#Skin , 1897 Views
Author: Michael Edison Hayden
Photographs: Prarthna Singh
1. Standing in a tobacco-spittle stained detention centre in the Mumbai neighbourhood of Vakola on the afternoon of Tuesday, January 15th 2013, Sambo Davis, dark, broad, and with nervous eyes, stared at the plainclothes officer in front of him. The handcuffs on his wrists cut off his circulation, causing his hands to swell with blood. He wanted to leave that place. Leave Mumbai. Leave India. Go back to Nigeria. Go anywhere. But he was stuck. Even if he ran, he thought, they would surely find him and beat him again. The officer toyed lazily with Davis’s confiscated mobile phone.
“Take these cuffs off of me,” Davis claims to have warned the officer in that moment, “or one of us will die today.” From Davis’s point of view, the threat had been building up inside of him many years before the words left his lips. He first arrived on Indian shores in 2006, and settled into a life here that was enviable to his African-born peers. His work in the garment industry, shipping goods to and from the shores of his native Nigeria, took off. Growing up in the coastal regions of West Africa as a member of the Ijaw tribe, he had never seen that kind of money before. He even fell in love with an Indian woman here named Sheeba, who immigrated to the city from Andhra Pradesh. The couple was married in January of 2009 despite some misgivings from Sheeba’s family, and had two kids. But just as there was scepticism from Sheeba’s family towards an African man entering the family, Davis’s success in business was always soured by a sense that no matter what he accomplished here, he could never belong because of the colour of his skin.
India’s issues with racial discrimination were in the news last May, thanks to a report issued by World Values Survey, a non-governmental organization focused on ‘political and social change’. The report pegged India as being the least tolerant country surveyed behind only Jordan, based upon the answers to a series of carefully crafted questions.
“Racism is everywhere in Mumbai,” Davis told me, glancing out of the window of his tenth floor apartment in the Khargar neighborhood of Navi Mumbai. The windows of his apartment offer up a view of an overpopulated city’s chaotic expansion: wild and lush greenery spread outwards until it reaches a shopping mall plagued by leaks and bad air conditioning. An abandoned construction project sits in the middle of the snaking grass. It was most likely supposed to be a luxury apartment complex once, but now rots there, with falling floors, and dirty puddles that replenish the neighbourhood with fresh mosquitoes in the morning and after dusk. One of those mosquitoes likely gave Davis the case of Dengue fever he picked up at the end of the monsoon. He hates Mumbai from top to bottom, but is married into it, and earns his living here. He fears that he may never be able to leave.
“From the moment I walked off the airplane here, I said to myself: ‘This place is dirty’.” Davis said, spitting out the last word to emphasize its double meaning. Stories of friends who had been arrested by the Mumbai police and shaken down for bribes have been a regular fixture in Davis’s life for years now. His tenure in Mumbai and reputation within the African community makes him the kind of man others turn to for advice. Men have approached him at church, in restaurants, and on trains, giving him an earful of their troubles with the law. Black men were tied up by cops and paraded around like animals, they told him. They were blackmailed and robbed for as little as a hundred rupees. Davis always believed these stories to be true, but often didn’t know how to respond. Typically, he would pass along the number of his immigration lawyer, and be on his way.
“When a native accuses a foreigner of wrongdoing in Nigeria, it’s the native who is punished,” Davis said. “Here, it’s the opposite.” On the morning of his arrest, Davis claimed, he had driven to Santa Cruz from Navi Mumbai to drop his clothes off at a local Laundromat. He had lived in Santa Cruz for a few months in 2010, and the neighbourhood’s large cross-section of Africans and familiar businesses appealed to him. Davis met his friend Nassa at the Laundromat by around noon, and the pair took an autorickshaw to nearby Vakola, so that Nassa could show off his new apartment. Nassa, who goes by only one name, verified Davis’s version of events by phone, but refused to be interviewed for this article in person. Nigerian immigrants, who make up a large but undocumented portion of the city, are sometimes sceptical of journalists, due to fears of deportation. After about fifteen minutes of seeing the apartment, the two friends stepped outside to hail another rickshaw.
