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Delhi – not so big-hearted for immigrants

Fair, tall, well built and wearing a loose, cream-coloured salwar, Sayeed Hadat* seems to have stepped out of Rabindranath Tagore’s famous short story, Kabuliwala. However, unlike the fiction, Hadat has been in India for the last year, not to sell dried fruits, but to survive.

Although he escaped the clutches of the Taliban, life in New Delhi hasn’t been a bed of roses.

“I have to do odd jobs to survive here. Although I am a qualified software engineer, I cannot get a decent job because I don’t have a work permit”, Hadat explains. In his one-year stay in Delhi, Hadat has worked as a waiter in a restaurant, data-entry operator and a helper in a small shop.

Like many of his countrymen he stays in Lajpat Nagar, a congested locality in South Delhi, originally home to Sikh and Hindu refugees from Pakistan. Interestingly, refugees and Delhi are not unknown to each other. Following the Partition of India in 1947, nearly 10 million people moved between India and Pakistan. A large number of these refugees from Pakistan settled in Delhi.

A few kilometres away from Lajpat Nagar is another area dominated by refugees, Chitranjan Park. The colony was home to migrants and refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Today, it is a hub for the Bengali-speaking population and is known for its fish market (Bengalis are natives of the state of West Bengal and are very fond of fish).

Of late, both these areas have witnessed an influx of Afghani migrants, who come to India for various reasons, ranging from livelihood to escaping the Taliban to promises of a better life. The exodus has led to a mushrooming of Afghan restaurants and eateries in the locality, with a number of shops boasting signage boards in Pashtu.

“It is a blessing that I am able to afford a proper Afghan meal. I eat and think about my country and what I have left behind every day”, says 30-year-old Hadat. He hopes to get a work permit soon, otherwise he has no option but to continue to take up odd jobs.

Afghan cuisine is becoming popular in the city but the same cannot be said about Afghani nationals. “More or less the attitude of the people is indifferent towards us. I haven’t faced any major issue. Sometimes they cannot understand our accent and many times they think of us as Kashmiris. Our landlord thinks of us as Kashmiris and I let him think so”, says Hadat. (Jammu & Kashmir is the northernmost state of India and is ethnically closer to Afghanistan. However, because of militancy, Kashmiris migrate to Delhi on a regular basis.)

Indian antipathy

The experience of Afghanis in the city is vastly different from that of Nigerians or South Africans. Natives of the African continent unanimously find Delhi unwelcoming. It is not surprising that they have the worst experience in the country. India has a deep-rooted bias against dark skin. It is one of the biggest markets for beauty products promising fair skin.

“My country [South Africa] is full of Indians and they don’t face the kind of issues we do. As soon as I enter a Metro [station], people look at me differently and they start gossiping. They are suspicious of us”, says 27-year-old Mash Mawell, who is pursuing computer engineering in India and has been in Delhi for the last six months.

He doesn’t have too many friends in Delhi. “Have I made friends? You cannot go to their house and they cannot come to your house, so what kind of friendship is that? That is no friend … there is a cultural problem”, he explains. He stays in Dwarka, much farther away from where most of his countrymen live in Delhi.

A significant percentage of South Africans and Nigerians reside in the Khirkee suburb in South Delhi. Even South African citizens who can afford a better residence in the city prefer to reside here. The area was in news recently for all the wrong reasons. In January this year, Delhi’s Law Minister accused Nigerian women residing in Khirkee of indulging in drugs and the sex trade. The claim was unsubstantiated and led to widespread protests by the community.

When I visited Khirkee, most of the residents were extremely reluctant to talk. In spite of repeated attempts some residents acted as if they just couldn’t understand me. Even a casual conversation seemed out of bounds.

Later, I met a 25-year-old student of Delhi University at a nearby shopping mall. “I don’t deny that I am doing fine and financially my life is better here, but it is hard when people try to touch our hair or skin and call us kala [a derogatory term for dark-skinned]”, says Amy* while talking about her experience in the hostile city. She has been in India for the last year.

Most of Africans arrive in India as students and some of them stay but most of them try to leave the country. A key reason for them to migrate here is to look for better job prospects.

