“India is a racist country. Indians are not ready to accept foreigners, especially those from Africa.” So said Isa Danjuma, an assistant professor, during his address to a group of Indian officials and fellow African students.
“We want to have a symbiotic relationship with the Indians but is it possible?” Danjuma asked.
The Nigerian had completed his Ph.D. program in New Delhi, India’s capital city, and was more than happy at the prospect of a return to his home country.
The academic’s assertion, and the following question, stunned the bureaucrat presiding over the session.
“That is not the case — maybe only in a small part of India,” the host insisted. “If you visit south India and other parts you won’t find any racism at all.”
The bureaucrat had either completely forgotten or conveniently ignored the then-recent issue of a Tanzanian student being stripped by a mob in Bangalore, a major city in the south of India.
Nonetheless there was a palpable hesitation in his voice even as he made a desperate attempt to assuage the African contingent present. It wasn’t surprising, then, that his explanation was followed by immediate challenges from a few students, some narrating their own experiences, and others citing examples of the frequent attacks on Nigerians to establish their point.
The meeting was a precursor to the Indian government’s ambitious “Study in India” initiative.
Predictably for a country whose own students prefer destinations like the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand to complete their higher education, the inflow of foreign students into India is far outweighed by the outflow of Indian students.
According to the most recent data in the All India Survey on Higher Education 2017-18 (AISHE), the total number of foreign students enrolled in Indian institutes during the period stood at 46,144. That’s down from the 2016-17 total of 47,575.
As per the survey, though these students come from 166 countries from across the globe, the top 10 countries alone account for 63.4 percent of the total foreign students enrolled.
With a network of over 800 universities and 38,000 colleges – as per governmental records – India’s higher education network is by far the largest in the world. However, the country hosts less than 1 percent of the world’s students who move overseas for higher studies. This discrepancy is glaring, but for years government agencies weren’t bothered.
Never quite the proactive kind, by the time the Indian bureaucracy began to contemplate harnessing the country’s palpable potential in the higher education sector, the likes of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Israel, and the states covered under the Erasmus Program had taken a sizable lead.
The Study in India program of the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), launched amid much fanfare in April 2018, aims to attract 200,000 students to Indian universities in the next five years. It’s an ambitious goal – perhaps overly ambitious.
How can a country that cannot retain its best students contemplate attracting overseas talent?
The most realistic approach would be to look toward developing countries in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, and let India’s best marketing brains hard sell the country’s potential.
To its credit, the MHRD’s initial tactic made sense, targeting 30-odd countries and attempting to entice students from them by promising affordability (read: fee waivers), scholarships, and quality education. However, it has since moved at a snail’s pace. There is no long-term planning per se, and neither the patience to build a brand nor the willingness to do away with the bureaucratic bottlenecks and other deterrents.
Of those foreign students who do come to India, African students are the most numerous. In fact India is the topmost non-African developing country destination among African students for higher education. According to aforementioned AISHE, Sudan and Nigeria are the third and fifth biggest source countries for foreign students in India. African students coming in to India take up courses as diverse as engineering, medicine, pharmacy, management, or even those that help them secure a career in the services sector.
It is here that the Study in India initiative faces a serious problem: The racist behavior ingrained in the psyche of the local population.
This despicable tendency is at times tacit, but more often than not explicit. Its related attributes may be either violent in nature – mob attacks, assaults, public stripping, molestation and rape — or forms of economic exploitation — added fees, commissions, extra rent deposits, hiked fares etc.
The cold reception has ensured a steady decline in the number of African students coming to India.
“About 90 percent of the African students don’t like to continue a few days after arriving in India. However, the rules are such that you cannot go back just like that,” says Isaac Mulumba, a BCA student from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“A lot of the students pay the hefty fee; procure the Resident Permit (RP) but then travel back home,” he explained. “About 80 percent of these African students aren’t even going back with their diplomas. They go back and try to get admissions in other countries. Others have to stay, so that the fees paid don’t go waste. They can’t afford to forego the admission since they are not from affluent backgrounds.”
Morel Tadjo, a pharmacy student from Cameroon, prefers to be cautious, restricting himself to his house and school grounds.
“At times I am scared. If I have to go somewhere, I can’t go alone. There is a certain hesitation. It makes me feel safe staying among other African students,” he explains. “When you are walking, the look that the Indian people give til you pass by them is very condescending.”
Abdul Hashim, a medical student from Sudan, who spent four years studying in Mumbai, concurs.
“If you decide not to go back home, and finish your education, you have to ensure that you always keep together in a group. If you are alone you always risk taunts and jibes, if not a physical attack,” he explains.
Such accounts are disturbing — especially for a country that plays the racism card very well and makes a loud outcry when its citizens overseas face any race-related problems.
To cite an example, a series of attacks on Indian students in Australia between 2008 and 2010 prompted outrage in India, with many accusing the Australian authorities of not acknowledging the problem, let alone taking action. The Indian media went into an overdrive, criticizing everything Australian.