“We didn’t have time to think,” Davis recalled. “What happened next was an attack, and not an arrest.” According to Davis, eight plain-clothes police officers stepped out of the back of the wagon. Five of them grabbed him, and the other three seized Nassa by the arms. Davis said that he asked the men what was happening, and then one of them punched him repeatedly in the back of the skull, before shoving him inside the police vehicle. Inside the wagon, the officers introduced themselves only as narcotics officers. When he was dropped inside of the detention centre at the Vakola Police Station, Davis claimed that he asked one of the men, “Is this what the Mumbai Police do?” One of the men then replied, “Yes,” Davis said.
Two or so hours after having stayed in the detention centre, Davis threatened that plainclothes officer who was toying with his phone. It was a desperate moment, but Davis’s anger cut through silence of the room. The officer was stunned. He obliged in removed Davis’s cuffs, enabling Davis to phone his lawyer.
“He knew I was being framed,” Davis said.
“He had to be reminded I was a person.”
Other plainclothes officers, who had left the detention centre, returned with 28 African men from the neighbourhoods of Vakola and Santa Cruz. “They had been rounded up on the streets like dogs,” Davis said. The men were searched for drugs, Davis recalled, and when none were found, the officers announced that they were checking paperwork. Always prepared for the worst, Davis was able to produce his own Visa, and passport, which he had on his own person at the time of arrest in case of emergency. Twenty-one men who didn’t have up-to-date documents were forced to pay bribes in order to stay, Davis claimed. The remaining eight men, who didn’t have money to give, were imprisoned indefinitely. By the time Davis made his way back to the Laundromat, darkness was starting to creep across the evening sky.
2. Assistant Deputy Commissioner Didi Kale, 57, has been on the police force for 30 years in Mumbai, but has only held his position of authority over the Anti-Narcotics Cell, located in the Cuffe Parade neighbourhood of Mumbai, for a little over a year now. He’s a thin, bald man with a naturally easygoing `demeanour, the kind of man who doesn’t have to work hard to give an impression to journalists that the good guys are in charge. On the afternoon I spoke with him, he was running late. He had to give testimony in a robbery and extortion case from 2011, he explained. Outside of his second floor office window, kids from the local slum squealed in pleasure, playing a game of make believe. Kale thumbed through a gigantic ledger on his desk.
“His name is not here,” Kale said, looking up from his thick glasses.
“Does that mean that it didn’t happen?” I asked.
“It just means that Mr Davis’s name is not here in our records,” he said.
An article in the tabloid Midday published January 18th, 2013, upholds Sambo Davis’s account of the events. It doesn’t come from him or one of the other Africans who were there on that day either: it comes directly from the police. In the article, an unnamed source from the Anti-Narcotics Cell boasted about the large-scale arrest in Vakola, claiming that they were conducting “a special drive against drug peddling”. No one from the newspaper bothered to speak to any of the men who had been arrested, or inquire whether any drugs were found on their persons.
“Maybe these were local police,” he said, referring to the unnamed sources quoted in the article.
“I can’t explain why they would say that without making proper record of the arrests.”
I asked him if there was corruption in his department.
“Not to my knowledge,” Kale said, leaning back in his chair. “But corruption is a problem in this country, as you may already know.”
Kale was more confident in discussing the people whose names were written down in the ledger. He said that a lot of African nationals are indeed arrested for selling drugs in Mumbai. In fact, roughly 25% of the men and women arrested by the Anti-Narcotics Cell are foreign nationals, and of them, “a very high percentage” are African, he claimed. Without official numbers to go on, it’s safe to say that foreign men and women make up only a tiny fraction of the people you see on the streets of Mumbai on a given day, which would likely render that 25% ratio disproportionately high.
“There are a lot of them selling drugs,” Kale said of African immigrants. “Rave parties, and drug dens – it’s quite common.”
