The savage greed of the civilized stripped naked its own unashamed inhumanity’
—Africa, Rabindranath Tagore
Delhi Law Minister and Aam Aadmi Party leader Somnath Bharti’s midnight raid in Khirki village, during which he ordered policemen to search and enter houses, arrest people without warrants, and allegedly said that “black people, who are not like you and me, break laws”—strips naked the unashamed inhumanity of the Aam Aadmi Party regime’s moral posturing. Underneath the holier-than-thou mask of that moral posture lies the unmistakably horrible sneer of the ordinary racist thug. This is the real face of Somnath Bharti. I hope it is a face that the Aam Aadmi Party can turn itself away from.
When Arvind Kejriwal, makes the mistake of trying to defend Somnath Bharti, denying all charges of racism (just as Narendra Modi denies all charges of communalism) he is exposing himself either as a liar (who knows what racism is but is in denial about it) or as a man of very limited political intelligence (who, like most racists, does not understand what racism is when he is confronted with it). In either circumstance, we cannot trust him, or his party, should they persist in this folly, to be the custodians of our city. In order to regain the trust that they are rapidly losing, they have to apologize, not just to the city’s African residents, but to everybody (because racism offends every human being) and pending the results of an enquiry, suspend Somnath Bharti.
Should such an enquiry reveal that Bharti did indeed make racist comments he and any other leader found to be making racist and misogynist remarks, (evidence is mounting, for instance against Kumar Vishwas as well) should be expelled immediately by the Aam Aadmi Party. If the Aam Aadmi Party does not take the corruption of racism and misogyny within its ranks seriously, why should we believe that now that it is in power, it will take any other form of corruption seriously? There are many sensible, sensitive and intelligent people who have joined the AAP, in the hope that it represents a real political alternative. It is up to them now to initiate a real debate within AAP and to cleanse their own stable.
Had even a small fraction of what happened, (cavity searches, public humiliation, name calling) to a few Africans in Khirki that night happened to a few Indian women elsewhere in the world, we would have heard no end of it on television by now. Every Indian satrap worth his salt, from Kejriwal to Modi to Rahul Gandhi to Akhilesh Yadav and Sitaram Yechury would have been screaming ‘Racism’ at the top of their lungs. Much air time and op-ed space would have been taken up in righteous and fulsome indignation, marches would have been held, and the foreign ministry would have hauled up the resident diplomats of those countries. and rightly so, because racism is racism. But racism is racism regardless of whether its object is an Indian or Pakistani student in Melbourne, or an Ugandan or Russian woman in Delhi . In all likelihood, in the event that such incidents were to take place, say in Melbourne, some poker faced Australian politician or official from those countries would have said, on record, that the attacks were not ‘racist’ in nature, exactly as Kejriwal, is doing today in Delhi. The Chief Minister of Delhi was handed an occasion to demonstrate his sensitivity on a platter, but he has, as of now blown that opportunity away, and exactly as on an earlier occasion where he had shown that the lives and opinions of Kashmiri people do not matter to him when weighed against the fetish of national interest, so too this time, he has shown us that when it comes to weighing the interests and machismo of his self-righteous constitutency against the safety and security of African women in the city, he would rather be with the ordinary racist (in denial of the explicit and implicit racism of the episode) than stand in solidarity with the ordinary victim of ordinary racism.
During this infamous raid, as is now well known, the crowd of Aam Aadmi Party vigilantes accompanying Somnath Bharti kept some Ugandan women residents of Khirki village confined in a car for several hours, abused them and forced one of them to urinate in public. Later urine samples were obtained from them under duress at a hospital. The mob believed that these samples would show that they had consumed drugs. Incidentally, the medical tests proved that the urine samples contained no traces of prohibited narcotic substances. Apparently, they also believed that the women were prostitutes and drug peddlers. Reports also indicate that intoxicated by their self-righteousness the AAP posse then went on to harass, humiliate and abuse some local transgender individuals they found on the streets.
