"Some of the politics we see now, we thought we put that to bed. That?s folks looking 50 years back," Obama said. Photograph:( Reuters )
Dear Mr Obama, please do not ever return to India. (You’re partly of African origin.)
Before you respond, I would like to draw your attention to recent news reports and video footage of a Nigerian man being tied to a pole in south Delhi and beaten with sticks.
The man was beaten because his neighbours alleged he was a thief. When the police finally came, the news reports said, they arrested the Nigerian man for thieving. And they accepted the neighbours’ version that he had hurt himself by falling down the stairs while committing the theft.
We have a history of this sort of behaviour.
You might also have heard of the three African men attacked in a metro station in Delhi. By the time the mob finished with them, it was chanting “Bharat mata ki jai”.
Or you might have heard of the African man beaten with steel bins in a mall in Greater Noida.
I remember you coming to India in early 2015; I had hoped and prayed then that nobody here would treat you similarly.
I was thinking on those lines because a little before your visit I had reported from south Delhi’s Khirki Extension after Delhi’s new law minister and his supporters had barged at night into the home of four Ugandan women accused by their neighbours of prostitution.
(That of course was an example of how direct democracy – in this case Mr Kejriwal’s mohalla sabhas -- can go very wrong. Direct democracy works on the principle that the people know best what their problems are. So they point them out to their governments, which then get on with the job of problem-solving. I still think Mr Kejriwal’s mohalla sabhas were a fantastic – and workable – idea. I just didn’t think we would use it to further our racism.)
Khirki is one of Delhi’s “illegal colonies”, colonies that came up without the requisite planning permissions.
Because they are “illegal”, they tend to offer cheap housing and so are popular with immigrants of all hues.
I remember being struck by that at the time – the people living there, by and large, were not “locals”. Most had come from elsewhere – Bihar, UP, and later, more faraway places like Nigeria and Somalia.
With most of them being migrants, you would imagine they would have had more compassion for each other.
But it was awful being there.
The stories I heard.
One African woman, Christine, complained to me about having her bottom slapped, being called “monkey”, and being spit on.
You speak so well Mr Obama.
I heard your speech at Siri Fort. Your 40-minute address felt like it was five minutes long, and I wish I had your gifts.
You know, the funny thing is you spoke about the same things I am now.
“In societies as big and diverse as ours (India and the United States), progress depends on how we see each other,” you had said.
“We are strongest when we see the inherent dignity in every human being,” you had added.
You even said that you had been treated differently in the United States because of the colour of your skin.
And you gave us a warning. You said:
“India will succeed only so long as it is not splintered along religious lines.”
I don’t think we listened to you. (And I’m not just talking about how we treat the Africans.)
In Khirki, I had also met two young men from Nigeria studying here in India. (They had heard how good India was at IT.)
Anietie was easy-going, and so had had some success at fitting into Indian society. Damian was the good-looking one.
I remember thinking that Damian should have been popular with the girls but he told me that he had got lost in Delhi one time, and stopped to ask a girl for directions. The next minute, somebody was throwing stones at him from the other side of the road.
“I prefer to get lost now,” he told me.
But the man I remember most starkly was the one I met towards the end of my visit to Khirki.
I had chanced upon an impromptu TV news debate.
The anchor had assembled his panel – Indians mostly – and was asking it what the problem in Khirki might be?
A short distance away, an affluent–looking Indian man was haranguing a crowd of local residents who had gathered to watch the debate.
Don’t rent your homes to the Africans, he was telling them. They sell drugs, they run prostitution rackets. Do you want your wives and daughters to live in the midst of all that?
They’ve (the Africans) done the same thing in Goa, he added. First they moved in, then they married the local women, then they took over the community. Do you want that to happen to you?
“Why are you here?” I had asked him. “You don’t look like you live here.”
“I don’t,” he had replied. “But I have a house here.”
“Are you sure you want the people here to treat foreigners like this?” I had asked him. “After all, a lot of Indians migrate abroad for work. You wouldn’t want them to be treated the same way.”
“No that’s different,” he answered.
“My son lives in London,” he added.
“There you go,” I said to him. “If you treat foreigners badly here, you can’t really complain if your son is treated badly there.”
“No,” he answered. “My son lives in the W1 area. That’s one of the poshest in London.”
I still do not know what he might have meant.
Follow Parakram on Twitter @parakramrautela