India's Racial Prejudice Is Jeopardising Ties With African Nations

Incidents in China should serve as a reminder that racial bias against Africans will be counterproductive for countries wanting to pursue a holistic partnership with African countries.

Foreign students who come to study in India expect to feel safe and secure in the premises of their educational institutions.  Colleges and universities are expected to provide safety and care to foreign students. But recent reports of assault against two African students of Uttarakhand’s Roorkee Institute of Technology have again brought to the forefront the ugly forehead of Indian society’s longstanding underlying bias against dark-toned people.

On July 15, Ibrahim Diaby Muhammed, a Nigerian, was beaten and dragged out of his college premises by more than 30 men dressed in security uniforms. He had left the college campus to buy food, but upon returning was verbally confronted by security personnel who refused to allow Ibrahim to enter. After he managed to enter, the university administration allegedly hired private security contractors to throw the student out of the campus. Benjamin Emmanuel, from Guinea, tried to shield his friend Ibrahim from the onslaught but he too was roughed up.

As per the college administration, the two students had violated the lockdown rules laid down by the institution in view of the COVID-19 pandemic and were rusticated a week ago. Even if the students were rusticated, where would they stay outside during the lockdown? Since the incident, the Roorkee Police has arrested the director and seven other persons based on video footage evidence of the assault.

India is trying to pursue a pragmatic and comprehensive engagement with African countries. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has labelled the continent as a ‘top priority’ in Indian foreign and economic policy. Since the start of the Pan-Africa e-Network Project in 2004 and the India-Africa Forum Summit in 2008, there has been a steady rise in the number of African nationals studying diverse courses in Indian universities.

India has been the preferred choice of education for thousands of African students, mainly due to the cheap, affordable, and standard education available in India in comparison to the US or the European countries. From 2015 onwards, the government of India has provided around 50,000 scholarships for African students to pursue undergraduate, postgraduate, and higher courses programmes. However, African nationals in India have been subjected to discriminatory treatment and even assaults – and such incidents can play out negatively in African countries against India and India’s interest.

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It is noteworthy that China has received a lot of flak for some most unsavoury incidents involving the ill-treatment of African nationals, more recently in Guangzhou in April. The issue quickly turned into a full-blown political crisis for Beijing when different videos, pictures, and posts came to be circulated on the internet showcasing the discrimination and maltreatment of the African community living in Guangzhou. African nationals were evicted from their lodgings, denied entry to food marts, were allegedly subjected to arbitrary and enforced quarantines, despite showing no symptoms of infection.

African ministers and ambassadors promptly summoned their respective Chinese counterparts and demanded answers and assurances. These incidents have dented the China-Africa narrative and serve as a reminder that racial bias against Africans will be counterproductive for countries wanting to pursue a holistic partnership with African countries.

In the light of recent attacks against foreigners in India, such as the one in Roorkee, the question of racial prejudice and biases has once again come to the forefront. Racial bias is the single most important challenge facing Africans living in India. With all our democratic values and internationalist outlook, the core Indian society is still overwhelmingly traditional, and stereotyping of African nationals creates difficulties.

In this respect, it is important to note that Indians are not educated about the tremendous heterogeneity and diversity in Africa and how Africans are geographically distributed and politically organised under 55 separate independent countries. This lack of awareness about the African continent has led to major misperceptions, as a large section of the Indian community often refers to Africa as a ‘country’, rather than as a ‘continent’.

African students in Bangalore at a meeting with Zambian and Tanzanian envoys and the police in 2016 after the assault on a Tanzanian student. Photo: PTI

India has a shameful record of attacks on the African community in different parts of the country. In 2012, Yannick Nihangaza, a Burundian national was beaten to near death in Jalandhar and was left to die by the roadside. In July 2013, Wandoh Timothy, a Chadian national was assaulted by ten people in full public view in Hennur, Karnataka. In November 2013, a Nigerian national, Obado Simoen was stabbed to death in Goa in a narcotics-related turf war incident. Then came the 2014 infamous midnight ‘raid’ by former Delhi law minister Somnath Bharti in a house in New Delhi’s Khirki extension, charging the African residents with prostitution and drug peddling.

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In March 2015, four Africans were beaten up by locals in Kothanur, Bengaluru for alleged ‘rash driving.’ In 2016, a Tanzanian student was assaulted and partially stripped by a mob in Bangalore. Again, in November 2018, two Tanzanian women and two Nigerian men were assaulted following rumours that they had ‘kidnapped’ a child and ‘eaten him.’ Charges of cannibalism are the highest expression of xenophobia. Yet, these are only a few examples of the ordeals Africans face in India. There are many more incidents which go undocumented.

But why do such attacks take place? It is convenient, easy, and dismissive to claim that such types of assaults take place all over the world. Intolerance and prejudices against the people from the Northeast often spills out in the open in our country and is well documented. Stereotyping of people based on region, religion, or culture complicates social arrangements and often becomes politically sensitive.

We often tend to conveniently forget that the Indian diaspora in African countries is around three million strong and they are highly regarded due to their economic standing. Thousands of Indians in well-run established businesses have prospered both economically and politically in Africa. When Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) and Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) have been welcomed with open arms and accommodated in Africans societies, then why can’t we extend the same respect and hospitality to our African brothers and sisters in our country?

Social acceptance of foreigners, migrants and refugees is always a difficult process and acquiring cohesive societal integration is full of challenges. The problem gets more complicated in a heterogeneous country like India where socio-cultural differences among various population groups is a reality and traditional values tend to predominate everyday life. As such, African students in India face many levels of difficulties and their social accommodation is often the most problematic.

Many locals complain about the ‘’loss of peace’’, and disturbances created by Africans. Some local communities have also gone ahead and labelled Africans as ‘immoral’. Even while the government and enlightened citizens are aware of the need to treat foreign nationals with respect and dignity, cultural prejudices are alive and kicking. The challenge is how best India and Indians are preparing and undertaking steps to value diversity when it comes to the treatment of African nationals. A modern India should address these challenges if we wish to be respected in the international community as a democratic and tolerant society.

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A laudable step towards this was taken by the Punjab police recently when it decided to prohibit the use of any terms with racist connotations such as ‘negro’ in official records or documents related to any case. The Punjab high court appreciated this move, but duly warned of strict consequences if any accused or witness was found guilty of using derogatory terms in official statements, records, or in social circles. The stereotypical mindset among police authorities, which often creates hurdles while dealing with foreigners, especially Africans, could be overcome by counselling police forces through sensitisation workshops.

Being a multi-cultural, progressive and a democratic country, it is essential for us to take firm and strict action against the perpetrators of acts of intolerance and bigotry. Strong and effective institutional mechanisms are needed for quick redressal of grievances of foreign nationals. What is even more important is to develop better People-to-People (P2P) relations and sensitise Indian communities about the diversity, culture, and ways of life of African communities.

Arranging meetings with Residents Welfare Associations (RWA) and working for community awareness programmes would be some of the steps in the right direction. There should be more students and curricular exchanges, media exchanges and African studies courses at the undergraduate level to increase our awareness and knowledge of Africa, the ‘’Rising continent.” We must accommodate these changes both at the governmental and societal level.

After all, by treating foreigners with respect, we would be reconnecting with our rich Indian tradition of ‘AtithiDevoBhava’.

Abhishek Mishra is Junior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, and a doctoral candidate at Department of African Studies, University of Delhi.