February 08, 2016

Assault on Tanzanian student not surprising: An immigrant's view on xenophobia in Bangalore

As a 'northie' who has lived in Bangalore for six years, I wasn't one bit shocked at what the mob did to the young Tanzanian woman. I fully expect this from the city. And so do my 'outsider' friends who live or have lived there. Doesn't matter whether you're from Africa, the North-East or North, the locals treat all non-Kannadigas equally: with hostility and jingoism.

You may move to India's IT capital with dreams and aspirations, but sooner or later xenophobia is gonna get in your face and make you feel like an unwelcome refugee in your own country. Oh, prepare to be heckled on a regular basis for not knowing Kannada. Traffic cops, smart alec shopkeepers, compulsorily rude auto drivers, bus conductors, co-passengers etc are gonna take turns to remind you of your place in 'their' land. You are an 'outsider'. I put it in single quotes because here, the term is not an innocuous, identifying detail but a label akin to outcast, riddled with prejudice and dislike.

I'm not implying the whole of Bangalore is fanatical and chauvinistic. No way. I've made cool friends there. The guy who taught me Kannada (starting with how to say "I love you"), my jolly good colleagues I'm so fond of and the eatery owner who loved treating me to bisibele bath. I can speak only broken Kannada and my landlady could speak only broken English, yet we'd talk for half an hour when she'd bring over delicacies on festivals. Oh, Bangalore is a beautiful place with lovely people. A friend who shifted there 18 months ago says neither he nor his friends have had any unpleasant encounter. But that's just one part of the story, an incomplete truth.

A tale of two cities
Bangalore's is a tale of two cities, of two kind of people: awesome, intelligent, hospitable; and the immigrant-hating jingoistic kind. Home minister G Parameshwara might dismiss claims of racism and say the city does not have "that kind of an attitude". I'm saying it indeed has the attitude of bullying 'outsiders'. The majority embraces immigrants, others downright loathe them. How many instances shall I cite?

An Odiya friend who lived in Bangalore for nine years knows that hostile crowds and uncooperative police are a way of life here for 'outsiders'. That's why she too wasn't surprised to learn that a mob assaulted an African, who got thrown out of a bus and was denied help by the police. Barring assault, she herself has been harassed like that on more than one occasion. From her experiences, she knows what happened to the African student is so typical of the unwelcoming side of the city.

Enjoying an immigrant's humiliation
Once this friend was travelling in a city bus and the conductor started getting into her face for not having change. (Agreed, passengers should carry change, but does not carrying it entitle the bus crew to misbehave with them?) She was apologetic for the inconvenience, but the aggressive conductor accosted her and kept trashing her in Kannada. Co-passengers chuckled at his remarks, passing taunts of their own. They relished seeing the hapless, demure woman singled out and in agony.

Humiliated, she got down at the last stop and went to the police station there, the conductor accompanying her nonchalantly. Only when she disclosed she was a journalist did the police heed her and switched to a respectful tone. Respectfully, they told her: "Madam, leave him. He will not do it again," not lodging a plaint despite her insistence. The culprit stood there wearing a belligerent smirk all along. As if it's understood one cannot possibly get into trouble for accosting, even manhandling an 'outsider'. 

Got jeered at? Happens
When I was in college, I myself saw my female batchmates heckled by a conductor and aggressive co-passengers when they requested him to get men off women's seat in the crowded bus. I tried to placate them, but passengers ganged up on us, getting louder and threatening us with violence, hooting when we got off the bus. We're non-Kannadigas, after all.

'You northies...'
On another occasion, when these girls were travelling in a bus and got up to offer their seat to an elderly woman, instead of a thanks they received a jibe: "You North Indians come to Bangalore and spoil our culture!"

Thankfully, not with everyone and not often, but such incidents do happen, reminding 'outsiders' of their place. 

"You don't belong here," is a diatribe one may come across in subtle or not-so-subtle ways. Last year, two motorcycle-borne men in JP Nagar said these very words to my face when I protested their rash driving, which almost injured me.

The gift of anonymity in public places lets these people unveil their mean, aggressive streak.

'Got harassed? Too bad. Your fault'
When a friend would tell her elderly colleagues about how she'd get harassed for being a non-Kannadiga, they would squarely blame it on her for not knowing Kannada. This is a common refrain: Get conversant in Kannada or don't whine about being harassed. 

A couple of years ago, the newspaper I worked for had invited a few women entrepreneurs for a discussion on politics and general issues. One of them narrated an instance where a friend of hers, a foreigner, called 100 upon sensing trouble from ruffians on the road. A woman answered the distress call, cutting the other woman off for not speaking in Kannada. Why, even the city traffic police's website says one should not expect traffic cops to speak English or Hindi as a matter of right. 

I thought this was a cosmopolitan city.

Attacks on North-Eastern community
Remember, three Manipuri students were beaten up in October 2014 for "not speaking Kannada despite eating Karnataka's food"? Students from the North-East have borne the brunt of xenophobic locals' aggression over the past few years on multiple occasions, triggering protests and candle light vigils. Remember the mass exodus of the North-Eastern brethren in 2012 when they fled the city crammed up in trains like cattle, fearing for their lives? The rumour that triggered that infamous episode could take roots only because they knew a racist attack on them was a distinct possibility.