It took years before the Indian government was satisfied by its Australian counterpart’s efforts to counter the menace. Despite that, the influx of Indian students to universities Down Under continued unabated in those intervening years.
While Indians facing racism abroad is made into a big issue, incidents of African students being regularly subjected to racist behavior are conveniently brushed under the carpet.
As a nation that faces the scourge of racism more often than not, India (and Indians) should ideally be more compassionate and understanding on the topic. However, that’s not the case. Even within the country examples of rampant racism abound; a clear cut North-South divide so to speak.
Besides, Indians have over the years also mastered the art of “reverse racism.” Calling a white person “gora,” or addressing someone of Chinese/Japanese/Korean origin, or for that matter some of India’s own people — from the eight northeastern states — as “chinki” are examples of this.
It is this racist bent of mind that creates trouble for African students seeking admission, jobs, a place to stay, or even hitching a ride – in all these cases they have to pay more, of course.
There’s a rule ensuring mandatory internships for foreign students. In fact many African students pay token money to the agencies for admissions, jobs, or internships believing it will relieve their stress. But nothing of that sort happens.
“Getting a part-time job is difficult. Most employers don’t pay you well. Some blatantly say, you don’t have an option to choose,” says Morel, who admits he didn’t have to struggle to find a house in Bangalore because his sister had been through the grind.
“She had come from Cameroon to study nursing, and faced a lot of problems. People wouldn’t rent her a house because of her skin color,” confesses Morel.
“However, her most terrifying ordeal happened during an assignment in rural Karnataka. She was asked questions like ‘Which type of diseases you have?’ Things became so bad that her professor told her to get back to the bus and sit, til they were done for the day.”
Isaac, who has been based out of Bangalore for more than four years now, believes the racist attitude of Indians is a manifestation of their lack of knowledge about Africa – or, rather, a reluctance to know more about the African people.
“There are some highly educated and well-traveled Indians, with a better outlook, who behave very well. But we have to deal with the other kind [the ignorant and prejudiced] more on a day-to-day basis,” he explains.
“It is very difficult as most Indians resist Africans, their knowledge about Africa being very limited. Many think Africa is like one big country. They know about South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Kenya largely because of cricket. Then they see the news channels, and those many stories about Nigeria make them believe all the other Africans are from Nigeria.
“Even if you are construed to be a Nigerian, there’s further division for the sake of convenience, like a guy has to be a drug peddler and a girl, a prostitute,” adds Isaac.
Hashim, who was not aware of Study in India, nonetheless believes that for such an initiative to be successful the Indian government has to first give assurances regarding the safety of the African students.
“Every year we read and hear about African students being assaulted, yet nothing is done about it,” he says. “Unless a student is assured of his or her security the numbers will keep decreasing, no matter how many scholarships and fee cuts you announce.”
Morel, who plans to head westward once his sojourn in India is over, believes while a change of mindset will take generations, some respect for Africans will serve as encouragement.
“If Indians can treat us like normal people it will be great,” he says.
“In many African countries a lot of Indians have their own businesses, and earn a lot of money. However, in India it is very difficult for an African. You don’t feel secure,” argues Isaac, who is certain he won’t continue with further studies in India.
“In the United States and Europe, there are sometimes racial attacks. However, largely they are more open societies. Once I am done with India, I will go to one of these countries to do my Master’s.”
However, Isaac also makes a pertinent observation as regard what needs to be done to make Study in India a success story.
“What you hear and read about the quality of Indian education, and what it actually is, are two totally different things,” explains Isaac.
“There are some colleges which the Indian government shouldn’t allow them to admit international students in the first place. They simply aren’t good enough. They neither have a good set up, nor well-trained teachers. Just because you have thousands of colleges doesn’t mean every one of them is good. Certain amount of streamlining is required.”
Meanwhile, Maria Kargbo, from Sierra Leone, knows about Study in India but doesn’t want to learn more about it. Asked if she can help spread the word about it in her country, her response is a negative.
The Freetown native has completed her education and is ready to go back home. During her time in Delhi she has faced insults more than once. While willing to forgive, she certainly won’t forget her ordeal in India, saying she will leave the country with “mixed feelings.”
“When you are leaving India having completed your education, you can be happy to have finally got your degree or diploma. However, in hindsight you will always be angry, as to why you came to this country,” explains Maria.
“Having said that, you can never show that anger, definitely not when you are in India, or when you are out of it. When it comes to India, and Indians, you have to learn to control your emotions,” she adds.
The prevalent racism in India – and the negative impression it leaves in foreign students’ minds — is obviously the biggest deterrent to the success of Study in India, its gigantic ambition notwithstanding.
No points for guessing that, over a year after its grand launch, the initiative is yet to take off in the manner it was expected to.
Bikash Mohapatra is an India-based consultant and writer whose work has appeared in various international publications such as the Guardian Network, Asia Times, and The Times of India.