Cultural stereotypes and deeds of a few bad elements have unfairly sullied the image of the community of African students in the city. But poor, hard-working students who constitute the vast majority have own stories of cheating and exploitation.
Trapped in the cross-fire of cultural divisions, are African students in Bengaluru getting stereotyped? Are local communities who complain about the misdeeds of a few students unfairly branded as racist? Or is there a genuine chance for consensus, reconciliation and better understanding?
The police, community leaders and the general public are unanimous that these tricky issues cannot be resolved in a hurry. Cordial relationships as a process is slow, yet achievable, as attempts by a few concerned officials in the law and order machinery indicate.
Having spearheaded that intervention in the recent past, the city's former Additional Commissioner of Police (East), P Harishekharan should know better.
The issue, he says, should be approached from three perspectives, the African students, the local community and the police department. “Eighty per cent of these students are settling in the East and South East parts of the city, in areas on the outer side of the Outer Ring Road between Hebbal junction and K R Puram,” he points out.
Educational institutions catering to them have sprung up in big numbers in the area. So have flats and independent houses servicing their living needs. “Consequently, a socio, cultural and economic pressure has been building up in these localities between the students and the locals.”
Differences in dressing, behaviour and lifestyles have only compounded the cultural conflicts and amplified the stereotypes. For the police, the problems are related more to cases of over-staying visa conditions, drugs and immoral trafficking and traffic violations.
But should the deeds of a minority of these students be allowed to show the entire community in a poor light? Shouldn't the system be more empathetic to the genuine concerns of the African students about the way they are treated, even cheated here?
Faced with allegations that they were being harassed by 'uncaring' policemen who would refuse to even register First Information Reports (FIRs), Harishekharan had devised a mechanism to address their issues. “I interacted peacefully with them and learnt that it was a problem of communication,” he recalls.
Lower level staff at the police stations would simply not understand their English accent. “Our policemen would ask them to just wait. They would wait for hours and go away without their grievances being heard or addressed.”
The solution was the creation of a unique forum, the Police-African Students Coordination Committee with a clear mandate to address the pending problems. Student leaders from each of the African nations were made members. Over 1,000 students were called and their problems heard at length. Representatives from the police, Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) and the education departments were also called for the meetings.
Constituted in January 2016, this panel has already addressed several key issues linked to African students in Bengaluru. Yet, problems persist. The issue of over-staying has not been fully addressed, and as cases of cheating that surface now and then indicate, is not fully understood as well.
Here's a glimpse of the cheating cases the African students have had to endure: Anyanwu Dorathy, a 42-year-old Nigerian woman had landed in Bengaluru in November 2014 to study animation. After eight months into the course, she learnt that the college was not affiliated to any university.
Ordeals of cheating
Although Dorathy got her money back, her ordeal continued when she joined another animation college in Jayanagar. This institution had claimed that it had the necessary affiliations. But Dorathy was shocked to learn that the FRRO did not accept the bonafide given by her new college. She had already wasted two years and is finding it difficult to extend her education visa.
Is there a way out of this persistent problem? Yes, but as senior police officials say, it is not a problem for the police alone. The education department should launch a special cell to educate African students about the rules here. “The department should prepare a manual to be sent to all colleges listing these. Ideally, one or two classes should be conducted to introduce India and Karnataka to these students to build relationships,” says Harishekharan.
There may be a few black sheep who indulge in drug-trafficking and immoral activities. But over 90% of the students, according to the police, are genuine, hard-working students.
The interests of these students would be served well if a proper system is in place to weed out the bad elements. But paucity of reliable data on overstaying students and those indulging in crime have been a challenge. The time is just ripe to address these concerns and foster better understanding of Bengaluru's Africans.