Blatant racism on internet
Even as the country is ashamed over the latest racist attack, there are some Bangaloreans who still are in denial mode. See these comments posted online:

A Kannadiga friend posted on Facebook how she felt disgusted and ashamed at the incident, to which a 26-year-old man replied with this:
  • Yea! But a drunk foreigner killing one lady n injuring 2 n then changing a car n hitting 8 more is also horrifying. If an Indian does this in foreign, am sure he/she would be treated even worse
After some back-and-forth with a user who wondered how he could justify the violence on this ground, he dropped this gem:
  • Even I do feel sorry for what few people did as no one had touched her until she went to her boyfriend who committed crime... After he killed 1 women to death and inured 2 when drunk, if he had just gone absconding this wouldn't have happened. But he went n took another car, and then started driving rashly going into a one way n banging almost 8-10 people. Luckily no one was killed to death. After this if people bury the car and hit them I dont feel surprised.
My friend reasoned with this young man that even if the Tanzanian student was indeed guilty of running a pedestrian over, no one had the right to lay a finger on her. To this, the gentleman (pun intended) said this:
  • Yes, if the girl was really humiliated, that part is definitely wrong. And ur point of 'even if he/she had committed crime, no one has right to touch them', is the prime reason y outsiders r being so rude. The police now inspite of their mistake has to give a royal treatment. Not sure if this is right
It's not just one person with a twisted mentality or in denial mode. See the conspiracy theory proposed and the undertones of 'a storm in a tea cup' in this Facebook comment:
  • There have been such incidents in the last year as well, but this incident has made it to the front page headlines. Is it a coincidence that media decides to blow it to such proportions only when an invest Karnataka global meet is happening?... I will stand for the rights of that Tanzanian girl however we might have to keep a watch on the damage control
This Facebook comment condemns the attack while squarely blaming African students for the mob's fury:
  • The Africans have made life a living hell and the anger manifested itself... though I don't condone the attack at all, the students need to tone down their lifestyle and be more considerate if the others too.
A news website carried a story related to the incident. Its comments section looks like this:
  • The Nigerians should be thrown out if they mis behave in future from the country.
  •  Since they are like animals, leave them for eternity inside Bannerghatta forest. They may enjoy their brotherhood with Lions and Leopards.
  •  It is ridiculous that their nationality and identity could not be ascertained, in this period when the country is on grip of fear of terrorist acts.!!!???
Will you still tell me there's no racism? Never mind stereotyping in the other comments, calling Africans rash, arrogant and high headed, not one of the writers condemning the assault on the Tanzanian student.
  •  Then there's this question on Quora: "How do I make non-Kannadigas speak Kannada in Bangalore?" One person suggests using "force if you're in command", and whenever possible, refusing to converse in any language but Kannada.
  •  In a similar thread on Quora, I found this screenshot:

The sensible majority
Please be clear I'm merely pointing out some of the (arguably ubiquitous) bad apples and the undeniable, hateful undercurrent that the state government says doesn't exist at all. No way I'm judging the entire city by these rotten ones' behaviour. 
Every extremist thought on web has more than a dozen Kannadigas summarily disapproving of the jingoism, requesting fanatics not to ruin the state's image by impose their culture on anybody. The hateful minority embarrasses the sensible majority. And I'm among those embarrassed and ashamed at what happened in my city a day after the death anniversary of Gandhi ji.

Oh, and I'm angry. My pals who have been harassed are also angry, because we relate to that humiliation. The one whom the bus conductor had affronted told me she was so disturbed over this news she needed to resort to her diary to vent. The other said she wanted to write an article about her own bad experiences. I'm writing this because I'm pissed off at those almost justifying the assault, including the home minister. Racist attacks haven't taken place in Bangalore for the first time. Can your police make an example of this murderous mob and ensure they rot in jail so that no would-be-fanatic dares such a misadventure ever again? Can you instill fear of law in them? Can you?

Those above law in B'lore
Law says all vehicles' number plates must be in English, but thousands of vehicles there ply with Kannada number plates. Even policemen's. The challan-happy traffic police hardly ever impose fine for it, fearing wrath of pro-Kannada outfits. But immigrants make up for more than 70% of Bangalore's population, how do they report a crime/mishap involving such a vehicle? Why, then, this exemption? It's such things that embolden hooligans, who learn they can evade law by brandishing the red-gold flag. (For the uninitiated, Karnataka has an informal state flag.) According to a Hindustan Times report, four of the nine men arrested for the assault are reportedly with a pro-Kannada organisation. Anybody surprised? 

Mr home minister, the "strict action will be taken" rhetoric impresses nobody. Can you rein in these radical outfits and bring them to book the next time they break law? Can we expect the law of the land will be implemented in letter and spirit and justice shall be meted out without fear or favour? Or will there be minor, routine arrests as usual, bail soon after and the masters of puppets go scot-free as usual?

No offence, Bangalore
If any Bangalorean reading this is offended, please understand I'm not pointing a finger at you, nor at namma Bengaluru. You've expressed grief and sorrow at the episode, you have minced no words in condemning the assault. You have always supported peace and brotherhood. Last year you set an example in selflessness and charity when Chennai was submerged. Nobody can ask for more. I understand it annoys the hell out of you when people label our beautiful city as racist.

I hope our anger and emotion evolves into a resolve to hold our government accountable. Because justice delayed is justice denied. And while redemption is not possible, atonement is very much. If political will is found lacking, let us ensure unrelenting public pressure makes up for it. Clipping wings of those who think they are above the law would be a reasonable start.

A prayer for my city
Ending this rather long note with a hope and a prayer that animosity vanishes from the hearts of those who have an inherent dislike for 'outsiders'. Hoping that cocky immigrants who proclaim "I need not learn Kannada because Hindi is India's national language" get a miraculous dose of wisdom as they sleep tonight and stop pissing off these locals with their brazen ignorance and arrogance. (It takes two to tango, after all.) Hoping that the African students get over this trauma, praying that the wounds on their psyche heal soon. And a prayer for the family of the woman who was killed at the hands of the rash driver.

P.S. Watch this video, starring Congress leader BL Shankar, to learn how to add insult to injury:

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