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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2037

India Clueless About Ending Racism

By Atul Cowshish - Syndicate Features

Call it ‘unfortunate’ or ‘embarrassing’ or whatever, the killing of a 29-year-old Congolese national in Delhi is a manifestation of deep-rooted racism in India. It is a malady that everyone knows exists but nobody seems to know how to stamp it out; least of all the external affairs minister despite her penchant for extending ‘humanitarian’ help to all manner of Indians, including former cricket Czars.

After the death of the Congolese Masunda Kitada Olivier sparked off an uproar with a strong protest by the heads of 54 African missions in India, Sushma Swaraj reacted on Twitter—the only way this government wants to reach out to people. This was her first mistake: She should have met the African envoys, at least the head of the Congolese mission, to personally convey her regret and sorrow while giving the ‘assurances’ of safety and security of African nationals in India.

That personal touch was necessary because violence against African nationals in Delhi and other parts of India have been far too frequent and many of them have resulted in death. Swaraj’s Twitter gave the impression that she treated the attack on the Congolese youth in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj area as a routine. She has apparently refused to acknowledge that the attacks on African national in India are very clearly racial in nature.

The African envoys call it ‘Afro-phobia’. Their anguished cry was the result of their personal experiences and stories they have heard from Africans in India—mainly students. There are about 25,000 African students in India at present and it is unlikely that most of them found Indians in general treating them with respect and kindness that they so enthusiastically shower upon the whites.

Many trace the origin of racism in India to the caste system; many others would point to the simple fact of Indians fondness for ‘fair’ skin. But the irony of ironies is that Indians are quick to denounce when they become victims of racism, usually in a ‘white’ country. Not very long ago, India’s relations with Australia had reached near breaking point when attacks on Indian students were regularly reported from Down Under. Australia was denounced for dismissing those incidents—some fatal—as ‘ordinary’ crime when they did appear to be racist in nature.

Attacks on Indians (or people of Indian origin), especially the Sikhs, have been a regular feature in the US amidst widespread rage against terrorism. The US rejects most of these attacks as anything but symptoms of racial hatred. They are wrong but they get away with it because you cannot question the most powerful nation on this planet. You can annoy the superpower only if you are ready to suffer the consequences of its wrath. India is no superpower nor is it likely to be counted in the next few years among the most powerful nations.

The government of India or its external affairs minister cannot, therefore, assume that impersonally sharing the collective pain of the African envoys was sufficient—meeting them was not necessary. Yes, a ‘junior’ minister, Gen (retd) V.K. Singh was asked to meet the African heads of missions in Delhi to assuage their hurt feelings. If African sensibilities account for anything in Indian diplomacy the job should have been undertaken by the ‘senior’ minister who has fully recovered from her illness that required a spell in hospital.

The choice of Gen (retd) Singh could be questioned on the ground that despite handling a ministry full of diplomats he lacks some elementary sense of diplomacy. No, it is not about his habit of coining ‘colourful’ words for Indian journalists but his gaffes when attending official functions in foreign missions as representatives of the government of India. Yes, the reference is to his Tweet after attending a Pakistan Day celebration in the Pakistani high commission two years ago.

The senior and the junior external affairs ministers might have generally succeeded in observing the diplomatic etiquette, but there are men and women in power whose attitude towards Africans has been shocking, to say the least. A minister at the Centre had mocked the ‘Nigerians’ when speaking of Rajiv Gandhi and his foreign spouse. The Nigerian envoy was forced to protest.

A minister in Delhi government did not think twice in humiliating an African woman and accusing her of all kinds of crime while leading a group of vigilantes. A young African woman was waylaid and stripped in Bengaluru, the premier IT city and one of the few that are otherwise genuinely cosmopolitan. The first lady of Senegal was not shown the courtesies due to her when she landed at Delhi with her husband to attend an African summit. Among the many cases of ‘brutal murder’ of African students one that shook many happened in one of the colleges in Punjab.

Assault on Africans is not an ‘ordinary’ crime. It cannot be when that has been happening for so long with successive governments watching them with little concern over the negative impact on India’s image in the African continent. In one of her Tweets, the external affairs minister said that the government was ‘launching’ a programme to ‘sensitize’ people. ‘Sensitize’ about what? That Africans have dark complexion and that their facial features may be different from most Indians’? Surely, most Indians, especially in urban areas, would know that.

What these ‘illiterate’ urban Indians need to be told is that you do not ridicule a man or a woman on the basis of his or her skin colour or facial features. A fact often underplayed is that ‘mainland’ Indians continue to treat their own citizens from the Northeast as foreigners and have no hesitation in ill-treating them. A government that has failed to sensitize people about those living in a (‘remote’) corner of the country can hardly be expected to do better when dealing with Africans in India.

Indians who have lived or travelled in Gujarat, the home state of the prime minister, will know that there is a small community of ‘Africans’ living in Gujarat (and in some other coastal areas) for more than a century. They speak the native language but continue to be discriminated against socially because neither the government nor the civil society, otherwise crawling with champions of this and that ‘rights’, have done much to change this deplorable state of affairs.

It is certain that the death of the Congolese and ‘racism’ in India will be soon forgotten. For the government it must be one of many ‘non-issues’ which a section of unfriendly media plays up. What the government needs to understand is that many of the young Africans studying in India are likely to rise to high positions in their country. If they carry unpleasant memories of their stay in India it will surely cause a setback to Indian efforts to court Africa, the most important continent in the present millennium.

- Asian Tribune -

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