Tibetan sojourn

Tibetans are likely to be the oldest foreign ethnic group staying in the capital city of India. Tibetans established a refugee camp in 1960 at Majnu Ka Tila in North Delhi and since then the area has been a one-stop shop for anyone interested in the Tibetan culture and remains the nerve centre of the entire community in the city.

At the centre of this village is a Tibetan temple with traditional Tibetan paintings on the walls. With extremely narrow lanes and alleys, it is easy to get lost in this area.

Ethnically, Tibetans are closer to the people from the north-east of India. It is difficult to distinguish one from the other. Lately, there have been some attacks on members of the north-eastern community in Delhi. Inevitably Tibetans have felt the negative impact of this.

“There have been some stray incidents but overall we have had a very good stay in India. In spite of the fact that we have never been to Tibet, I don’t think that the culture is going to die. As you can see, Tibetan culture is popular not just in India but across the globe”, says Tenzin Passang, pradhan (leader) of Tibetans in the monastery area of Majnu ka Tilla. He himself has never been to Tibet but has grown up listening to stories about his motherland.

The entire area is replete with innumerable Tibetan restaurants, eating joints, shops, Tibetan medicine shops, etc. However, scratch the surface and you realise that most of the people have never been to Tibet, ever. They identify as Indians. However, they make a point of conversing in Tibetan with a smattering of Hindi.

“I don’t stay in this part of town but I come here often. As soon as I see the prayer flags** here I feel very peaceful and feel as if I have come home”, says 27-year-old Tse Ring You Don, who is training to be a nurse at the Apollo hospital in the city. I met her while she was having lunch at a fairly well-known Koko restaurant at Majnu Ka Tilla. She has never been to Tibet and feels that she might never get an opportunity to visit during her lifetime.

In 2013, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) had registered about 23,500 refugees and asylum seekers in Delhi. Of these, 11,000 are from Burma, 9,000 from Afghanistan and 7,000 from Tibet.

With such a huge number of refugees entering Delhi, one would think that the city would be welcoming in its attitude towards refugees or other nationalities. As a popular Hindi saying goes, “Dilli Dilwalon ki” (loosely translated as “Delhi belongs to the big-hearted”). Unfortunately, Delhi is not big-hearted enough to embrace Africans with open arms. This particular group experiences the worst of Delhi; the community believes that this is largely because a few Africans have been arrested for involvement in the drugs trade, which has had a detrimental impact on the community’s overall image in the country.

If you compare the three ethnic groups – Afghans, Tibetans and Nigerians – you realise that what has really helped Afghans and Tibetans to integrate into Indian society is their cuisine and als0 the fact that their physical features are close to Kashmiris and the north-east India.

Afghan cuisine is closer to Mughal cuisine, which is popular in northern India, and has helped the community to make a collective headway in the Indian society. The same is true for Tibetan cuisine, which has slowly but surely increased in popularity over the last decade. Tibetan dishes such as momos and thukpa are extremely popular in Delhi. Unfortunately, African cuisine is yet to make its presence felt in the Indian subcontinent.

Delhi has always attracted refugees and migrants from different geographies and cultures. This is especially true in the post-independence era. However, staying away from their motherland holds mixed feelings for most migrants. For Afghanis it is a survival tactic, but beyond that a life of hardship and constant adjustments awaits them. It also offers them a semblance of normal life, which they haven’t known for some time now. On the other hand, Delhi is home for Tibetans; they have been in Delhi for such a long time that they don’t know any other way of life. But for Africans it is a bitter pill, which they have to take for a better life.

*These names have been changed on request.

**Prayer flags are part of Tibetan culture. They have prayers inscribed on them. It is believed that prayer flags harmonise environment and bring good fortune. Tibetans put them outside temples and also their own homes.

Read more at: https://www.contributoria.com/issue/2014-09/53bed9fb5a4e28f3620000a8


  1. RAMAN says:

    loved this from begining to end. I also have particular interest in refugees. May be they live in India now, but their home atmosphere is still different..
    At some evenings, I sit with old women who came from Pakistan during those days.. Their sense of humor is amazing.
    Yes, for a foreign muslim it is difficult to find work.. Everyone see them with an eye of suspect

  2. Gagandeep says:

    Thanks Raman for your comments. My grandparents also immigrated from Rawalpindi to New Delhi in 1947…I totally agree about the sense of humour part 😀 My grandmother had amazing sense of humour 🙂

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