The brutal murder of a young Congolese man, Masonda Ketanda Oliver followed closely by the four separate attacks on seven Africans near Chattarpur in south Delhi at the end of May, has blown the lid off the simmering pot of resentment against the treatment of Africans immigrants in India, especially the large student population. President Pranab Mukherjee condemned the attacks and said: “It would be most unfortunate if the people of India were to dilute our long tradition of friendship with the people of Africa and the welcome we have always extended to them in our country”.
Africans come to India for various reasons: informal trade, higher education and health care. Medical tourism is marketed aggressively throughout 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 movements of Africans and Indians across the western Indian Ocean in the pre-globalised era, and the cosmopolitanism that it had engendered.
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 recent xenophobic occurrence, the African envoys threatened to boycott the Africa Day celebrations to be hosted the ICCR, en masse. Finally, after assurances by the ministry of external affairs, the African 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 does not 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 that “racism has nothing to do with it”.
Relations between immigrants and host communities are multilayered and stress points between the two exist, globally. Indians abroad have been at the receiving end of racism and xenophobia as well. Since 2009 and most recently in 2014, there were vicious attacks on Indians in Australia, primarily students. These assaults, popularly known as ‘curry bashing’, involve racial abuse and physical injury and were explained by the Australian authorities in terms of -being at the wrong place at the wrong time or opportunistic robberies of clueless outsiders, rather than racially-motivated attacks! However, the concerned governments have worked together to prevent such occurrences in the future through inter alia, issuing advisories to the Indian students and dealing with the issue as a law and order issue.
Stereotypical constructions of immigrant Africans as ‘prostitutes’ or ‘drug dealers’ – at times by the local people, the media and 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. With the occurrence of virulent forms of xenophobia and violence against the African community in different cities across India, the government of India, has got into damage control mode and sent messages from the highest political level to assuage the apprehensions and angst of the immigrant community.
Accordingly, post the recent Delhi incidents, the Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj, promised sensitization programs to promote better inter-cultural understanding between the two communities with a long standing historical connection. The police and the local administration across the country are working in tandem to preempt mindless attacks against foreigners and the perpetrators of the above cited violence are being dealt with as per the laws of the land It is hoped that with such proactive steps, the confidence of the African immigrants and of their emissaries will be restored.
Invoking India’s past heritage and historical connections with Africa as a response to violence against the immigrant community, effectively showcases the long history of co-existence between the two communities, but offers only a partial solution to the problem. The need of the hour is to acknowledge the xenophobic behavior of a small segment of Indians and punish the law breakers. However, not all Indians are intolerant of differences, but evidently, there are aberrations. Likewise, African immigrants who indulge in crime need to be dealt with strictly as per the laws of the land but all Africans cannot be typecast as ‘criminals’.
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, academic exchanges, could go a long way towards generating better public understanding in India of our oft-quoted ‘shared heritage’ with Africa and Africans. Clearly something is amiss in the metanarratives 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, a person to people relations – something that has been talked about time and again at India-Africa bilateral and multilateral forums – needs 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:firstname.lastname@example.org
Rhea D’Silva is a research scholar at the Department of Sociology, University of Mumbai; Email: email@example.com
* An earlier version of this write up appeared at: http://thewire.in/40409/sorry-sushmaji-racism-against-africans-is-a-reality-heres-how-to-counter-it