Us and Them: Rape and Racism in India

A year ago, there was some minor hullabaloo created when African students in India were not permitted in some bars. But yeah, it remained a minor tempest. Most likely, prevalent attitudes towards Africans (and dark-skinned people in general) in South Asia didn’t change. A few days ago, I heard about the sexual assault of a Rwandan student in Delhi via Twitter, and asked Prasanto Kumar Roy, a Delhi-based writer to provide us with insight.

Guest Post by Prasanto Kumar Roy

On December 3, in the Indian capital of Delhi, five men gang-raped a 24-year-old Rwandan woman. They robbed and assaulted her when she was returning to her home in a residential area close to the University of Delhi.

The local police tried to keep the assault under wraps. They refused to file a “first information report,” or FIR, a prerequisite for action in a reported crime. Most bizarrely, they told her to “come back after two days.”

A non-governmental organization, which was assisting the Rwandan national seek asylum in India, escalated the matter. A senior Delhi Police officer ordered a departmental enquiry. The case was finally registered three days after the incident, and four of the five rapists tracked down and arrested. The police inspector responsible for the delayed FIR and action was suspended.

On the face of it, a series of things happened in this case. A rape, not uncommon in Delhi. A reluctance by the police to take action, even less uncommon. Pressure from a a non-governmental organization. Corrective action by the police, including punishment of the official responsible.

A closer look suggests a deeper issue: that of persistent racism in Indian society.

First, the crime. It’s likely that the men picked an African woman because they considered her “easier game,” a low-risk venture. They weren’t mistaken: the cops did not act – not without being ticked off by their seniors.

And while European or American women are far from being immune from rape in India, the chances of their being gang-raped with such impunity in Delhi would be much lower. A part of the reason is the lower probability of an African country assisting its citizens, or filing an official protest with the Indian government, when compared with, say, a European country.

Another reason for this presumption of lower risk by a potential rapist comes from the Indian media’s reaction to such assaults, and the latent institutionalised racism in our media. That same racism – based on the shade of one’s skin – is prevalent in the media’s mainstream readership, who are predominantly middle-class. When a university student is raped in Delhi, it hits the headlines. The police move much faster, partly in anticipation of media and public pressure, and partly as reflection of their own prejudice or sense of priority.

For many other classes of victims, including the poor and the not-well-connected, things move a lot slower. Those on the lowest end of the socio-economic pecking order have the most difficult time: the maids, municipal sweepers, construction workers. If one of them is raped, the chances of the police filing an FIR drop, and the media reports tend to be smaller, inside-page news items. Another class from where victims tend to trigger lower levels of outrage is the student community from the north-east of India. Because they have “Chinese” features, and favour Western dress and lifestyle, they’re considered exotic, “looser” and “easier game”. They are frequently the targets of sexual harassment, a crime often trivialized in India as “eve-teasing.”

The African student, thanks to the color of her skin and to her origins – a continent seen as backward by that same Indian middle class that is widely lauded for joining global modernity – is subconsciously slotted alongside those ‘lower classes’ of society.

Dozens, if not hundreds of students from African countries go to India for their university studies. (Photo.)

Dozens, if not hundreds of students from African countries go to India for their university studies.
(Photo via 5 Dariya News)

In this country of largely brown-skinned people once colonized by white men, the color of skin remains a point of discrimination. “Fair skin” is considered an asset, and is prominently mentioned in matrimonial advertisements. One of the hottest-selling of all cosmetics in the country is Hindustan Unilever’s “Fair and Lovely” skin-lightening cream for women in India. The product was launched with television commercials showing depressed, dark-complexioned women ignored by men, who use the product and then suddenly find boyfriends and better careers. (The ads were criticized as racist and withdrawn in 2007.)

Even for the majority who are not consciously racist, a news item about an African student being robbed or raped would cause less consternation than about a victim that the reader could directly identify with as “one of us”. India has a large number of students from African nations, who travel here for undergrad and postgrad studies. In Delhi, many of them live in or near the University of Delhi. Are they less safe in India?

