Editor : Satish Ohri    Edition : May 2017

Africans Allege Racism and Xenophobia in India

The ministry of external affairs probably did not expect that the Eritrean ambassador in India, who is also the dean of 43 African missions in India, would make allegation of ‘racism’ and ‘xenophobia’ against the Indian government after attacks on some African youth in Greater Noida late in March. The African envoys want ‘serious’ investigations into the incidents against their nationals in Delhi. They have spoken of approaching human rights bodies and the UN and also raking up the issue at the powerful African Unionof over 50 countries. In response, the MEA could do or say nothing more than describing the allegation as ‘unfortunate’ and not true. By way of ‘serious investigation’ the government mentions the arrests made after the assault on Africans. Let it also be said without hesitation that some young Africans who come to India do indulge in ‘undesirable’ activities. But they cannot be taken as representatives of their countries. In no way does it justify violence against Africans in India. Greater Noida appears to be an unlikely place for attacks on Africans because their numbers in that sprawling part of the NCR on the eastern periphery would be much smaller than in the national capital itself. But, of course, Delhi is not immune to such incidents. The national capital has a ‘better’ record with an infamous instance when a Delhi minister was involved in humiliation and beating of African women in a South Delhi locality. The African envoys in Delhi had no doubt that the attacks on their youth in the national capital region had signs of ‘racialism’ and a result of the ‘xenophobic’ spell very which is much in evidence in the country these days. The Indian government was too embarrassed to admit the allegations or think of effectively refuting them, keeping in mind the ‘sensitivities’ of the African countries.

In February 2014, India and Israel signed three important agreements on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters, Cooperation in Homeland and Public Security, and Protection of Classified Material.Under Cooperation in Homeland Security, four Working Groups in the areas of Border Management, Internal Security and Public Safety, police modernization and capacity-building for combating crime, crime prevention and cyber-crime were established. IPS officer trainees visited Israel in 2015 and 2016 for foreign exposure visit.2017 marks the silver jubilee of India's full diplomatic relations with Israel. India recognised Israel on September 17, 1950, but it was only in 1992 that full diplomatic ties were established. The then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao had told this correspondent that before signing the file to establish full diplomatic ties with Israel, he had invited Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for a breakfast meeting and took him into confidence on the proposed move. Much to his pleasant surprise, Narasimha Rao found that Arafat welcomed the idea and said if a good friend like India has full-fledged diplomatic relations with Israel, then they can expect India to play a more constructive role in the Israel-Palestine peace process.Political contacts have steadily built up over the years. Two Israeli Presidents have visited India, Ezer Weizmann in 1996 and Reuven Rivlin in 2016. Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited India in 2003. Israeli Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel visited India in April 2016, while the previous Agriculture Minister Shamir and previous Defence Minister Ya' alon visited in January and February 2015, respectively. Israeli S&T Minister Ofir Akunis visited India in December 2016.From India, there have been frequent high-level visits in the recent past. President Pranab Mukherjee visited Israel in October 2015. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, who visited Israel in January 2016, announced that Prime Minister Modi will be visiting Israel. Among the other Union Ministers to visit Israel include Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh in 2014; Union Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh in 2016; and Union HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar, who represented India in the funeral ceremony of former Israeli President Shimon Peres in 2016.

The whole of the African continent occupies a special place in the foreign policy calculus of India. The world admits that the 21st century belongs to Africa. With China relentlessly spreading its influence in Africa—as, indeed, in other parts of the world—it is important for India to retain the goodwill that it has traditionally enjoyed in the African continent because of centuries of inter-action.The MEA could have been perhaps embarrassed not so much by the ‘racial’ word but by the fact that around the time some young African nationals in Delhi were beaten by mobs, Indian officials were denouncing frequent attacks on Indians or people of Indian origin (PIO) in the US as ‘racial’, even as US officials were seeking to dismiss the Indian allegations to hide their own embarrassment over the ‘racial’ slur.Some may say that it is an unrelated coincidence that the attacks on Indians or PIOs in the US and the attacks on Africans in India have followed the ascendency of Donald Trump and Narendra Modi in their respective countries. Both these leaders are known to lean too much on the ‘extreme right’ which, in the opinion of many, makes them supporters, if not propagators, of ‘xenophobia’ in their respective countries.Indians and PIOs have faced physical attacks quite regularly—with some incidents ending in fatality-- since the terrorists destroyed the Twin Towers in New York. Almost invariably, the Indian victim is mistaken for being ‘Muslim’ or ‘Middle Eastern’, both associated with Islamist terror by most Americans. The net result has been a steady decline inthe number of Indian students choosing to study in the US.The number of reported incidents of violence against Africans in India may be smaller in the past but there is no denying that Africans in India—mocked as ‘Negro’ or ‘Habshih’ (black man)-- have been harassed and attacked quite often in the past as well. But it seems to have attracted wide notice in the last two or three years with rise in the number of Africans in India and the incidence of violence against them.

As in the US, a decline has been registered in the number of African students enrolling in Indian universities and educational institutions. Some of the African students in Delhi were quoted as saying after the Greater Noida incident that they were returning home and swore never to set foot on Indian soil again.They will certainly influence the decision of many of their compatriots who might be planning to come to India for studies. The African victims are not returning as ambassador for India. This is somewhat different from the generation of African students who studied in India in the 1960s and 1970s. They were much fewer in number and like the present lot of most African students did not socialise too much with their hosts. Maybe, the hosts were to blame for not socialising with them. Yet, many of these Africans were happy to return to India as diplomats and contributed to strengthening ties with India.But forty or fifty years ago clashes between Indian and African youths on college or university campuses were rare. Old timers in Delhi might recall that a regular feature on the university campus used to be fights between ‘Arab’ and Thai students, not Africans vs Indians.Most Indians might be embarrassed to accept that they have ‘racist’ tendency that they see all around them from their childhood. Swarthy Indians would rather be called ‘brown’ than ‘dark’. Being ‘fair-skinned’ is a big asset in India, especially among women. And despite all the resurgence in ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’, it can be said without any fear of contradiction that white-skinned foreigners in India are generally treated as ‘memsahib’ or ‘sahib’—superior person. The bedraggled white ‘hippies’ of the 1960s were often surprised to be treated as ‘special’.India and Indians escaped wide notice about their ingrained ‘racism’ in those days because India to be honest did not have much of a voice on the global stage as it was still a struggling ‘Third World’ country. To be counted among the ‘fastest growing economies’ was not even dreamt of. India was not in any race to reach the top. India was content to be appealing for its ‘exotic’ appeal.It is very different today. Most Indians would not be happy if the country is still best known for its ‘exotica’, especially when India has earned a name for its IT and other professionals. Forced by circumstances and the atmosphere of unfriendliness in the neighbourhood, India has also started to emerge as a strong military power. But what still benefits India is its ‘soft’ image created by the ‘whiz kids’ and to an extent by Bollywood which has a large following in many African countries. India’s global image takes a big hit with reports of ‘racial’ incidents. There is also the potential of a counter attack on Indians and PIOs living in many African countries. Should that happen, India’s loss will be immense. Most Indians scattered across the African continent have lived there for more than a hundred years. If ‘racialism’ in India does not abate, it will not only harm the country’s image and reputation but will also jeopardise the safety of thousands of expatriates.

-Atul Cowshish

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