New Delhi: Even as India tried to control the diplomatic damage caused by the threat of African envoys not participating in the government’s Africa Day function, the backlash from the recent death of a Congolese student was also felt in Kinshasa, where the Indian community has had a tense week with mobs throwing stones at their businesses.
In a strongly-worded statement on Wednesday, the dean of the African diplomatic corps in Delhi, Alem Tsehage Woldemariam, ambassador of Eritrea, said that all the heads of missions had “met and deliberated extensively on this latest incident in the series of attacks to which members of the African community have been subjected to in the last several years” in India.
Masonda Ketada Oliver, 29, was beaten to death by three youths late night on May 20 after a verbal altercation over the hiring of an auto-rickshaw near Kishangarh village in the Vasant Kunj area of south Delhi.
This was, of course, only the most recent such attack. Last year, a Tanzanian woman was beaten up by a mob in Bengaluru, even though she was just an innocent passer-by at a road accident in which another African had been involved.
In the statement on behalf of all African heads of mission, Woldemariam said that the foreign envoys noted “deep concern that several attacks and harassment of Africans in India have gone unresolved without diligent prosecution and conviction of perpetrators”.
He then threatened to stop the flow of African students to Indian educational institutions unless New Delhi gave a guarantee of their security.
“Given the pervading climate of fear and insecurity in Delhi, the African heads of missions are left with little option than to consider recommending to their governments not to send new students to India, unless and until their safety can be guaranteed,” said the statement.
There are around 25,000 African students in India in both private and state institutions, as per the Association for African Students in India.
Further, the African group “requested the postponement” of the Africa Day commemoration being organised by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) on May 26. “They have also decided not to participate in the celebrations, except for the cultural troupe from the Kingdom of Lesotho. This is because the African community in India, including students, are in a state of mourning in memory of the slain African students in the past few years, including Mr Olivier,” said the statement.
While May 25 – the day the African Union was founded i 196 – is marked as Africa Day, the Indian government’s commemoration is usually a day later, so that it doesn’t clash with the joint event organised by the African diplomatic missions.
As soon as the African envoys in Delhi went public with their concerns, the ministry of external affairs went into damage control mode, reaching out to the ambassador to assure them of the safety and security of their nationals. “I have asked my colleague Gen V K Singh to meet the heads of missions of African countries in Delhi and assure them of the Indian government’s commitment to the safety and security of African nationals in India,” tweeted external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj.
Singh would also hold meeting with African students in metro cities “to assure them of their safety and security,” Swaraj said, adding, “We will request state governments to depute commissioners of police in all such meetings”.
She tweeted that Delhi Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung has been asked to take steps to “ensure that [the Oliver case] is tried by a fast track court”. “We will also launch a sensitisation program to reiterate that such incidents against foreign nationals embarrass the country,” Swaraj said.
‘Time to address stereotypes, prejudice’
The African envoys had said that “media, civil society, think-tanks, research institutes, parliamentarians, politicians and the community have major roles to play in addressing stereo-types and racial prejudices against Africans in India”.
“The African missions in India stand ready to partner with the government of India and all stakeholders in this regard,”
Even as Swaraj tweeted about the Indian government’s response to the concerns of the African envoy, Prime Minister Narendra Moid’s posted “Greetings on Africa Day to the people of Africa” on his Twitter feed and added a ‘family photo’ of the India-Africa Forum Summit of October 2015, which was attended by all African countries and was held high as an embodiment of India’s ambitions in the continent. Incidentally, Modi is set to make his first official tour of Africa in July, with visits planned to Kenya, Mozambique and possibly South Africa. Next week, Vice President Hamid Ansari will be visiting two North African countries, Morocco and Tunisia.
The photo, however, only served as a reminder of the gap that lies behind India’s lofty diplomatic intent to work closely with Africa and the political indifference that has accompanied the various instances of racist violence against African nationals living in the country.
On Wednesday afternoon, V.K. Singh held a meeting with the dean and other African envoys at the the ministry. Sources said the minister assured the ambassadors of the Indian government’s “full support” and guaranteed that “strongest legal action would be taken”.
Singh will also do an outreach event with African students along with concerned embassies to reassure them of safety. It was also decided that he would meet the African heads of missions every three months, official sources added.
