Death of Congolese student leaves India's African community between fear and hope for change

Indian police cracked down on a protest held by African immigrants on August 2, the day after a Congolese student died in police custody.
Indian police cracked down on a protest held by African immigrants on August 2, the day after a Congolese student died in police custody. © Screenshots from videos provided to FRANCE 24 Observers team

Clashes between Indian police and dozens of African nationals broke out in Bangalore, southern India, on August 2. The protests came after the death, the day prior, of a Congolese student who was arrested and being held by police for suspected drug possession. The death and subsequent confrontation have resurfaced questions of discrimination towards African immigrants in India. 


There is still fear amongst the Congolese community in Bangalore days after police cracked down on the impromptu protest on August 2. Dozens of African immigrants had gathered in front of the police station in the JC Nagar neighbourhood after learning of the death of Joel Malu, a 27-year-old computer science student, while in police custody.

Joel Malu was a 27-year-old computer science student. He died on Sunday, August 1 while in police custody on suspicion of drug possession.
Joel Malu was a 27-year-old computer science student. He died on Sunday, August 1 while in police custody on suspicion of drug possession. © Observers

Marc (not his real name), a friend of the victim, participated in the protests and had to flee to avoid being beaten by the police. 

'How could he have died like that?'

Marc was with Joel Malu an hour before he was arrested in the street by police who suspected he was in possession of MDMA, a psychoactive drug banned in India. Marc told us what happened the day Malu was arrested.

We were together at a friend’s house to celebrate a birthday. But Joel had to go home to change clothes and on the way he was stopped by police, who said that he was in possession of drugs [Editor’s note: Several of Joel’s friends, including Marc, have said they don’t believe the police's story.]

After the police took Joel to the station, they returned to search the apartment where the birthday party was taking place. They didn’t find anything and demanded $1,500 to liberate Joel. [Editor's note: The next morning], we were going to go pay this sum when we learned that he had died.

A group of six of us went to the police station together. But the police wouldn’t tell us anything about the circumstances of our friend’s death. That’s when we alerted the rest of the community to what was happening. We came back with about 30 people to call for justice and information about our friend’s death. That’s when police reinforcements came in and beat us.

Was Joel tortured? How could he have died like that? He was doing well before this. Now, we are afraid to go out and be arrested, since the police are still looking for people who participated in the protest. 

At least six people were injured during the clashes with police, while five others were arrested for having attacked officers, according to Indian daily newspaper The Hindu

According to Bangalore Police Commissioner Kamal Pant, Joel Malu was arrested on suspicion of drug possession and kept in detention because he didn’t have proper documentation.  

"The student visa expired in December 2016 and the passport too expired in June 2017," Pant said in a Tweet on August 2, adding that an investigation into the death has been opened. 

The Indian state has been "strictly monitoring" drug issues, says Basavaraj Bommai, minister for Karnataka state. Raids have led to the arrest of numerous suspected drug traffickers, including some from Africa.

In June, an African student, whose nationality was not specified, was arrested on suspicions of trafficking cocaine, according to the Bangalore Mirror. In March, police arrested four Tanzanian nationals and two Ugandans, accusing them of carrying several kilos of cocaine, with an estimated value of 6.7 million rupees, equivalent to 76,000 euros. 

'We are not dealers'

These arrests have fed into existing stereotypes and prejudices that there is a lot of drug trafficking within the African immigrant community, says Joel's friend. He says these prejudices have resulted in police harassment, based on racism and discrimination.  

Not all Africans are drug dealers. In any community, there are both good people and bad people. We came here to study – we are not dealers. 

We want to go back because we don’t feel safe anymore. Something bad could happen to you at any moment.


'The students got out of control'

Questions remain about the circumstances of Joel’s death. The first autopsy results said he died of "asphyxiation", according to Japhet Zola, president of the Congolese Community in Bangalore, who spoke to the FRANCE 24 Observers team. 

He added that "no signs of torture were found on the body of the deceased".

We are waiting for an additional report for more details about his death. But what we know already is that the student [Joel] was experiencing chest pains and felt like he was suffocating. Several hours after the police brought him to the hospital, Joel’s pulse stopped. They made attempts to resuscitate him, but in vain. 

We are currently working with the delegation of the Congolese embassy to negotiate with Indian authorities so that the people arrested during the protest [Editor’s note: five people in total] and transferred to prison are released as soon as possible. They are innocent. 

The protest got out of hand because some of the students there became aggressive. They put their hands on Indian police officers. The students had, of course, the right to protest. But they got out of control and the police had to respond. That said, the response shouldn’t have been so extreme. I condemn that. 

Reprisals in Kinshasa and calls for calm

After news broke of Malu’s death, shops run by Indians were vandalised in the Congolese cities of Kinshasa and Lubumbashi. Christophe Lutundula, the vice prime minister and the minister of foreign affairs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, called for calm after meeting with the Indian ambassador. 

A similar wave of reprisals took place in May 2016 after the death of Olivier Masonda, who came from DR Congo to India as a student and later became a French professor. Three Indian men killed Masonda by hitting him with bricks and stones when he tried to take public transportation in a wealthy neighbourhood in New Delhi. 

'Indians are opening up and getting to know Africans'

Despite all this, Parfait (not his real name), another African student who has been living in Bangalore since 2013 and who wanted to remain anonymous, said tensions between Indians and the African immigrant community have actually been decreasing over the past few years:


I’d say that Indians have been becoming more tolerant since about 2016. There aren’t so many altercations between Indians and Africans. It’s not because they like us more, it’s just that the racism isn’t as direct anymore. It’s more insidious now.  

Certainly, there is still a long way to go. But before, for example, you couldn’t be seen walking with an Indian woman. These days, however, there is more intermingling between the two communities. Indians are opening up and getting to know Africans.