Foreign students in India fear for their safety amid rising religious intolerance

Armed men attacked foreign students in their university accommodation in Gujarat last month

At least two dozen armed Hindu men had attacked the hostel complex at Gujarat University when the foreign students were offering special Ramadan prayers in the compound, which attackers claimed hurt “Hindu” religious sentiments. Taniya Dutta / The National
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When a group of Hindu men attacked foreign Muslims students at a university hostel in Gujarat, India, last month, the government claimed the incident was an anomaly.

But victims of the assault say the violence reflects increasing extremism that is a threat to India's democratic and multifaith traditions.

“Intolerance has increased and will ruin India’s image,” said Abdul Bari Attai, an Afghan student who witnessed the attack. "My relatives say they don’t want to come.

“I am deeply hurt because this [violence] is not expected from Indians.”

At least two dozen armed Hindu men attacked the hostel complex at Gujarat University as foreign students were offering special Ramadan prayers in the compound, which the attackers claimed hurt “Hindu” religious sentiments.

Footage broadcast on TV showed the men assaulting the students, throwing stones and vandalising motorbikes while chanting “Jai Shri Ram” – a salutation that has increasingly become a war cry for some Hindu nationalists.

Three students were injured in the attack on the hostel, which is home to at least 75 foreign students.

About 300 students from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and several African nations study at Gujarat University in state capital Ahmedabad, with many having received scholarships from the Indian government.

“First there were two or three men. They started throwing stones and abusing [the students],” said Mr Attai, who is studying international relations.

“They were chanting Jai Shri Ram. Suddenly the situation got heated and more than 70-80 people came and attacked. They broke into the hostel, broke the motorbikes. Students ran into their room. Those who could not, the mob beat and injured them."

The police later arrested five men.

India’s Foreign Ministry promptly issued a statement condemning the attack and promising strict action against the perpetrators.

Rising attacks

Critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which came to power in 2014, say it has emboldened Hindu nationalists to commit crimes against Muslims and Christians.

Human Rights Watch, a rights group based in New York, has said between 2015 and 2018 at least 44 people were killed by mobs in India in 280 incidents. Most of the victims were Muslims.

There is no official government data on the killings.

Gujarat was the scene of the country’s worst Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002 when Mr Modi was chief minister of the state.

The coastal state has for centuries been a melting pot of culture and religion but over the decades it has lost its tolerant reputation.

During a 2023 one-day Cricket World Cup match, crowds heckled and abused Pakistani players during a match with India at the world’s biggest cricket ground at Motera, named the Narendra Modi Stadium.

Last year a court convicted four Gujarat police officers for flogging Muslim men in front of cheering Hindu crowds after they were arrested over allegedly disrupting a festival.

Growing fears

The latest attack in Gujarat has stoked fears among students of other faiths such as Christianity, particularly from Africa, who say they face routine discrimination over their religion and race.

Thousands of students from African countries come to India to study in high-quality, low-cost private universities.

Many struggle to find accommodation and are often forced to pay exorbitant rents for housing in examples of racial profiling.

Students told The National the attack in Gujarat has only added to their fears.

“We go to church but we have fears that they will ask us why we go there and can attack us,” said Gladias, a Kenyan Christian student.

“When we go abroad, we look for the environment but now we are scared. Sometime back we could just walk at night but now, we are scared to do so,” she said.

Stoking divisions

The religious divisions are so entrenched in Gujarat that at least five big cities in the state have laws that bar people from one faith from buying property in a locality dominated by another religious group.

Authorities argue the Disturbed Areas Act is to avoid religious conflicts but critics say such laws create further divide.

As the attacks made headlines in newspapers, Neerja Arun Gupta, vice chancellor of Gujarat University, claimed the violence was linked to foreigners lacking respect for local culture, for example, by eating meat in a majority-vegetarian society.

“They eat non-vegetarian food. But Gujarat is primarily a vegetarian society,” Ms Gupta told national daily newspaper The Indian Express. "We are not so insensitive or intolerant to someone offering namaz.

“We have to mentor them [foreign students] in better ways and let them know about the local society, customs and prevalent emotions."

Meat is a sensitive issue in the country and has led to clashes between Hindus and Muslims. In some incidents, Muslims have been lynched over accusations that they killed cows, which are sacred in Hinduism.

India claims to have the world’s largest number of vegetarians but about 77 per cent of its 1.4 billion population eat meat.

Gujarat is predominantly a Hindu state with most of the population adhering to vegetarianism, although about 40 per cent are meat eaters.

In 2017, then-chief minister of state Vijay Rupani wanted to make Gujarat a “vegetarian state”.

Amid this climate of division, students say they feel increasingly unsafe.

“We have always heard about India as a secular country,” said Suvra Das, a Bangladeshi student at Gujarat University. "But these attacks are on rise. There is an increase of Hindu hegemony. I am Hindu so I feel safe but my friends are scared."

Updated: April 09, 2024, 2:30 AM