Giti Chandra, a professor at Delhi’s St Stephen’s College and former chair of the college’s sexual harassment committee (a mandatory body in every college in Delhi), says “they’re as safe as anyone else if they’re sensible.”

Meanwhile, African students looking to study in India need to be aware that Delhi, and much of India, is not always safe for women. Just like Indian women, they’ll have to learn some defense mechanisms, remember that there is safety in numbers, and know that when the police do not help, non-governmental organisations may actually push for some action.

* Prasanto K Roy (Twitter: @prasanto) is a Delhi-based writer 
on technology and internet freedom. He blogs here.


24 thoughts on “Us and Them: Rape and Racism in India

    • I’m sure Prasanto meant “American” in the way it is conventionally used – North American. And…yes, North American women of predominantly European descent/who appear to be of European descent.

    • I believe the writer is speaking of America (United States of America). I don’t believe that the person is speaking of someone of European descent either. Please understand that American Consulates protect anyone who is American and I’ve found (unfortunately) that waving my “Americanness’ around has saved me some heart ache. As a Black American, I have been confused for African based on my appearance, yet when I speak something ‘different’ happens. Hmmmmm.
      People are ridiculously ignorant.

  1. It’s interesting that when there were several attacks on Indian Students in Australia (some racist, and some just random crime) there was a huge Indian media backlash depicting Australia as a racist nation which targeted Indians. The race issue was center of all the media stories and backlash, and I wonder if the Indian media is able or willing to focus the same scrutiny, that happily resulted in a massive Australian Government campaign to stamp out any further attacks, on their own multi-layered society? The media has some responsibility to press these issues home for change.

  2. I don’t know that there is evidence that this was in any way racially motivated. I think focusing there takes our attention from the more important issue here – attitudes towards women and their bodies.

    The article suggests that many men are attracted to the exotic. So our Rwandan girl is exotic, girls from the North are exotic as would be white-skinned women. But if the calculation of rapists in a society where there’s frequent rapes is mainly motivated by the possible reaction of government, we ought to ask ourselves why so many men have the desire to violate women in this way.

    That question is what is of greatest importance here. Saying Indians are racist is far too convenient.

  3. this is a pressing issue in the Indian context. as the author mentioned, the attraction to white skin is normalised (possibly rooted in notions of aryan-hindu supremacy), and black and northeastern people are most certainly marginalised and degraded. This racial dynamic operates within sexual violence along with class, caste, location, gender. and as this current case illustrates, there is not much faith to be kept in the state bodies.

    just to add some more background to this… yes, delhi is ill-reputed when it comes sexual violence, and pushing for the resolution of cases within the legal system only brings more struggle than justice. the landmark 1997 Vishaka judgement prompted the creation of internal committees within workplaces and universities to take up cases, which has been a sign of progress. Despite this, when the law itself is riddled with classist, casteist, patriarchal discriminations one does lose faith in institutional bodies’ capacity for justice (see Veena Das’ “Sexual Violence, Discursive Formations, and the State”).

    the recent passing of the ‘Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Bill’, following 15 years after Vishaka, despite containing its own problems and debates, does point to something that we can work to push forward. However, as noted by the author, it is certain that local groups, whether they are student or non-governmental, are much better and stronger than the state/police at not only being advocates for survivors of sexual harassment/assault but also taking up the issue politically.

  4. I am a student of international affairs who studied abroad in Jaipur and Delhi for 4 months in 2007. I will always treasure my experiences, the people I met, and the relationships I built in India.But as African American, I faced racist comments almost everyday . Most of the time I realized that people had no idea that what they believed or said was offensive or outdated. In the beginning I could ignore most of the comments because I realized that my home-stay family and neighbors lived in a different context, and were curious about me. My Uncle and Auntie were loving and protective of me, but couldn’t understand why I would call myself Black and tried to convince me that I was “wheatish” like them. , They cautioned me from staying in the sun too long for fear that I would get “too black”. I knew that deep down it came out of a place of concern and love, but it didn’t sting any less. Rarely did people believe that I was American, and people treated me better when they thought I was South Indian. If I’m honest, having a light to medium brown complexion made it easier for me than it did for a friend who is Black Canadian with a darker complexion. Her office colleagues would tell her that she would look so much better and more Indian, if she didn’t have those ‘ugly’ braids in her hair. We met only once, but would call each other for support. To top it off, we had to also deal with racist comments from some white colleagues and expats.