So what if some of the African women and the transgendered locals were sex workers? (It does not matter to me whether they were or were not, because I believe that sex workers, like all other kinds of workers, are just as entitled to dignity as anyone else). Does the mere suspicion that some people may be sex workers entitle a group of aam aadmis to manhandle and humiliate them, or any one else who they think fits the description of what they think is a sex worker way past midnight on the streets. Is the moral fibre of anti-corruption crusaders so fragile as to require strengthening through the enactment of sadistic rituals on the bodies of convenient others ? Can it be accidental that such ‘others’ just happen to be racial and sexual minorities ?
Perhaps this is what Rabindranath Tagore had in mind when he invoked ‘the savage greed of the civilized’ in his poem ‘Africa’. Now that Africa has been called out in the streets of Delhi, we need to recognize the heart of darkness that lurks within this city. This is the darkness of racial prejudice, that every ‘North Eastern’, Burmese and African inhabitant of Delhi knows well, it is the stain of bigotry that every Afghan or Kashmiri Muslim young man or woman faces when looking for a house to rent, it is the slur, the snide remark, that shadows every trans or queer person. This is the real face of the so called ‘moral code’ that Somnath Bharti and his vigilantes are trying to force down our throats. This is why, unless something is done to prevent it now, AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) will rapidly turn into KHAP (Khas Aadmi Party).
Following the recent regrettable rape of a Danish tourist in Central Delhi, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had made a statement that linked sexual crime in the city to drugs and prostitution. As we know well by now, sexual assault takes place everywhere—from the confines of families and in the home, in schools, ashrams, army encampments and during festivals that claim to celebrate debate and intellectual activity. In fact, the statistical incidence of sexual assault within the ordinary middle class Indian family home is far greater than in drug-dens, allegedly run by African emigrants. And if the consumption of drugs can, in certain instances, be factors behind cases of sexual assault, so too can an overdoes of traditional family values, organized religion and even (as in the Tehelka episode) the right degree of glamorously liberal angst.
Curiously, these facts do not embolden Delhi’s Law Minister and his posse of vigilantes to raid homes in Malviya Nagar and Saket, (neighborhoods adjacent to Khirki village), the offices of major media houses, or temples and places of worship, or to obtain urine samples under duress from young Indian women and to berate policemen for standing by (for once, and for a change) the rights of people to be protected from undue harassment.
Like all racism, Bharti’s prejudice conceals at its heart, a repressed sexual secret—a shameful projection of anxieties about rape on to the bodies of racial others. Racist lynch mobs in the American South were often motivated by a wave of self-righteous rage about transgressions of sexual boundaries and rumors about rape (of white women by black men). In a curious twist of fate, the lynch mob that Somnath Bharti leads and Arvind Kejriwal endorses seems to seek recompense for the rape of a white and brown woman in Delhi by enacting the humiliation of black women, who have nothing to do with the attacks on any woman, anywhere in the city. If that is not racism, then I do not know what is. It is racism, and it is misogyny. I do not know what can be worse than this combination of prejudices.
Many young people from the arts communities, especially young women who live and/or work in Khirki village, and have to walk through its streets on the way to or from work have always told me that they feel safe in Khirki because of the very public presence of young African women, even late into the night. If some residents of Khirki and Malviya Nagar feel threatened by the African presence in their midst, equally there are some who actually feel reassured and comforted by that very presence. If anything, it is the solidarity that many in Khirki feel with its African inhabitants that is more in keeping with this city’s long history.
Somnath Bharti, has violated a long history that Delhi has of being hospitable to people from all parts of the world. By his actions he has demonstrated that it is not the Africans of Khirki, but he and his gang that do not really belong to the city and its traditions. There were African inhabitants in Delhi as long ago as in the 13th Century, and many of them may well have lived where Khirki village stands today. Razia Sultan, who reigned as Delhi’s queen from 1236 to 1240, and whose citadel was very close to Khirki, is rightly remembered with great fondness as one of the few just and compassionate rulers that this city has had in its long history. Raziya had an African consort, Jamal-ud-Din Yaqut, and she fought to protect the dignity of this man, whom she loved (it is rumored that she loved him and another female companion, both of whom had once been slaves) from the racial and sexual prejudices of her courtiers. In the popular imagination Raziya Sultan lost her throne, and her life, because she did not choose to abandon those she loved, regardless of their race, gender or sexual orientation, and that is what marks her out as one of the many heroes and martyrs of Delhi.
