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IT was a storm in a beer mug. Only it threw up the dross of racial discrimination that floats under Mumbai's cosmopolitan facade. Cafe Leopold created a furore on June 19 when it denied two South African ladies entry into the pub ostensibly on racial grounds. Though the management retracted its statement later, racial discrimination became a cause celebre with everyone, from director Shyam Benegal to actor Sunil Shetty, denouncing it. The National Human Rights Commission dashed off a showcause notice to state chief secretary P. Subramanyam, expressing shock "to read that the two stewardesses of South African Airways were denied entry into the bar of Cafe Leopold at Colaba only because they were black. As prima facie this constitutes a serious violation of human rights, suo motu cognizance is taken". It instructed Subramanyam to submit his report by August 4, failing which "the commission may proceed to take such action as it deems proper".
Cafe Leopold insists it was a flash in the pan that flared up. Reconstructing the incident, Farhang Jehani, one of Leopold's coproprietors, said two South African women entered his cafe at 2 pm that day. While they were waiting for their parcel order, two men who, according to Jehani, had been drinking beer since noon, walked up to the girls, requesting them to accompany them to the pub. "My waiters tell me the girls were initially unwilling, but were persuaded after a while." When the waiter refused them pub entry, the two men "tried to pick up a fight with my uncle Rashid Dohmiri who'd had a particularly harrowing day due to a surprise excise raid. In a moment of irritation he said what he did." Which amounted to barring "entry to African Blacks" into the permit room. And to specify "Kenyans, South Africans, and Nigerians" were particularly unwelcome. While the embarrassed girls left in hurt silence, "the boys left after threatening to insult us tomorrow".
Which they did by going to the press. Since then the complainant, variously described as Manoj Shetty and Hormuz, has yet to resurface to clear up Leopold's allegation that he "was trying to pick up the girls and that Dohmiri just said that to get rid of the two boys who had a habit of getting drunk and picking up girls". The girls, reportedly with South African Airways, are also now incognito. Cafe Leopold, recommended by Lonely Planet to international tourists, has been given a clean chit by the Association of Restaurants and Hotels (AHAR) which found it a lapse caused more by momentary irritation rather than ingrained racism.
"But if he wanted to get rid of the boys, why insult the black girls?" asks P.A. Sebastian, a human rights activist who, along with activist Colin Gonsalves, two years ago set up an African students' panel after Nigerian student Dola Abiodun Tunde was shot dead by Mumbai's anti-narcotics cell. Following the incident, 5,000 African students had protested against the "differential treatment based on race and ethnicity and a deliberately biased application of criminal procedures with excessive police torture" of black undertrials as opposed to that of other foreign prisoners. The two activists, along with African students, while accepting Leopold's explanation, complain of the pervasive racial discrimination blacks face in their day-to-day interactions in Mumbai.
Says Sebastian, a regular at Leopold: "Management permission has to be taken by stags if they want to enter the pub. But they may turn away blacks while permitting whites. Now let's accept the management's reasoning that it disallows guests from crossing over to the tables of strangers to prevent the cafe from becoming a pick-up joint. But this happens only with black students; whites are allowed such casual friendships."
SUDANESE student Dave (name changed on request) who had a similar brush with Leopold stopped frequenting it. "My friend and I were talking to two German girls at the next table. Since we had to speak loudly to be heard, the girls suggested we move over. The waiter said we were not allowed to do so." While Leopold may be doing this to avoid the tag of a 'pick-up joint', nothing explains why Dave wasn't allowed entry into another pub HQ, also at Colaba, while his Indian friends were. "Fortunately, the guards let me in for five minutes. I ran after my friends to tell them about my problem. They left along with me."
Michael, leader with the Nigerian Students Committee and a student at NIIT, says even speaking to Indian girls invites abuses. "The girl's often made to feel so vulnerable that she wants to shift elsewhere. Sometimes Indian men follow us for a distance, somehow threatening so that even female classmates feel embarrassed to be seen speaking to us. I've had people throw stones at me when talking to Indian girls. Once, right outside the hostel where I'm staying."
Sebastian relates how a taxi driver, once seeing him with a bunch of African men, asked him: "Saab, why do you mix with these types? I never stop for these kaala log." A syndrome that afflicts even paanwallahs who often turn away these boys. Recalls Sebastian: "Once I was at Gokul when a waiter insisted a group of African students pay before eating. When they protested, he said a few weeks ago one African had left without paying up! Would he try this with Indians?"
Khalid Yahya from Sudan has to put up not just with kaalia and kaala bhoot calls, but also endure some Indians reaching out to feel his hair and body while travelling in a train. "Somehow they make you feel out of place, as though you aren't wanted here," he says. Dave and Michael have withstood similar assaults. "When they see an African man they think he's only made for sex. While travelling to Bandra in a local recently, I tried to make room for a very decent-looking man. By the time the station came the man had groped me all over. A similar incident occurred again, this time with the man urging others in front to push me. I lost my temper," says Michael. Dave says he has had men follow him several times, making jeering and abusive gestures. Once at a restaurant while he innocently returned the smile of an Indian stranger, the man sent a note across which read: "I love Africans. Why don't you join me?" An African student was allegedly beaten up in the university for resisting such advances.
Once Michael was asked to get up from a seat in a Bandra train, while another time he got into a fracas for simply giving a torn rupee note in a bus. "While the conductor abused me, others shouted at me to get off. There are five million Indians in Nigeria. They are not discriminated against. Why are we being treated so badly in this country?" asks Michael plaintively.
John, studying economics at Wilson College, is by now used to people jumping away from him "as if I was somehow dirty". His first day at college was an emotional nightmare. "Nobody would sit in the row where I was sitting. Even as the rest of the class filled up, my row continued to be empty. In a class of 40 students only one had the decency to come and introduce himself." He faces similar behaviour at restaurants where he's served last even if he's the first to enter it, or have salt and pepper given after the food is all served. Sometimes he has to walk off without water, which is not given even if requested for. And face the continuous flood of abuses. "Even if I can't be abusive. And if I can't speak Hindi, it's because I've no Indian friends," says he.
Says activist Gonsalves: "Racism is ingrained in the Indian psyche. Even the judicial system is prejudiced. Not only do they believe all blacks are criminal elements, they use outdated racist terms like 'Negros'." "Racism is a problem even Indians face. If you check with the colleges you'll know that over the last four years, there has been a significant drop in the number of students coming in here from African countries. The stories we carry back aren't pleasant," says Michael. Adds he: "I, for one, will never allow my brother back home to come here."
(The African students spoken to were willing to be identified only by their first names.)