    In Delhi, I noticed that Nigerians,Somalians and other African people were treated far worse in shops, restaurants and airports. Again, my westernized accent and lighter complexion prevented me from experiencing harsher treatment. As a person of African American and West Indian descent, colorism has been a part of my life. I also have family members of Indian descent who think light skin is most attractive. But adjusting to a new environment as a foreigner of color, it was amplified by the amount racist comments and bleaching ads ..

    As far as sexual harassment, I faced my share of gropes and sexual comments. But there were times when men, old and young, would notice that I was lost or in trouble and would come to my aid. It was often the kindness of strangers that got me through and saved me from possible danger. I did my best to follow custom and observe the “acceptable” or “sensible” mores of gender relations. But I would caution you against the dismissal of racism or gender discrimination as part of “Indian culture”. Culture is fluid and when a culture or specific tradition has a harmful aspect; it needs to change. There are many Indian NGOs and campaigns working to end and minimize gender violence.Women, no matter what they look like or where they live,or who they are should not live there lives trying to avoid rape, molestation, or sexual harassment. I know that a world free of racism and sexual violence is not the present reality. Whether it’s in the US, South Africa or India, the danger is found in the acceptance and normalization of both in a society .

    • Keyona, Thank you, thank you. These are my own experiences as a returning South Asian. I see how my own nieces and nephews (who are born and raised there) deal with the ugly comments about their skin. They have a hard time believing that they are as gorgeous as they really are, and that I tell them they are. One believed that I found dark skin beautiful because I grew up in Africa. Sweet child.

      As you said, yes: many many people are helpful, kind, gentle – men and women – but there’s rarely a discussion about prevalent attitudes towards skin shade, which have their root in our agrarian past (if you are wealthy, your women folk were inside-therefore yr wealthy), and our history of conquest by people who came from the Iraq/Iran area (lighter skinned people). Often, people in those climes do not go “out in the midday sun’ because it IS too hot. But there is a huge fear about getting darker. I told people frequently that as a person who’s lived around ‘white’ people, I didn’t find their skin shade remarkable, or that they were automatically or especially beautiful. You can imagine the looks and the giggles of consternation from my high-class cousins.

  5. While racism is an important part of this story, you should look at recent reports concerning rape in India. While racist and caste violence does inded drive serious (I have no idea how much) sexual violence it is part of a wider problem of sexul violence. Hardly a week goes by without an Indian rape story making international news, yeaterday’s story of a gang rape on a bus is the latest example. Unaccompanied women regardless of color are viewed as a target. Thankfully India is slowly becoming aware it has a wide-spread rape problem, but this story needs to be seen in a wider context of violence against women.

  6. Echoing Chris above, I’m really disappointed that this has been made a story about race. There is a racial problem, that is true, but to read most of the comments (all the talk about skin-lightening and so on), one would think this was a story about someone being shunned, or denied service at a restaurant.

    This was a rape. The victim was targeted for sexual violence on account of her being a vulnerable woman. What impels rapists is a desire to dominate and violate. I was hoping for incites into that, but perhaps this is the wrong place for them.

    As I said above, it is far too convenient to jump to race and colour as explanations for what happened when even the article itself makes clear that there are many Indian victims of similar violence.

    • You are right, a vulnerable woman was raped and violated. We do not know the sick reasons why these rapists decided to target this specific woman.We dont know if they shouted racial slurs at her or not. Perhaps race was or was not their deciding factor. for Black women, gender and race are a combination, and are rarely ever separate in the western context. In the US, racism informs the nature of sexism that women of color receive. Due to western influence,racist images and beliefs of Black women as ‘wild’ and ‘hypersexual’ have been exported around the globe.
      I have been in situations in India where I feared being raped. ( Im not making rape exclusive to India. Unfortunately, it does occur everywhere) I remember a time when I was waiting for the restroom, and an army officer cornered me and made a comment about liking my ‘body type’, ‘eventhough it was different’. But for African/Black women living and studying in India, the aformentioned stereotypes may further influence those who have the intention to rape or harrass to specifically target African women. As mentioned in this blog post, the way Africans are viewed in Indian cities, like Delhi, may negatively influence Indian authorities responses to reports of rape or abuse against this particular group of people.