However, on the matter of the participation of African missions at Africa Day, there was no decision at the meeting. “The minister impressed on the African envoys the need to continue the tradition but also said that India would be guided by the African HOMs in the matter. They promised to revert,” said official sources.
While there was no official word from the MEA on whether the event on May 26 was still on at the ICCR, sources indicated that the African envoys have been persuaded to participate in it. The programme includes a panel discussion, cultural performances and even a food festival.
Meanwhile the African mission’s function to mark Africa Day was held at a farmhouse near the outskirts of Delhi on Thursday evening, with the government represented by MEA secretary (economic relations) Amar Sinha.
Backlash against Indian in Congo
In the Congolese capital of Kinshasa, the Indian community has had to deal with the fallout from the killing of Oliver, which was reportedly widely by local TV channels.
While Oliver’s death took place on May 20, the impact started to be felt from the morning of the 23rd.
Speaking to The Wire on the phone from Kinshasha, C.K. Prasad, who runs an electronics showroom in the main market, has seen attacks on Indian-run shops for the first time in his stay of 20 years in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)
“My shop is in the crowded main market of Kinshasha, L’avenue du Commerce. In the morning, it is very crowded, full of unemployed job-seekers. Since Monday every day, we have had to face disturbances whenever we go to open our shop in the morning. There has been stone-throwing. It is due to the impact of the death of the Congolese national [in India],” said Pra.sad.
He said that most of Indian shopkeepers were opening their businesses at around noon to escape the morning crowds. Most Indians were taking cars and avoiding walking in affected areas like Gombe, Kinshasa, but even then some cars were also damaged.
“The security situation has improved now. The Congolese government has posted policemen around when the stone-throwing started. Let us see how it will be tomorrow morning,” said Prasad. He described the Congolese as “very nice and kind people”. “We have never been harmed here. We have to take care of Congolese guests in India,” he added.
Speaking to The Wire, an Indian embassy official in Kinshasa said that the DRC government had been “pro-active” in ensuring the security of the Indian community, which numbers around 10,000.
A note uploaded on the embassy’s Facebook page urged Indian nationals “to stay calm, avoid any confrontation or arguments and generally keep a low profile for the next couple of days”. It added that there were assurances of security from the foreign ministry, as well as the police in-charge of Kinshasa.
‘Failure to prosecute sends a message’
In Delhi, the president of the Association of African Students in India, Abdou Brahim, was not happy with the Indian government’s actions so far.
“It is not enough. It is long-running problem. If there was a British guy who had been killed, the president of India would have said something. The Indian prime minister should be coming out and telling other Indians that this is not the way,” Brahim told The Wire.
“These students are the future leaders of their country. If they are mistreated and insulted, can you imagine what will be the future of India-Africa relations,” he asked.
Indian diplomats have always taken pride in the fact that a generation of African leaders have directly benefited from the presence of Indian teachers or educational institutions in their countries. But HHS Viswanathan, a former Indian ambassador and head of the African studies program in theObserver Research Foundation said that while the Indian government may be doing a lot, from the point of view of the African ambassadors, it may not be enough.
“You have to understand, that when a citizen of your country is killed in another land, the ambassador posted there is under a tremendous amount of pressure. For African missions, their students are a great responsibility. Racial attacks against Indians in Australia created such a major controversy a few years ago, so obviously, there will will be an uproar about this killing,” he told The Wire.
The security aspect could be tackled, he suggested, by ensuring that there was a high-profile conviction of perpetrators in cases involving attacks on citizens of African countries. “Take the case of the incident in Goa or in Delhi involving a AAP leader – nobody knows what happened in these cases. If somebody has been caught, then we should have publicised it. If nothing has happened, then that is of course, worrying. Either way, it is the wrong way for us,” he added.
Similarly, Yogendra Kumar, who was India’s ambassador to Namibia to 2003-2006, said that the incidents of violence created an “image problem” for India and not just in Africa. The rest of the world will believe that India is still saddled with 19th century prejudices.
Besides actively monitoring action taken in such cases, Kumar felt that the MEA should take the lead in putting mechanisms in place at the state and local government level too, as well as, at educational institutions.
“Many African students live together in certain areas. The RWAs could be made conscious of the sensitivity of the issue,” he said.