Kale said that the most commonly trafficked drug in African circles is cocaine, which is shipped “200 and 300 grams at a time”, and primarily smuggled through international flights, directly through Mumbai’s two airports. This is a port city, and Kale acknowledged that some of the drugs were moved in by boat, but said that it was a generally a matter for customs agents. He frowned at my suggestion that someone on his force could have intentionally tried to exploit Mr Davis or others for money.
“Look, if there is a African man,” Kale said of Davis, “we will not jail him just for being African. You should talk to the Vakola police about that.” The Vakola police station is a dingy looking place. You’d be forgiven for mistaking it for a roadside dhaba until you saw cops chatting and sipping chai inside of it. The main office is essentially a hollowed out office about the size of someone’s living room. The detention centre, where Davis claimed to be held, is just beside of it. The duty officer on the day that I visited, a middle-aged man with thick glasses named Sudhakar Kore, told me that there were no records of Mr Davis’s arrest. On January 15th, 2013, the day of the alleged shakedown occurred, there were some notes about foreign nationals lacking proper paperwork, but he claimed to have no knowledge as to whether the men were released or sent to jail.
“Are you sure you haven’t asked Anti-Narcotics Cell?” Kore asked, “Maybe they have the records you’re looking for.”
3. For decades now, African citizens have taken up residence in neighbourhoods of Mumbai, Delhi, and other Indian cities, looking to find better lives for themselves. A better life can sometimes mean employment in the garment industry, as it did for Sambo Davis. It can also mean doing whatever it takes to survive, like selling cocaine, or dabbling in prostitution. But Davis told me that every African person he knows lives with the stigma of being a drug dealer regardless of his or her guilt or innocence.
“The men I know best don’t sell drugs, they sell clothes,” Davis protested. “Some of them fight or drink but nothing more than that. But yet that’s how they are seen by society.” Davis told me that the African citizens who do sell drugs, or involve themselves in the business of prostitution, didn’t come to India looking for such things. “They came here looking for jobs,” Davis said. “Then they ended up homeless and needed to find a way out of it.”
These social nuances are sometimes lost on Indian born residents of Mumbai neighbourhoods like Mira Road, Malvani, Khargar and Vakola, places where African immigrants live in large groups, and residents worry publicly about crime. Their fears are often exacerbated by reports published in popular tabloids like Midday, and The Mumbai Mirror, who carry sensational crime tales, sometimes without providing adequate sources, or accounting for both sides of a conflict. The end result is crystalized racial tension, felt by Indians and Africans alike.
One example of how this tension manifests itself publicly is a Facebook group started in 2012 called “Anti-Nigerian Association.” “Drug Issue!” a co-title of the group proclaims, as if to justify the blanket rejection of an entire race. “Spread the message to save our country,” wrote one member. Interview requests to group moderators were ignored, but it’s not difficult to see how fears like these in the community could influence the police forces that are hired to defend them.
What is more difficult to understand, however, is how fears over immigrant related criminal activity could translate into acts of bribery and extortion on the part of police. Around the time I was first interviewing Mr Davis about his own allegations of police corruption, a Nigerian man living in the Navi Mumbai neighbourhood of Chembur had just been rescued by police from a kidnapping and extortion plot, according to a story published in The Times of India. Among the ringleaders of the operation was a police constable, who allegedly helped imprison the man against his will for six days.
Vijay Raghavan, 47, a professor of criminology and the Chairperson Centre for Criminology and Justice at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, told me over the phone that the Mumbai police are driven to such acts of corruption by low wages, as well as poor working conditions.
“The police here are not only woefully underpaid, but understaffed,” Raghavan explained. “There are more people per policeman here than nearly any place in the world, and that sometimes means 14 and 15 hour shifts, working in filthy police stations under horrible conditions. It’s a mix that can breed resentment, and eventually, corruption.” Raghavan told me that he isn’t surprised when African immigrants become the target of abuse from police officers, and other authority figures.