  7. Reblogged this on Black History 360* and commented:
    Another side of rape in India; the rape of international women studying or working in India. This is a first observer’s report of a recent Delhi case involving a Rwandan student raped by several men and the local police failure to take an immediate report. (Read more . . .)

  8. This is a wonderful post. I heard about this yesterday and I am sickened. Rape has nothing to do with sex. It is a play for power and control. I hope these young men are punished to the fullest extent of Indian law.

  9. I lived in the United States for 16+ years and been to many countries on deputation as a Research Engineer/Scientist. I returned to India in 2010 and started my own companies. Today I employ ~1200 in two cities, ~60% staff are women! Even now I travel few times per year to the US, Europe, South America and Africa.

    Based on my employee data and social observation (rural and semi-urban, not just cities), I agree that there are some problems in India as Prasanto Kumar Roy mentioned. Having said, Rapes, Assault and other crimes against women are happening globally. Some India-specific exceptions (in terms of no.of cases) are like Dowry death/cases etc.

    Point is, based on ONE or FEW assault cases on Africans, entire India can’t be painted as Racist. Of course, there is problem in India such as look/color *discrimination* but this can’t be attributed as Racism.

    If I go by writer’s logic, then many Africans are arrested in India for loads of Drug trafficking cases. So could we label as Africa is Drug-loaded continent?

    Importantly, there is no locus standi for the developed countries when it comes to Crimes against Women or Rapes or Sexual assault because if we look at the cases in their nations, Indian cases are far less in terms of per-capita scale (1.6 per 100,000). Many Westerners or Indians don’t know these facts or tend to ignore the picture.

    But I agree it’s still a long way to go for us to solve these problems, that’s why we are a DEVELOPING nation. I hope my stand is understood.

  10. Dr Madhav, but you get not deny racism fro Indians which is so open. I have encountered a lot of nationalitidsand Indians have been the most obnoxious and hateful. I am short of time to give examples. My proposal is, to discriminate Indians I return for their ignorance, they have little to offer and so it will not be missed.

    • Ur comments are absolutely fair, rational and truthful.One has to accept reality and acknowledge problems in the first place , if these are to be attended to and eradicated. otherwise, any amount of convincing arguments and counter-arguments will keep on engaging minds with no fruitful action.Every person (man or woman) born anywhere in this world, has to have a free and fair mind first of all-nationalities come afterwards.So I am really impressed with what u said. God bless

    • Mr. Lee,

      Let me know where you are from so that I can open your eyes with realities. If you are Chinese (origin) then i don’t need to mention about who is the most obnoxious and insecure on this planet.

      hc sharma,

      What about ‘rational and truthful’ thing. How about asking Mr. Prakash Patel who recently got bashed up in UK in racist attack. Fact is, there exits a lot more racism in the developed world compared to India. Same with Rape stats too. Yes, as i wrote earlier, India is NOT FREE of these evils.

      Mr. Lee, pay read the article below in case if you living in the US (and other ignorants). Also, could you enlighten us why doesn’t China publish annual Rape stats just like US or India? Even the most powerful country is NOT FREE of rape and hate crime. Actually, it got more dubious stats than India! We are still a developing nation with 1300 million compared to 315 million of the US:

      America’s Rape Problem: We Refuse to Admit That There Is One:

      Does anyone know how many Indians killed in the US/UK and vice versa. Do you, Prasanto Kumar Roy or this overzealous Sri Lankan author?

      I don’t hate ANY people as race (fact is, employ many foreigners including a few Chinese!). However, before point a finger at a nation/people I’ll take a good/hard look around me and my backyard. I don’t live with ignorance and double standards. Are you doing the same Ms Jawawardane? I hope you do.

      Thank you,

      Dr. Madhav

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