External Affairs

Sorry Sushmaji, Racism Against Africans is a Reality. Here’s How to Counter It

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External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, junior minister V.K. Singh and foreign secretary S. Jaishankar meet with African diplomats and students in Delhi. Credit: African Students Association

The brutal murder of a young Congolese man, Masonda Ketanda Oliver, has blown the lid off the simmering pot of resentment against the treatment of Africans migrants in India, especially the large student community.

Africans come to India for various reasons: informal trade, higher education and health care. Medical tourism is marketed aggressively throughout Africa because it generates significant profits for the Indian healthcare sector. African students come to India to seek higher education under various capacity-building initiatives and scholarships extended by the government of India, or are self-funded. Ironically, the visible racism and xenophobia against African immigrants in India is in sharp contrast to the bidirectional movement of Africans and Indians across the western Indian Ocean in the pre-globalised era, and the cosmopolitanism that it had engendered. Denying the existence of this problem by paying lip-service to India’s past heritage simply will not do.

Relations between immigrants and host communities are multilayered and stress points between the two exist, globally. The irony is that while host-immigrant relations are strained in India and Africa, economic and political relations between the two sides are buoyant. Indeed, the recent occurrence of xenophobia comes at a time when India has been fervently trying to woo African countries and scale up its economic and diplomatic relations with them. At the third edition of the India-Africa Forum Summit (IAFS III) of 2015, Prime Minister Modi had taken several new proactive initiatives to further strengthen India-Africa engagements. In the aftermath of the latest xenophobic incident, African ambassadors in Delhi threatened to boycott the Africa Day celebrations to be hosted by the ICCR. Finally, after assurances by the external affairs ministry, the diplomats did attend the event, but their angst and disappointment about the ongoing prejudice and racism faced by African peoples on a day-to-day basis was palpable.

The reaction of the African envoys ought not to come as a surprise. The writing has been on the wall for quite some time now.

Only earlier this year, Bengaluru witnessed an attack on four Tanzanian students, one woman and three men. Each one was brutally beaten and their vehicle torched, as a reaction to another totally unrelated incident where a Sudanese man had mowed down and killed an Indian pedestrian. The Tanzanian girl was stripped, beaten and then paraded naked in public, supposedly as retribution. Add to this the raid at Khirki Extension on the mainly Ugandan women residents of this Delhi neighbourhood, the brutal beating of African youths at Rajiv Chowk metro station in 2014 and other sporadic incidents of violence against African immigrants in Goa, Hyderabad, Maharashtra and Punjab. Violence against Africans in public spaces has happened far too often for anyone to accept the government’s claim that “racism has nothing to do with it”. Not all Indians are intolerant of differences, but there are aberrations as well. Likewise, immigrants from Africa or anywhere else who indulge in crime need to be dealt with as per the laws of the land just as Indians are, but all Africans cannot be typecast as ‘’ criminals’.

Stereotypical constructions of immigrant Africans as ‘prostitutes’ or ‘drug dealers’ – fueled in no small measure by the media and even the police – have led to conflicts between immigrants and locals. The irony is that the same people who insist that violence against Africans is “ordinary crime” – the police, locals and government officials – are quick to use individual criminal acts by African migrants to typecast the whole community. If virulent forms of xenophobia and violence against the African community are occurring in different cities across India, the authorities must share a part of the blame.

The backlash from Oliver’s murder has been felt as far as Kinshasa where Indian shops and establishments were attacked. This episode is a bad augury for not just the future contours of India-Africa relations but also the safety of the Indian diaspora spread across several countries in Africa.

Lack of intercultural understanding

Tenuous relations between host communities and African migrants could potentially be improved through greater intercultural understanding between the two groups. Here, the arts and the state media have an important role to play. School curricula and television programmes that present the rich cultural heritage of Africa, museum exhibits depicting long-standing historical relations between Indians and Africans, shared music and cultural festivals, educative films documenting India-Africa connections could go a long way towards generating better public understanding in India of our oft-quoted ‘shared heritage’ with Africa and Africans. Further, reciprocal exchanges of students, scholars and artists could also kick-start a new beginning in India-Africa relations.

Clearly something is amiss in the meta-narratives of ascendant India-Africa economic, strategic and diplomatic relations. It is obvious that government-driven diplomatic initiatives cannot foster a relationship or even redeem a country’s reputation. Rather, people-to-people relations – something that has been talked about time and again at India-Africa bilateral and multilateral forums – need to be acted upon with a great sense of urgency.

Renu Modi is a former director and senior lecturer at the Centre for African Studies, University of Mumbai. Email: africamumbai@gmail.com
Rhea D’Silva is a research scholar at the Department of Sociology, University of Mumbai; Email: rheaerica88@gmail.com