No pride in prejudice
African nationals in India are victims of misunderstood identity, deemed mostly as criminals. They are mostly targeted not because of their race, but owing to their reputation of being unscrupulous elements
The recent attack on innocent African students in Noida was not a one-off incident. There have been a series of attacks over the past few years, many times leading to deaths of African residents in India. African students’ associations in India and many African residents living here have repeatedly said that their students in India feel not just discriminated against and isolated but also intimidated by the general public. Many Indians, on the other hand, would rush to point out that Africans are largely involved in drugs, crime, prostitution, smuggling, cybercrime, and financial frauds. Also that Africans are noticed prominently active at shady joints in India and they bribe the local administrative personnel for engaging in unlawful activities.
The Government of India is accused of not doing enough to stop this and for not taking effective steps to protect African residents. This raises many questions: Are Indians racist and xenophobic? Are African residents in India criminals and an unwanted community? What impact do such incidents have on Indo-African relations and how important are Indo-African ties for Indians? How do Chinese and traditional colonial powers perceive this for their interests in Africa? What are the implications for over three million Indian people settled permanently as a tiny minority community in African countries? Or is it a part of the larger impact of globalisation leading to xenophobic tendencies worldwide? Why have such condemnable and unacceptable acts of violence against African nationals become so frequent, and why is the Indian law and order machinery unable to stop it? How does one explain all this?
It can’t be denied that African nationals in India suffer from an image problem. They are reported in electronic and print media only when they are involved in crimes, like smuggling, drug business, prostitution, or violent conflicts. Nigeria is the most prominent country to figure in such reportage. The general Indian public tends to associate them with this image. They are all identified as ‘Nigerians’ because of this image. It is not just Indian media but the global media too that contributes to this.
The globalisation process and subsequent India-Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) initiatives started in 2008 contributed to the increasing African presence in India. The IAFS provides many fellowships to African students, as well as enhanced training slots for mid-career African professionals under ITEC — traders, medical tourists, and business professionals. The sudden influx of African nationals into Indian metros, towns and urban areas is new to the Indian public. But that itself is not a problem for Indians, who in many cases look at foreigners from the West — despite being colonised by them — as friendly visitors. But for many of us, there is a huge difference between foreigners and Africans. There’s no denying the fact that there exists a preference for fair skin in India. Since the colonial times, white is the preferred skin colour. One notices this in the high sale of skin whitening creams and matrimonial ads. Even the statues of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, which used to be of dark colour during the precolonial period, are now made of milky white marble.
This colour preference or discrimination is strongly noticeable among Indians themselves. Foreigners, including Africans, are not excluded from this. Africans as foreigners fall on the wrong side of this colour preference of Indians. This distancing between Indian and African nationals is more due to the colour bias than a xenophobic attitude. White African settlers or Arab North Africans do not face this in India.
The combination of portrayal of Africans as criminals by the media and the discrimination based on colour gets aggravated by the poor awareness in India about Africa, its nationals, and the importance of that country for us. Africa is not a part of any school curriculum. Though India has many universities, barely three of them have small African Studies departments. The policy formulation of the Ministry of External Affairs is not based on the use of public diplomacy. People do not know the importance of Africa and Africans for India.
Indians are hardly aware of the fact that Africa has over 55 countries with a huge diversity in culture, wealth, and ethnicity. They do not know that of the 10 fastest growing economies, six are in Africa. They aren’t aware that India is highly respected in this continent, which has a population of over 1.2 billion, for its unstinted solidarity and support to African liberation struggles and anti-racial fight. They tend to reduce all Africans in India as Nigerians. There is tremendous goodwill for Africa among politicians and intelligentsia in India. But foreign policy bureaucrats haven’t shown much seriousness in educating the Indian public about the importance of this region and its issues vis-à-vis our foreign policy.
Africa was regarded as a punishment posting till India gave the foreign policy bureaucrats huge amount of grant money (US $20 billion under IAFS) for disbursement. There is little understanding that besides being an abhorrent crime to target a section of innocent foreigners, this has serious implications for India too. India has a tremendous historical goodwill in Africa. It surpasses any other country in the world because of its role in the African freedom struggle and Anti-Apartheid Movement. The initial engagement of MK Gandhi in Africa transformed him from a professional barrister to Mahatma Gandhi.
Africa hosts eight per cent of Indian diaspora which is settled there as a heritage resource of India for more than 150 years. Under globalisation, when Africa was trying to diversify from the clutches of colonial masters, between the monetary bulldozing of China and AFRICOM of the US, it found India to be the most relevant partner in development cooperation. Also, 55 African countries could be crucial for India’s quest to enter the UN Security Council as permanent member or in any other global negotiation with the North, such as climate change and WTO issues.
After the attack on African nationals in Noida, Indian foreign policy bureaucrats were not adequately prepared and did not have proper liasoning with African diplomats; they were also not able to convince them of what the Government of India was doing in this regard. As a result, the dean of African diplomatic group issued a strong statement against India and sought an investigation by the United Nations Human Rights Council.
African nationals in India have become victims of misunderstood identity, deemed mostly as foreigners who come to India to commit crimes. Often race is not why they are attacked; the image of being criminals and unscrupulous elements is the root of the problem. This violence leads to serious consequences for India as we have multiple interests in Africa. African envoys have threatened that repeated attacks on their nationals will damage the countries’ relations. India is engaged in Africa to find alternative sources of supply for its energy security. In fact, African countries welcomed India in this sector over other countries. India has fast-growing trade with Africa, reaching over US$80 billion per year.
There is a sizable population of old and new Indian diaspora in Africa, which is an affluent community compared to the local population. They also maintain their identity by being endogamous — the custom of marrying within a particular social or cultural group. This affluence and social exclusivity is resented by the local African population. Any problem that Africans face in India is easily transmitted through social media in Africa, and this may pose serious threats to Indian interests and its diaspora settled there.
What can be done by the Government of India to stop all this? Has the Government done enough to stop such kind of violence? It is also partly a law and order problem, which falls within the jurisdiction of State Governments across the country. The Central Government can react and push the State Government to act fast. But the issue of attack on innocent African students should not be clubbed with as to whose responsibility it is — of the Centre or State Governments. There is a need to enact a law on the lines of the Protection of SC/ST Against Atrocities Act to keep a check on similar incidents at an all-India level. Though the SC/ST Protection Act has not completely stopped the mistreatment of the community, the law has drastically reduced the occurrences in urban areas, and made the law and order machinery across the States alert and responsive in such events.
An anti-racial law will also help protect the people from the North-East, who also become victims of stereotype identity. There are similar laws in many Western countries, including the UK, and though not completely successful, they have sharply reduced race-related violence, and sensitised the local community about serious repercussions of such violence.
The second initiative in this direction will be to spread knowledge by including African studies in school courses and in the larger public domain. The public diplomacy of the MEA needs to communicate with and sensitise Indians about our connection, solidarity, goodwill and serious national interest association with Africa. Thirdly, the media has to play an important role in reporting on Africans and Africa. The negative image which makes news should be balanced with positive write-ups about African students, Indian interests in Africa, and the warm welcome that India receives in African countries.
(The writer teaches at the Centre for African Studies, School of International Studies, JNU)
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