Trifene, a student from Zimbabwe, came to Bengaluru, to study in Christ College in Bengaluru, after she was promised of cutting-edge technological opportunities and new multi-cultural experiences. But as she was soon to find out, the process of assimilating into Indian society would be much harder than she expected.
She says she faced racially motivated encounters that she would shy away from to avoid any conflict; sometimes it was unavoidable to participate in such conflicts when they occurred inside her hostel. In the video below, she narrates an incident where another male student who lived in the same hostel as her was sexually inappropriate with each other.
She, along with David Amum, President of Association of African students in India (AASI), was a panelist in a talk organised by Amnesty International to explore the theme “Assimilation and Racism: A conversation about being African and studying in India”, in a series called Diversity Talks. Darshana Mitra, a lawyer from the Alternative Law Forum, who was also part of the panel, talked about the legal problems that African students often face in the hands of Indian Law.
Mitra explained in detail how she thought the system was set up to exploit these African students who are brought to India and taken advantage of while also taking advantage of their rights as students in the city. She explained this opinion through a series of cases she had to face with six Ugandan students who had come to Bengaluru to study at Shrifts Omkar College near Hennur Cross. First, she explained the legal framework:
As an international student, one comes to India with a visa and a residence permit. The visa is usually granted to you by the embassy in your home country but once you come to India, you have to register at the District Foreigners Regional Registration Office (DFRRO) who gives you your Residential Permit(RP).
According to the Law stated on the website,
“Residential permit is issued at the time of registration, its validity being the period of stay specified in the visa. Application for extension of the Residential Permit should be made at least TWO months before its expiry to the nearest Registration Officer in the prescribed form.”
But in reality, the DFRRO only gives you a Residential Permit for a shorter duration like a year or six months or even shorter.
The college also has to give the student a bona fide certificate that verifies the student’s enrollment in a particular college. Colleges can use this document to demand more money or prevent from voicing their concerns - and this is actually happening in many colleges.
Residential permit conundrum
In the case with the Ugandan students, the college had withheld the original passports and documents of the students. When the time came to extend their residential permit, the college officials refused to release these documents back to the students unless they were given a lot of money. In this chokehold situation, the time period for the students to extend their residential permit ran out, and under the Foreigners Act of 1946, they can be legally prosecuted and put in jail if they do not leave immediately.
In this reality, students have an option to take an ‘Exit Visa’ to leave the country and prevent being prosecuted under the law so that they can extend their residential permit and come back to finish their studies. But past experiences have shown that the norm in these situations is that if the students leave on an Exit Visa, students are rarely given a visa to come back and finish their studies.
Thanks to this legal and institutional framework, African students find themselves in a precarious situation where they are at the mercy of the local officials who can seemingly demand unreasonable amounts of money from them just so that their education and by extension their futures are not jeopardized.
A forum to help African students
David Amum is head of the Association for African Students in India(AASI). He says he was part of a team that founded this organisation to provide a forum for African students to vocalise their issues and come to peaceful and mutually beneficial solutions.
AASI has a collaboration with the Alternative Law Forum. David says he frequently calls on Mitra or sends students her way, many of whom have various legal queries about their situations in Bengaluru. David is also of the opinion that colleges need to be held accountable for their role in this scenario. They need to be accountable for the legal procedures that a new student arriving in the country may not be aware of immediately, while also not exploiting these disparate students for money.
Amum also insists that the local community here needs to acknowledge that they are international students who come from different communities and cultures whose way of life can be significantly different from that of Indians. He says there needs to be better communication between both communities about what are the trigger points such that they can come to mutually beneficial solutions instead of resorting to violence.
The violence that he refers to involved a couple of highly publicised incidents over the last two years. The incidents are scary - an African girl and her friend were badly beaten up by an angry mob. A girl was murdered in a fit of rage by an Indian man (she was stabbed 20-22 times). Trifene says she was really shocked by how these girls were treated by the public. She says she’s extremely wary of the conversations she strikes up and takes precautions such as walking in a group or avoiding conversations with seemingly normal strangers.
Despite some very negative experiences, Trifene says she has built a strong community of friends for herself at college as well as where she lives. She has shopkeepers who ask her how her day is going, neighbours who strike up small talk with her, and a cohort of students and teachers at Christ university that provide a safe space where she can be herself.
She is thankful for the experiences she has in Bengaluru, and says that most African students like her come to India for the opportunities and the exposure to a modern city with networks branching out to some of the biggest markets in the world. She sees it as a stepping stone for herself and many African students to achieving what could not have been possible under their governments back home.
Students like Trifene and David hope to one day peacefully co-exist with the local community here in Bengaluru, not just as guests in the country but also as global citizens in a rapidly globalising world.