Edition : November 2014

Multi-Capital Delhi

It may not be wrong to suggest that Mohandas ('Mohanlal') Karamchand Gandhi might not have become a 'Mahatma', an apostle of non-violence, had he not been thrown out of a first-class train compartment in South Africa in 1893 in an act of patent racialism by a railway employee in a country that at that time proclaimed its apartheid (racial segregation) credentials rather proudly. He would have almost certainly gone on to become a successful barrister in South Africa or India if he had taken the insult on his chin and moved on. But certainly he would not have become 'Mahatma Gandhi' who has left an everlasting impression on the world by showing that freedom can be won by non-violent means. His ideology inspired the Indians who joined him in bringing down the almost invincible British rule in India through peaceful means.

Gandhi's saga in South Africa tells us that he was opposed to discrimination and prejudices based on a person's race or the colour of his/her skin. In line with this belief, he opposed the age-old prejudices Indians carried because of their caste-based legacy. Had Gandhi been alive today, he would have expressed his deepest shock and disappointment by the attacks on nationals from African countries in Delhi, the Indian capital. One can almost see him sitting on indefinite fast to atone for that sin on behalf of the Indians.

The identification of the citizens of Delhi with a clearly racial attack (it cannot be called a 'hate crime') could not have come at a more embarrassing moment. After December 12, 2012, Delhi began to be called the 'rape capital' of the country. All the hue and cry over the horrific incident on that day has not been able to stop unabated assaults on women. Now, we hear that victims include even tiny-tots. The alarming rise in road accidents has made Delhi the 'capital' of road accidents. Bad roads and poor road engineering may be responsible for the accidents up to an extent, but most of all the blame must be placed on the people who show contempt for the rules of driving and etiquette. The toll that road rage takes in Delhi must be among the highest in the country, making Delhi a contender for the 'capital' of a dubious nature.

There may be competition from other Indian cities, but Delhi seems to be witnessing an alarming frequency in crimes like 'chain snatching', stalking, dowry death, ill treatment of domestic helps, swindling by developers, and even the more serious crime of murder. Is Delhi in line for being dubbed the capital of all these crimes? The list can be stretched. But let us revert to the subject of racial attacks in Delhi in which the sufferers have been African nationals. Mind you, this is not very different from 'racial' attacks that many from India's own Northeastern states suffer in the national capital. The unprovoked attack on the African youth would suggest that Indians or the citizens of Delhi have revived the reprehensible system of apartheid 20 years after it was buried in South Africa and thus ended that country's long shame. Is it something that has to do about the average Indian's preference for light skin, much in evidence in the marriage market?

Whatever the reason, 'racialism' in Delhi must go at once, if only for the sake of the country's prestige. There is also another reason, though its mention might reduce this essentially moral issue to one of trade and commerce, which is not the intention. At a time when India is trying to compete with the Chinese for winning the hearts and minds of the Africans, the boorish people in Delhi are effectively derailing the Indian efforts.

The India-Africa trade is nearing $100 billion. India holds a gathering of African leaders and businessmen every year. There are 54 independent African nations that India seeks to woo. The African youth who were attacked at a Delhi Metro station belonged to Gabon and Burkina Faso, among the smaller countries in the former French colonies in Africa. Gabon has the reputation of being among the most peaceful and stable nations. Burkina Faso, among the poorest countries in the world, deserves all help and sympathy.

The Indian government has assured African diplomats in Delhi that it will probe the attacks on the African youth and take measures to assure that they are not repeated. That should not be just one of those verbal assurances that mean nothing. The need to retain the confidence and trust of the people of Africa is paramount, especially when Indians in Africa have lived in relative peace, though there have been some aberrations like riots in Kenya about three years ago and the Ugandan dictator expelling 80,000 Asians, almost all of them of Indian origin, in 1971.

Most Indians do not seem to be aware that though their compatriots in various African countries are smaller in number, except in South Africa and to a lesser extent in Kenya, they are important to the economies of the country they live in. If the actions by some misguided Indians resulting in insult or bodily harm to Africans attract wide notice in African country, India will be identified as an ugly country and who can then prevent 'retaliation'?

The government of India had to face an awkward moment early this year when a minister in the Delhi government was allegedly involved in racial abuse of African women. The minister's conduct attracted wide notice in the media. But that was because it acquired a political colour. Political parties seem to have decided to stay out of the controversy following the incident at a Metro station in Delhi when a 'mob' chased and assaulted some African youth while the police failed to intervene. The political parties should have taken the lead in not only condemning the incident but offered apology and assurance to the victims and other African nationals in Delhi.

Indian politicians have been loud in condemning what they perceive as 'racial' attacks on Indian nationals or people of Indian origin in foreign countries. There have been many fatal attacks on Indians in the US after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on American soil. A year ago, one of the most terrible 'racial' incidents in the US was an attack on a congregation in a Sikh Gurdwara by a gunman. Indians were expressing their outrage when reports of assaults on Indian students started coming from Australia. So why this silence in India-or Delhi-when the victims are African nationals?

- Atul Cowshish

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