“You’re talking about foreign people with no connections to Indian society,” Raghavan said of Mumbai’s African community. “They’re extremely vulnerable here.”
4. Shehu Ali, a 39-year-old African man who has been living in Mumbai since 2011, painted a more nuanced portrait of the dirty city described to me by Sambo Davis. But that doesn’t mean that his story is any less traumatic. Ali, a handsome man who looks ten years younger than his age, is a devout Muslim, born of theHausa tribe of Northern Nigeria. He first arrived in India in February of 2011 with the intention of purchasing an MRI machine to bring home for his brother, a gynaecologist. Nigeria, which currently has the dubious distinction of being the 16th worst country on Foreign Policy’s annual failed state index, lacks proper medical equipment for rural doctors, Ali told me. The same can of course be said of rural India, but in Western Africa, the situation is direr. As the youngest son in a large family, it was Ali’s responsibility to help track down equipment for his older brother.
After finding nothing in Delhi, Ali travelled to Dubai, where he also came up short. There, a shopkeeper told him to travel to Mumbai, where again, he couldn’t find the type of MRI machines that he and his brother required. Ali was then prepared to return to Nigeria empty handed, right before his life shifted.
“I arrived at the airport at two in the morning in March of 2011 for a five o’clock flight,” Ali said. “And from that time until now I’ve been waiting to go home.” Ali was flagged by immigration police for holding an illegal visa, and then brought to the airport police station there. A man in Bangladesh, he was told, had the exact same visa number as Ali’s. He was forbidden from boarding the flight.
“I couldn’t understand it,” said Ali. “I was allowed to enter India not once, but twice. Now I wasn’t allowed to leave?” Ali said that he was held in the airport police station for four days before being charged with fraud. His cousin, who happened to be studying dentistry in Mumbai at the time, bailed him out of jail, and he has been stuck in the city ever since, living in the small, empty flat in the Navi Mumbai neighbourhood of Nerul, where he and I spoke. The $10,000 American dollars he brought with him from Nigeria in 2011 has since gone, and he now sustains himself primarily off of the handouts he receives from family in Nigeria. Some days, he told me, he doesn’t eat. Other days, he is fed by sympathetic neighbours of his, Indian families who attend the same local mosque.
“I’m a prisoner in Mumbai,” Ali told me, pointing to the prayer rug on the floor of his flat. “All I can do here is read and pray.” Ali claimed that his imprisonment could have been avoided, had he offered police a bribe. “An officer took me aside in the airport and said that ‘all of this trouble would end if I would only work with the police’,” Ali said, and touched his pockets twice, hinting at a bribe. “I told them that I couldn’t because in my religion such cheating is haram.”
Requests to interview Airport Police, and Immigration for this story were denied. Ali said that he didn’t know whether or not his Visa was a forgery, but admitted that it could be. “That’s Nigeria,” he said with a smile, shrugging.
Twice after his arrest, the police searched Ali’s apartment for drugs, apparently at the behest of neighbours who were wary of an African man living in their building. Ali has two wives in Nigeria, two daughters, and one son. In his absence, the family is struggling. His worries about them are compounded by the fact that his youngest daughter, who is only three, was recently diagnosed with malaria. But in September 2013, Ali was finally found innocent of knowledgeably committing fraud. Now, he waits for a new visa so he can return to his family.
“If I knew of the nightmare that would happen to me here,” Ali said, “I would obviously have never left Nigeria.” Of Mumbai, he told me that Africans living here should remain hopeful and approach city with patience. He said that some members of the police, and society had were creating trouble for Africans, but that they were in the minority. “People are the same everywhere,” Ali said.
When he walked me outside of his apartment building after our interview, past the chickens and goats that mulled around its courtyard, men waved to Ali, and he waved back to them. On the streets of Nerul, a merchant reached out to shake his hand, and the men laughed and joked in broken English.
“People used to fear me here because they didn’t know me,” Ali said of his neighbourhood. “Now they realize that I’m a nobody. Just like everybody else.”