Visiting the land of Gandhi was a childhood dream that deepened with my growing understanding of the shared history between Africa and India, from the seldom acknowledged African demographic that have imbibed an Indian identity, to Gandhi’s role in the anti-apartheid movement.
This aspiration became a reality in July 2014, when I set foot in India to volunteer to help underprivileged women. It didn’t take me too long to discover that beneath the magnificent Taj Mahal and the enthralling landscapes lay a much uglier India, a society riven with racism and intolerance.
From restaurants to shopping malls, slums to upscale neighborhoods, no matter where I went, I was constantly stared at and often photographed without my consent. At national monuments, people were quick to sideline the exhibits and gawk at me, making me wonder if I was an exotic creature from Africa.
While being stared at may merely imply innocuous curiosity and not racism, the teases and taunts in hushed voices that followed me around, left little doubt.
Although I had been warned about racism, I was taken aback by the severity and prevalence of intolerance. Of course, I wasn’t the only victim of racism.
Early this year a mob attacked a Tanzanian girl as retaliation for a car accident involving a Sudanese man. In the eyes of the mob, the Tanzanian’s skin color and ethnicity made her culpable for the accident.
In May this year, a 29 year old Congolese was killed in New Delhi, and several other African students were assaulted in the following weeks.
A consensus against racism, if any, is reserved for incidents outside India. The arrest of Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, in the United States sparked a diplomatic crisis between the two countries. When Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan was detained at a United States airport, angry fans burned American flags and chanted slogans against racism, oblivious to the racism faced by millions of Indians in their own country, by their own countrymen and women.
Racism in India is systemic and independent of the presence of foreigners. Indians with darker complexions are rendered subordinate, forced to the periphery of society.
Matrimonial ads unabashedly boast of light skin, an asset no less valuable than an Ivy League degree. Landlords refuse to rent apartments to tenants who speak the “wrong” language or belong to the “wrong” part of the country.
Just days after the country boasted of “unity in diversity” during the 2014 Republic Day celebrations, Nido Tania, a 20-year-old student from northeast India was mocked for his “Chinese like” looks and brutally killed.
It is ironic that Indians continue to perpetuate the very racism that was inflicted on the natives during colonial times, the very discrimination that countless Indians have lost their lives fighting against.
A 2013 study by Swedish economists found India to be one of the most racist countries in the world.
Wiping out racism is not just a moral imperative for India. She cannot realize her dream of becoming an economic superpower unless she creates a more safe, inclusive and tolerant society for all peoples of India, and all peoples of the world.
Despite all the teases and taunts, some of the most loving people I’ve ever met are from India, some of the most respectable people I’ve met come from India.
I look forward to visiting India again, but hopefully I will be visiting a country that will judge me by my character and not by my color.
Kaleke Kalawole is a student in International Development at the University of Portsmouth.
Ash Murthy is a programming interview coach at www.programminginterviewprep.com and freelance writer.