External Affairs

Sushma Swaraj Calls Accusations of Racism Unfortunate and Surprising

After claiming that last week’s attacks against Africans couldn’t be labelled racist as the investigation was still pending, Swaraj today said only pre-meditated attacks can be racist.

External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj. Credit: Reuters/Files

External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj. Credit: Reuters/Files

New Delhi: India on Wednesday doubled down in its rebuke of the African heads of missions by summoning  the dean of the African diplomatic corps and conveying to him that it found his statement –  which described the attacks as ‘racial’ and also stated that it would take India to the UN human rights council (UNHRC) – “unfortunate” and surprising.

The Eritrean ambassador to India Alem Tsehaye Woldemariam was summoned to South Block, where V.K. Singh, the minister of state for external affairs met with him.

“We called him and minister of state V.K. Singh told him in a candid way that the statement was unfortunate and surprised us as the steps taken by the Indian government cannot be termed inadequate by any measure,” external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj told Lok Sabha on Wednesday.

“We are doing our best for a fair investigation and whoever is found guilty will be given tough punishment. And not just Nigerians, India is committed to ensure safety of nationals from all African countries. I want to assure the house,” she added.

The dean’s press release, released nearly a week after the attacks took place in Greater Noida in UP, elicited an irate response from the Indian government.

After a 16-year-old boy went missing, local people accused his neighbours, five Nigerian men, of his murder, with some even suspecting cannibalism.  The Nigerians were detained, but were let off when the boy turned up. However, the teenager died on March 26 and the local villagers accused the men again, this time citing a drug overdose.

A day later, the villagers took out a candle-light march to demand action against the Nigerians, but some marchers beat up a group of African students that they encountered on the way. The Association of African students in India posted videos of students being beaten up by a mob in Noida’s Ansal Plaza mall.

On March 31, the African heads of mission held a special meeting and drafted a statement which was released on Monday.

As per the statement, the heads of missions “reviewed the previous incidents that have taken place in the past and concluded that no known, sufficient and deterring measures were taken by the government of India”. They also termed the attacks in Greater Noida and elsewhere “xenophobic and racial in nature”.

Also read: Assault Africans … And Kiss Goodbye to the UN Security Council

Claiming that the attacks were not sufficiently condemned by Indian authorities, the group also called for an independent inquiry by the UN Human Rights Council and other human rights bodies.

In response, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said that it was “unfortunate that a criminal act triggered following the untimely death of a young Indian student under suspicious circumstances has been termed as xenophobic and racial.”

Dismissing the call for a probe by the UNHRC, the ministry noted, “strong Indian institutions are adequate to deal with aberrations that represent [the] act of a few criminals”.

Raising the matter in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday, Congress MP K.C. Venugopal specifically objected to the MEA statement, which only condemned the incident as a criminal act.

“But as per the reports from the superintendent of police of Greater Noida, Sujata Singh, it is more of a socio-cultural issue between Africans and local residents than a law-and-order problem. Actually, this is a contradictory statement,” he said.

Terming it a “major diplomatic failure,” Venugopal said that India’s “image has been tarnished by this statement of the forty plus countries,” adding “…this is a major diplomatic failure from the government to deal with racial attacks and to create confidence among the victims. This government should take strong action to deal with that. That is what I want,” he said.

Replying to Venugopal, Swaraj denied that there had been any delay or negligence from the government in dealing with the matter. She claimed that the “political leadership” had also condemned the incident with statements from her, minister of state for external affairs M.J. Akbar and UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath.

Swaraj asserted that if the African envoys were unsatisfied with the Indian response, they could have asked for an appointment with her. “Last time, when a boy from Congo was killed, then all the heads of missions (of African countries) had met me and we had found a resolution,” she noted.

She argued that the Greater Noida attacks cannot be termed racial as they were not pre-meditated.

“Criminal acts which are motivated by racism are usually pre-planned. Here, there was no previous planning in those two incidents as I have learned,” she said.  Incidentally, the minister had previously argued that the attacks couldn’t be classified as racial since the investigation was still pending.

“There was a recent murder of an Indian in Mozambique. We never said that it was motivated by racism. There was another murder before this and we also never termed that such. Therefore, I would like to say that not all criminal acts are inspired by racism. Let us wait for the results of the investigation,” she said

On the matter of going to the UNHRC, she claimed that that the Indian government was nonplussed at this demand. Swaraj said, “We have a human rights commission, a strong active civil society, free press and independent judiciary. We have so many strong institutions and even they talked of going to Human Rights Council.”

Meanwhile, the African heads of mission have not made any public statements after the Indian riposte. However, diplomatic sources indicated that the statement issued by the dean was a “collective decision,” even if the meeting was not attended by most ambassadors.