Caste, Sexuality and Reception of Africans in India
Sitting on a plane from sparkling Dubai to beautiful Mumbai, I kept contemplating how caste manifests itself in such public-private social spaces. I wondered whether names of passengers were examined and passengers ‘arranged’ or ‘served’ accordingly. I wondered how they ‘classified’ me, if at all. We were all treated in the same manner, but caste relations can be very subtle. Which caste do African migrants in India belong to? Siddi? No, Siddis are not a caste, they are African-Indians mostly from Eastern Africa who served as slaves in the past (Yimene, 2004; The Economist, 2013b). Segregation according to caste is banned despite the existence of quota system (The Economist, 2013a).
“Caste in class” (Mukherjee, 1999) exists explicitly and implicitly in the hinterland or city respectively, with exceptions. Poor Dalit shanty neighborhoods (slums) prominently punctuate cities like Mumbai. India’s Supreme Court has referred to India’s caste system as “a curse on the nation” (Gulf News, 2014). Discrimination against Dalits who were formerly referred to as 'untouchables' is banned but still exists (BBC, 2012). For example, a Dalit woman who cleans and cooks food for a Brahmin family (highest caste) does not sit on the furniture in that house, but instead sits on the floor to eat alone in the kitchen. Parents still prefer their children to marry people from a similar caste, but inter-caste marriages also exist. There have been courtship incidents where after a man and a woman dated for some time without the intention of revealing what caste they belong to, they separate later when they realize that they belong to two different castes.
An African migrant who moves to India might only later realize that s/he is in a very complex society. Sexual relations and expressions of friendship like hugging and holding hands in the public amongst unmarried Indians is highly discouraged. Exceptions exist in some social spaces like university compounds and city areas like cinema centers mostly visited by rich and middle class Indians. But generally, sexual relations before marriage are discouraged in a society that Sudhir Kakar, the author of the book ‘The Indians, Portrait of a People’ refers to as “sexually repressed people who are also a very erotic people” (Chand, 2014).
Most contemporary African migrants are male, and some get into romantic relations with Indian women, that sometimes end up in marriage, especially amongst Christians. Coming from African communities across the beautiful and vibrant African continent where social expressions like hugging, holding hands and sometimes kissing in public occur, Africans literary find themselves in foreign territory in India. Some Indian men have marveled at the behavior of African males and have sometimes complained bitterly about the black men that are 'taking away their women'. Similarly, the Indian women involved are almost always criticized and stigmatized for eloping with black Africans (BBC, 2013). For whatever reason, despite the existence of men from Uganda, Congo, Ghana, Tanzania, Kenya and many other African countries, Nigerians are mostly unfairly perceived as the only ones involved in all manner of scandals including 'taking Indian women' away from them.
While attending a conference on “India’s Energy Security: Focus Africa-Eurasia” at University of Mumbai, Kalina Campus in March 2014, a friendly Indian gentleman started our interaction with "I was in Abuja last year, very nice". I was quite perplexed at his obvious association of Nigeria with me, a global germanised Kenyan. While standing by an open door as my train slowly arrived in Delhi after a long trip, a young lad walking next to the train looked at me and shouted "lower caste" as the train moved on. On the other hand, I was treated like royalty in the house of a Brahmin gentleman and his wife during my stint in Mumbai. During a Holi Festival of Colours festivity in Mumbai, a gentleman who had drunk a little too much bhang lassi worshipped at my feet thinking I am a Sadhu.
Yimene, Minda Ababu 2004: An African Indian Community in Hyderabad: Siddi Identity its Maintenance and Change, Cuvillier Publishers (pp. 71, 86, 124).
Mukherjee, Ramkrishna 1999: Caste in Itself, Caste and Class or Caste in Class, Economic and Political Weekly (pp. 1759-1761).
Chand, Manish 2014: Indians are erotic people but sexually repressed
http://www.indiawrites.org/in-conversation/indians-are-erotic-people-but-sexually-repressed/ (last accessed on 17.09.2014)
Gulf News 2014: Dubai-based lawyer on a mission to eradicate India’s caste system
http://gulfnews.com/news/world/india/dubai-based-lawyer-on-mission-to-eradicate-india-s-caste-system-1.1349292 (last accessed on 17.09.2014)
The Economist, 2013a: Affirmative action, Indian reservations
http://www.economist.com/blogs/banyan/2013/06/affirmative-action (last accessed on 17.09.2014)
The Economist, 2013b: Sidi in India, poor in things, rich in soul
http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2013/04/sidi-india (last accessed on 17.09.2014)
BBC, 2013: Africans complain of discrimination in Mumbai, India
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-21826366 (last accessed on 17.09.2014)
BBC, 2012: India’s Dalits still fighting untouchability
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-18394914 (last accessed on 17.09.2014)