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'Afro-phobia' is not the norm in India

By T P Sreenivasan
Last updated on: May 31, 2016 20:09 IST
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'Our countrymen should be made aware of the need to be polite and friendly to our African guests.'
'They should know the dictum, athithi devo bhava, whether they are black or white,' says Ambassador T P Sreenivasan, who once served as India's high commissioner to Kenya.

Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar with a delegation of African students in New Delhi, May 30, 2016

IMAGE: Foreign Secretary Dr S Jaishankar met with African students in New Delhi on Monday, May 30, and assured them about their safety and well-being. Photograph: MEA/Flickr


An important annual event at the India House in Nairobi is a gathering of Kenyans who have studied in India. It is on those occasions that one realises how many Kenyan ministers and civil servants were educated in India.

They come in vast numbers to these events to acknowledge their debt of gratitude and to reminisce over their days in Delhi, Pune, Chennai and other cities in India. They have good memories of their teachers and class mates and the good time they had as scholars.

They also acknowledge how relevant their education in India has been to their present professions. They have no grievances, no bad memories about racial prejudices or unpleasant experiences.

In many African countries, political leaders and the elite have had exposure to Indian education and Indian life. Moreover, India has been in the forefront of the fight against racism and racial discrimination in Africa.

It was ironic, therefore, that African ambassadors were threatening to boycott Africa Day this year and Indians were being attacked on the streets of Congo.

The immediate provocation was the killing of a Congolese student, Masunda Kitada Oliver, in Delhi, presumably in an isolated incident of an altercation with three men over hailing an auto. But the way the incident has been projected as racist and reports that even African diplomats have been facing such racist attacks are a shock to most Indians.

An African envoy went to the extent of saying that 'racism and Afro-phobia' were major concerns for African students in India. He alleged that such events had also taken place in other Indian cities.

Indian-African tensions are not uncommon in East and Southern Africa and quite a few from both sides have been killed in squabbles and armed robberies. These tensions are on account of the disparity between the Africans and the Indians and the way the poor Africans are treated by the rich Indians. The Indians live in palatial homes and employ any number of Africans to take care of the household.

I knew of Indian homes where the Africans were employed even to offer pooja to Hindu gods. They remain poor in the midst of Indian luxury and pomp. Occasionally when tensions flare up, the Africans, who are accustomed to fighting and kill animals, do not hesitate to kill their masters.

But the issue is not race, it is poverty, envy and greed that drive Africans to take such measures against their Indian masters.

In India, African students are a privileged people, often on scholarships provided by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, and are mostly at good universities. Many of them have additional sources of income from their families and they live well. Many of them live outside the campuses and drive cars.

Trouble arises when they neglect their studies or engage in illegal activities like smuggling, drug trafficking etc. When action is taken against them by the authorities, they tend to attribute such actions to racial prejudice and hatred.

By and large, foreign students, including African students, are respected and cared for. In Kerala, foreign students are very few, but there have been no complaints from African students about any kind of prejudice.

Some Indians, however, tend to associate African students with violence and scams and they also tend to be prejudiced on account of their colour.

Amar Bose, the founder of the renowned audio equipment firm, himself of mixed blood, Indian and American, has said that he came to India to study, but he left in anguish because he saw in India the same racial discrimination against Africans as he experienced as a coloured boy in the United States.

In India, fairness of skin is at a premium and consequently, it is possible that the darker hues are considered inferior in some ways.

One evidence of this is the very small number of Indian settlers in Africa who get married to Africans. But it is unthinkable that such prejudices lead to violence and murder. The killing of a Congolese student could well have been for other reasons.

India has had considerable goodwill and influence in Africa, though the Americans and the Europeans have been the biggest investors in Africa. Inevitably, India's relations with African countries have undergone a change in recent decades on account of the competition for influence from the Japanese and Koreans and more recently, the Chinese.

India is not the preferred destination for African students as they do have more lucrative scholarships in other countries. The Indian technical cooperation programmes, with provision for local participation, are not attractive, compared to the more generous offers from China. Indian credit lines are often not fully utilised.

In October 2015, India hosted the biggest gathering of African countries, the India-Africa Forum Summit in Delhi to mark what Prime Minister Narendra Modi called 'a new era of India-Africa relations.' All the 54 African countries participated, as they did at a similar meet in Beijing. Evidently, the African leaders had begun to see the dangers of their over dependence on China and wanted to re-establish links with India.

India made pledges of trade and investment flows and set in motion a number of projects, but there has not been a change on the ground. India has initiated some maritime initiatives in the western Indian Ocean, specifically involving coastal African States and Prime Minister Modi's visit to some of the target countries is on the cards. But the demands of the Africans for fully developing their blue economy go much beyond India's means.

India needs to present an alternative to China in terms of investments, commodities, markets and diplomatic support. There has not been any headway in changing the rigid African position on an expansion of the UN Security Council. Africa's demand for two permanent seats on the Council is still one of the roadblocks.

Against this backdrop, the killing of an African student and the subsequent accusation that Africans in India were victims of racial prejudice have been most unfortunate.

In all likelihood, race may not have been an issue at all in the incident. Fortunately, the African envoys attended the Africa Day event after securing sufficient guarantees from the ministry of external affairs.

However, the African agony over the incident was poignantly expressed in a poem penned by Samuel Panyin Yalley, Ghana's high commissioner, on the occasion, giving a larger dimension to the incident, invoking the old anti-colonial sentiment of being in a cage for no fault of the African. He wrote:

Hear My Cry Oh! Africa
Deep in an unknown chilled cage I lie
Frozen with ice of pain and stained by
My hot African blood suddenly gone cold
Someone must tell me what did I do wrong?M

Prime Minister Modi may do well to express our regret over the incident during his forthcoming visit to Africa and reassure the Africans of their security in India.

The vast investments we have made in Africa right from the days of Mahatma Gandhi should not go waste on account of the thoughtless violence perpetrated on the Congolese student.

Our countrymen should also be made aware of the need to be polite and friendly to our African guests, even under provocation. They should know the dictum, athithi devo bhava, whether they are black or white.

The damage done to India's image by this incident can diminish only if such incidents do not recur.

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