The most bizarre aspect of Congolese student Masunda Kitada Oliver’s daylight murder in New Delhi and serial attacks on Africans in the capital itself and elsewhere in India is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government’s dogged refusal to acknowledge that the violence is blatantly racial in nature.
Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s argument that “criminal acts should not be construed as racial attacks” and Delhi Police’s insistence that Oliver’s lynching and targeting of other Africans were “stray incidents triggered by objections to drinking and loud music,” are laughable excuses considering that many Indians are prone to hastily covering their faces with a hanky when a black person is around. Citing rising racism, several African embassies in India even threatened to boycott Africa Day celebrations but relented when Swaraj promised a sensitization campaign to educate Indians and exemplary action against culprits.
And as deplorable as the violence against Africans in India is the backlash in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, where some Indian establishments and shops in the commercial area were attacked. Some gunshots were fired wounding Indians living in the area. And for once Vikas Swarup, India’s External Affairs Ministry spokesman, admitted that the violence was “a reaction perhaps to the killing of a Congolese national in New Delhi.” The retaliatory attacks were sufficiently grave, according to Swarup, for India’s ambassador to take up the matter with the Congolese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
New Delhi, on the one hand, is wooing Africa. And, on the other, is far from serious about tackling unabated racist savagery against Africans in Indian cities, which is sadly taking a toll on the county’s image as a safe destination for black students, tourists and investors. Africa is so crucial for meeting India’s energy and mineral requirements that in October 2015 the Modi government hosted the India-Africa Forum Summit, or IAFS, on a grand scale. Attended by a record 54 African nations, it was the largest diplomatic assembly in India since the 1983 Non-Aligned Summit.
India’s biggest competitor in Africa is China. And according to Sanjay Baru, a close aide of former Premier Manmohan Singh, “authorities in China have invested in a systematic, institutionalized campaign to purge at least the educated urban Chinese of their racial prejudice against ‘black’ Africans. Enough has not been done in India, as is evident from the sporadic incidents of racist abuse against African students and tourists. Without a change of attitude at the people-to-people level, mere summitry at the top and government-sponsored events is unlikely to bring India and Africa closer to each other.”
Baru tendered the advice when the Modi government was gearing up to host IAFS. But it obviously fell on deaf ears considering the spate of attacks on Africans across Indian cities where any pretext is good enough to kill or thrash Africans.
New Delhi seems to not only lack the political will to tackle the problem but even the willingness to learn from other nations. Ironically, not too long ago, Indian students were at the receiving end of racial prejudice in Australia. In 2009, around a dozen Indian students were mercilessly assaulted or attacked with knives and robbed in Victoria between May and December. The racial wave climaxed on Jan. 3, 2010, when Nitin Garg, a 21-year-old student was stabbed in the abdomen by assailants killing him.
The barbarism triggered demonstrations by Indian students and parents besides a barrage of diplomatic protests by New Delhi. But Australia’s response seven years ago was starkly different from India’s today. The first thing Canberra did was to admit that the attacks were “clearly racist.” No excuses were offered. On the contrary, Canberra publicly acknowledged that it had failed to protect Indian students and vowed to take steps to ensure that there was no recurrence. And it kept its word.
According to one account, “police forces across urban centres in Australia were embedded with special cells tasked with ensuring the security of foreign students. And the federal and state governments in Australia worked with universities to first understand why students from India and other developing nations were more vulnerable to crime, and then tried to address those causes. Those steps helped pull Australia back from a sharp decline in the number of Indian students, second only to the Chinese among foreign students in the country and helped revive a key engine of the country’s economy - the $13.5 billion international education market - within three years of the attacks.”
India should take a leaf out of Australia’s book to win back the ebbing trust of African students and their parents if it wants to salvage its reputation as a caring democracy.