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.

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 organizations may actually push for some action.

Further Reading

No more caricatures

Engaging seriously with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life could help us understand how South Africa got where it is and where it’s going.