A few centuries later, we hear of Sidi Miftah, a Habshi (Abyssinian) noble man also known as Habsh (Dark) Khan in the service of Shahjahan, who later in life turned into a majzoob, (a passionate Sufi mystic) and whose memory is immortalized in the Phatak Habsh Khan, situated near Tilak Bazar, Fatehpuri, in the old city. There is even a Siddiyon Ka Masjid (an African mosque) near Filmistan Cinema, just off Karol Bagh. All of these facts are traces of the long African history of Delhi and if we have to find a ethical anchor for this city’s life, which has to be based on inclusivity, hospitality, cosmopolitanism and openness, I would much rather that we find it in the parable of Raziya Sultan’s love for an African man and in the passion of Sidi Miftah than in the moral cancer of Somnath Bharti’s xenophobic and sexist vigilantism.
Thankfully, many people in Delhi have a better sense of its traditions and history of hospitality than Somnath Bharti and his gang. Several young people, artists, performers, teachers, student activists of AISA from JNU, Delhi University and Jamia Millia Islamia, and women active with the AIPWA and other organizations and individuals came together yesterday at Jantar Mantar to protest against the racist attack in Khirki village. Also present were a few of the African citizens of Delhi. Kavita Krishnan, general secretary of the AIPWA, began the meeting by speaking out how racism and sexism feed off each other.
Aastha Chauhan, a young artist and cultural organizer who has been working in Khirki village for quite some time now, spoke of how over the past year of so, there had been several attempts by her and her friends (both African and Indian) to counter the racism and misogyny that had become a hallmark of daily life in Khirki and its vicinity. She spoke of how they had made several representations to the local police to take measures that ensures that young women and children of African descent could feel safe in their homes and on the streets in Khirki. She had talked about how their efforts were made in an attempt to counter a series of complaints from the local RWA members that listed the ‘African menace’ as consisting of the following—the fact that they played music, that their women wear shorts and baniyaan, (which, they said, might provoke ‘our’ daughters into wanting to start wearing shorts) that their food smells awful, that they smoke marijuana, that they are prostitutes (for which they had no evidence, barring a ‘sting’ by a local TV channel) , and that they have live-in partners, which is contrary to Indian culture.
Aastha spoke of how her efforts had actually begun bearing some fruit when a sympathetic police officer in the local thana had actually decided to pursue an even handed course which, while it was sensitive to routine ‘law & order’ concerns, was not attentive to complaints against Africans that were based entirely on prejudices about life style and private conduct that had no bearing in law. It is this ‘neglect’ of prejudice that is now being touted as complicity with corruption by the Aam Aadmi Party and its leadership. She urged everyone present to being confronting racism in every small detail—to stand up to it in shops, when an African customer is insulted, on the streets and in work places.
After Aastha, Jason a young African man, asserted that the world, according to him is the home of all of humanity. And any human being should accordingly have the right to feel at home, anywhere in the world. He spoke of how Indians were accorded great respect in his native country, and he said that naturally, he expected that respect to be reciprocated in India. He said he was attracted to the idea of living here by what he saw in Indian films, and had a great love for Indian people and for the country, which was why he was at a loss to understand why some Indian people were so unwelcoming to him and others like him. He thanked the people who had come out in support of the African residents of Delhi and blessed them for their solidarity.
This was followed by two rounds of drumming by another young African person, and a brief burst of impromptu dancing and then more statements by other students, artists and activists.
If, as has been alleged, Somnath Bharti said that these people—meaning Africans—are ‘not like us’ or something to that effect, then he seems to have stumbled upon that a sudden realization that he and his followers are actually members of a species other than human. As far as human beings are concerned, it is a fact that ultimately we are all from Africa because that is where our common ancestors found their humanity. Our species became human in Africa, and that makes Africans of us all, regardless of where in Delhi, or in the world, we choose to anchor ourselves and our histories.
Except, perhaps for some aam aadmi in the city of Delhi who stumbled upon their aadmiyat (manhood) exactly at the point when they also lost their insaniyat (humanity). Unfortunately for Somnath Bharti and Arvind Kejriwal, that is not a process that can ordinarily be described as evolution.