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Goa, where paradise fades as racial tensions rise

Gang-related killing stirs vitriolic debate about the rampant drug trade in Goa, spurring racism that is straining diplomatic ties. Samanth Subramanian reports

Baga Beach in Goa, where drugs fuel rave parties that attract tourists by the thousands, and drug-dealing gangs often engage in turf wars. Dhiraj Singh / Bloomberg
Baga Beach in Goa, where drugs fuel rave parties that attract tourists by the thousands, and drug-dealing gangs often engage in turf wars. Dhiraj Singh / Bloomberg

NEW DELHI // The case of a Nigerian man stabbed 25 times in a gang-related killing has cast a rare pall over the tourist paradise of Goa and inflamed racial tensions between Indian citizens and Nigerian expatriates in the west Indian state.

While state police have arrested two members of a gang suspected of killing Obodo Simeon in a “drug-related” gang fight on October 30, the slaying has stirred vitriolic debate about the rampant drug trade in Goa and affected diplomatic ties between the two nations, as well as the one million-strong Indian community in the West African nation.

After 200 Nigerians blocked a national highway to protest against the murder of Simeon and 52 of them were arrested, a minister in the state government, Dayanand Mandrekar, said: “Nigerians are like cancer.” He later apologised for the remark.

Three of the Nigerians arrested were released on bail last week, while the others are still in custody, charged with rioting.

The government has intensified scrutiny of Nigerians living in the state. One discovery was that out of some 500 Nigerians in Goa, only 19 were found to be registered with the Foreigner Regional Registration Office, as required. The chief minister of Goa, Manohar Parrikar, subsequently ordered police to find and deport any Nigerians residing illegally in the state, though no deportations have taken place yet.

Jacob Nwadibia, an administrative attache with the Nigerian High Commission in New Delhi, claimed that Goa was discriminating against Nigerians and warned that Indians living in Nigeria “may face repercussions”.

“There are only 50,000 Nigerians living in India, but there are over a million Indians living in Nigeria,” Mr Nwadibia said. “Thousands of Indians living there will be thrown out on the streets if the forcible eviction of Nigerians in Goa does not stop.”

The government’s reaction to the Nigerian community’s protests has been criticised as discriminatory, even within Goa.

“Let us first put our own house in order and then blame others,” an editorial in the Goan newspaper O Heraldo said last week. “We have…abused Nigerians racially which is not acceptable in any civilised society.”

Despite Goa’s strong ties to Africa, stemming from centuries during which both the state and parts of the continent were under Portuguese colonial rule, the events following the murder were “ugly”, said Vivek Menezes, a writer from Goa. “Some Goans reacted with racist language,” Mr Menezes said. “There was one incident where a bunch of vigilantes attacked and beat up two Nigerians. That’s terrible.”

The Goan government also responded by making “stupid, racist statements”, he said.

Mr Parrikar, the chief minister, rejected allegations of bigotry.

“It is not racism,” he told reporters. “If you see earlier history, you will see that more Nigerians are involved in drugs. So people are seeing it that way.”

Goa’s frustration over the rampant drug culture that has taken root in the state, which involves expatriates but is controlled by locals, is understandable, Mr Menezes said.

Drugs fuel rave parties that attract tourists by the thousands, and drug-dealing gangs often engage in turf wars that, according to the Goa police, ended the life of Mr Simeon.

In October, the police conducted their biggest ever drug bust, arresting a 45-year-old British citizen for possessing more than four kilos of amphetamines worth more than Dh1 million.

The number of drug-related cases registered by the police has increased from 29 in 2001 to 55 in 2012, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. But these figures do not reveal the extent of the drug problem, Mr Menezes said.

“The drug culture is huge, and Goa is becoming a major transshipment point for drugs,” he said. “There are some areas that are just no-go areas for cops. And there are other places that function virtually as open-air drug markets, under the protection of police officers or politicians.”

Last Tuesday, Goa’s opposition parties called for a court-appointed judicial probe into the state’s drug mafia, claiming that it continued to operate unchecked because it was linked to government ministers and police officers.

A recent investigation by a committee of the Goa legislature linked several police officers – including the head of the state’s police force – as well as a former home minister to the drug mafia.

“A judicial probe will be ideal because clearly there is a nexus between the police and the drug dealers,” said Pratapsing Rane, the leader of the opposition in the legislature.