting racism is writing racist articles !!! The article says “Ninety per cent of them are involved in the drug business,” an Anti-Narcotics Cell (ANC) policeman says. If the number is literally ninety per cent, is this statement still racist ? By the way, though the article starts with Goa, it mentions Delhi drug business as well.

      2. Exactly. I could not believe that Sara joseph. the noted left feminist writer from Kerala, whom we adored, after a few weeks of stint with AAp, was almost depending on conspiracy theory to save Kumar Bishwas.

  3. Can anyone please post the footage of the incident where he (Somnath Bharti) makes racist remarks ? I have read and heard about it on news channels and papers but I haven’t found a video that shows him making racist comments. Please share the link of the video with racist comments if possible.

      1. I don’t see any racism in his comments in this video, I do see some misogyny when he says ma behen beti though. So, this is probably not the right link. However from what he has said afterwards about arun jaitley and salve it is clear that he is capable of making racist comments as well. But I believe we should not get carried away while assessing the situation. There are wrongful conclusions being drawn as far as I can see from both sides. I saw AK’s interview with Rajdeep Sardesai where he links incidents of rapes with prostitution and drugs which is incorrect. There may be some connection between liquor and rapes but I have never seen a news of a drug addict raping when he is high.
        The loud mouth law minister should not be defended for his remarks as well.
        But I did see some videos where the local people of that area were complaining about whatever was happening there. There can be two inferences from this. 1. The local people are malicious towards Africans and were looking for an opportunity to hound them out. This seems too far fetched. There might be animosity, but that they’ll go to a minister for that is sort of weird. 2. That there was prostitution or drug trafficking going on. This does not mean that the local people have the right to hound those people. It is also true that it is very difficult to get the idea “that prostitutes are humans too” across Indian society. Indian constitution outlaws prostitution which is precisely what the police uses to extort money from prostitutes. But I am not sure if the country is ready to have a debate on whether prostitution should be unlawful or not. Anyway, coming back to the point, if there was some unlawful activity going on which seems to be the case from the interviews of the residents, the police was definitely extorting money from these people. This is what police does everywhere in the country. So, the statement ” Malviya Nagar SHO who acted – unpopularly and with a rare concern for democratic rights” is probably not correct. He did not act, he ran away. What he did amounts to , ‘I took your money so I won’t bother you. But if someone else bothers you, I’ll leave you to your fate’. If there was a mob mishandling the girls the police should have been there. If the police had called women constables, taken those women in custody and released them after the tests were done, that would have prevented this mess from happening. So, provided the residents were not malicious in their complaints, what seems to me to be the case is that Bharti has insulted people, may have made racist comments and has made misogynistic comments. But the police has been corrupt and has exploited the African women as well and is now trying to hide behind the excuse of following the constitution and the law.

  4. What I saw on TV was appalling. I was more disturbed by the attempts by Shazia Ilmi and Yogendra Yadav to deflect the conversation.To his credit Yogendra was categorical in condemning racism while Ilmi talked bizzarely about political correctness. I know of this racism from the time of my student days in the Seventies, but to think that it continues even now is terrible.

  5. why does the author not comment on the question of drug and sex racket angle as alleged by the AApand what action the police took after being asked to act. I think intellectuals should bring out a fact based report on what happened/ not happened on the night of friday the incident which is at the root of all this controversy.

    1. Certain points seem to be escaping the notice of those who take AAP’s side in this issue. Whether there was a ‘drug and sex racket’ or not, please note that:

      1. Women cannot be arrested at night under the law without a magistrate’s order
      2. Women cannot be questioned at night except voluntarily within their residences
      3. Women cannot be arrested except by a woman police constable

      This is quite apart from the question of a search warrant, which at least is something that can be discussed, sine the law does permit exceptions (though this is not a case where those exceptions apply).

      These are basic provisions of law relating to women that are now very widely known. They are also the result of long struggles. How on earth then can Somnath Bharti demand that the police raid a residence at midnight, arrest women, and do so without any woman police officer present? If the police were not acting on repeated complaints (ignoring for a moment the obvious and glaring racism angle), the course of action for any mass movement is to take out a dharna in front of the police sttaion, demand registration of an FIR, and then demand arrest. What kind of action is it to show up at midnight and demand arrestst that you know are illegal? And then have the party leadership demand that police be suspended because they, for once, followed the law?

      That elements like Bharti will be present in a party like AAP is not surprising. What is surprising is the manner in which the leadership has behaved. Many of us expected the corporate media to turn against AAP and attempt to demolish their claims to being ‘good’ and efficient very soon, and we also expected that AAP would have trouble during such a media attack. What I, at least, did not expect is that AAP would itself behave in such a reactionary manner as to hand the media an issue to attack them on a plate.

  6. If a bunch of strange women quietly take up residence in 1 corner of your home, and the cops are no help=>what do you do? If you and your friends -after months of petitioning the women and the police- respectfully throw these women out, well there is Kavita Krishnan ready with her slogans and cameras. Women’s rights have to be secondary to basic rights of personal space.

    1. o many flaws in your comment, buddy. “…respectfully throw these women out…” What?! That doesn’t make any sense! Also, define “strange”. Further, it’s hilariously ironic that you write this – “have to be secondary to basic rights of personal space” and yet whine that the cops are no help when you wanted to “respectfully throw these women out” after months of “petitioning the women” to leave “your home”. So, no “basic rights of personal space” for those women? Because you claim they’re prostitutes and junkies?! Or were they taking up space on your couch? Your comment is racist, xenophobic and malicious. Classic case of tyranny of the majority in this incident.

  7. Try to think with your common sense. If there was no drug sex racket going on, what was Somnath’s (actual) purpose of doing all this. What are your ideas behind this?

  8. Seeing Somnath Bharati in action, one can only think this is how Hitler might have started his progrom. To pander to a certain group in Khirki, just because they felt that the police was not doing what they wanted, sets a dangerous precedent. The “AAP-roopa” that i have seen in the last couple of days would make me think twice wrt voting for them in the elections.

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