More than around 100 years after Indian freedom movement icon Mahatma Gandhi was bundled out of a railway carriage in South Africa because he was brown, his own motherland is in the news for rising incidents of racist attacks against Africans of varied nationalities.
Strangely, there seems to be a surge in violence against African nationals in India since 2014. In 2014 two separate attacks on Africans were recorded in New Delhi — the seat of Indian government, after they had objected to being photographed, apart from a disgusting episode of a minister in the provincial Delhi government leading an aggressive mob mouthing racist utterances against two Ugandan women. Bengaluru, better known as the Silicon Valley of the East, with a high concentration of African students witnessed Afrophobic attacks of the worst nature in 2015 and early 2016 when a Tanzanian woman was paraded naked for an offense that she did not commit.
And worse still, on May 20 this year, a Congolese citizen, who taught French at a language school in New Delhi died after his head was brutally bashed following an altercation over hiring a vehicle, which was followed by a ghastly physical assault on a Nigerian in Hyderabad on May 25 and thereafter on seven African nationals in the heart of India’s capital on May 28 by a gang of 10 men. Gandhi, who wanted to transform India into an egalitarian society through assimilation, tolerance and acceptance of diverse ideologies, would have been appalled and deeply ashamed at the society’s moral decline and entrenchment of rabid racist impulses, had he been alive today.
Many would, however, argue that the abominable caste structure in India, coming down through centuries, that underpinned a complex hierarchical social relations coupled with a xenophobic consciousness about a vast majority of citizens’ elitist Aryan descent plays a critical role in controlling the response stimuli of the general public toward people with dark skin texture. And this intricate caste system, which effectively induces a racial and gender barrier, has vitiated the atmosphere to such an extent that most Indians no longer feel the urge to show humanitarian solidarity, based on universal values, with fellow human being whenever they are persecuted.
Moreover, exploitation of such well-entrenched and divisive social rules for electoral dividend is threatening to destroy the delicate fabric of Indian society and permanently alter the sensitive social dynamics on which lay the future of a unified nationhood. Unfortunately, social media is abuzz with skeptic comments vis-à-vis the violent surge in physical attack on Africans staying in India that has virtually put the 30,000 odd African students studying in various educational institutions at great risk of being manhandled any moment. While some overzealous Indians believe that Africans are far worse off in their own continent than they are in India, many ultra-nationalists blame African nationals for not respecting Indian customs, as they shamelessly defend the indefensible act of taking the law in one’s own hand.
Even, Indian Deputy Foreign Minister V.K. Singh and Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma did their bit to complicate the situation further by making ill thought-out statements, trivializing Afrophobia. As if that was not enough, Laxmikant Parsekar, Indian Premier Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) colleague and chief minister of the country’s most notable tourism destination for foreigners, Goa, where a young Nigerian was hacked to death in 2013 on mere suspicion of drug peddling, waded into a simmering diplomatic row and sparked fresh controversy by making disparaging comments about the attitude of African people and declaring the setting up of a detention facility for them.
As influential ministers and ruling BJP leaders sought to downplay the deliberate hate crimes perpetrated against a particular group of people hailing from Africa, the heads of mission of 42 African nations threatened to boycott the Africa Day celebration hosted by New Delhi last month. Eritrean Ambassador and Dean of the African Head of Missions Alem Woldemariam was scathing in his criticism of the pervading climate of fear and insecurity as the diplomatic missions contemplated recommending a ban on sending students to India under the government-to-government cultural exchange program. Though murders of expatriate Africans are a rarity, nothing can justify the high-handedness displayed by a section of ordinary Indians against black people because of color prejudice. While India is in good company globally so far as xenophobic spasms are concerned, ironic it is that the land of the Mahatma has turned incorrigibly racist. And for New Delhi, engaged in tough competitive diplomacy with countries like China in pursuing innovative agendas to woo resource-rich African nation states, the domestic complication over rabid anti-black sentiment would inevitably hamper its global south diplomacy in Africa and elsewhere.
After all, India’s relationship with the so-called Dark Continent is such deep rooted that in 1998 some of the African states have gone out of their way to discreetly help New Delhi, then a pariah in nuclear commerce, with logistic mobilization during the second nuclear test, as a senior government functionary involved with this scientific procedure confided in this writer once. With an otherwise eloquent Modi preferring to keep silent, quite uncharacteristically, time is running out for India to make amends.
Let us not forget that agonizing incidents of hate crimes, committed repeatedly with a deliberate intent of humiliating the black people, will potentially resonate negatively in Africa, Caribbean islands and elsewhere where there is a contentious legacy of socio-racial tension between Indian diaspora and African-descendant communities, generally invisible to the naked eye.