On May 28, I tweeted what I thought was a simple statement of my dismay and anguish at the rising incidence of racist attacks against Africans of varied nationalities in India.
“As an Indian citizen, I am appalled by the recent racist violence against Africans in India, and deeply ashamed,” my tweet said. It was accompanied by three images: a portrait of Masonda Ketada Oliver, the Congolese student murdered in Vasant Kunj, New Delhi, on May 20; a photograph of Indian women protesting the act of a Bengaluru mob, which assaulted, stripped and paraded naked a Tanzanian student earlier this year; and a photograph from New Delhi’s Khirki Extension, showing police personnel, African and Indian residents in the aftermath of a January 2014 midnight raid of the neighbourhood by Aam Aadmi Party leader Somnath Bharti, who was then the Delhi law minister, in the course of which a group of Ugandan and Nigerian women were publicly humiliated.
An eye for an eye
The responses that my tweet drew have been reassuring, horrifying, and heartening. Reassuring, because many individuals whose moral compass remains intact expressed agreement and solidarity, or articulated their own sense of sorrow at this turn of events. And horrifying, because of the number of small but startling negative responses that have also been registered. They range from mild scepticism to undiluted trollery – “Typical Leftist indignation,” wrote one of these respondents. “Africans are far worse off in Africa than they are in India.”
I hadn’t realised that the Left had a monopoly on humanitarian empathy, which I have always taken to be a reasonably universal feeling. Also, in keeping with the shaky grip on grammar, nuance and civility that all trolls demonstrate, this person was clearly unable to tell distress from indignation. And the breathtaking cynicism of his comment on Africans in Africa should be held in mind by every Indian who feels agitated the next time an Indian gets beaten up in Melbourne or Madison, Alabama. After all, their attackers might argue, Indians are far worse off in India than they are in Australia or the US. Far more of us die of tuberculosis or starvation in the matrubhumi than get bumped off by skinheads in London or Dresden.
“Come on ground,” wrote another unintended recipient of my tweet, either afflicted by first-language interference or inviting me to descend from my idealist abode in the clouds. “There numbers are increasing day by day especially in Delhi, govt need put restrictions.”
Ah beware, fellow Bharatiyas, the Black Peril is among us!
A milder voice asked me if I had any statistics on the “criminal violence against Indians in Africa”. Not having surveyed this question in the 54 nation-states and one disputed territory that make up the African continent, I cannot claim to have that information.
All I can offer is my perplexity. I do not understand how the possibility that criminals in some African countries have attacked some Indians justifies attacks on Africans in India, which are patently fuelled and justified by racist animosity.
The caste factor
And yet, there are also those heartening reactions from individuals who connect our racist impulses with our casteist conditioning, who identify our response to Africans with our Aryan obsessions, writ large across the matrimonial columns in our newspapers, and evident in our advertising, and our everyday language.
The axial structuring principle of Indian society is caste, with its debilitating logic of mutual repulsion. In the language of the sociologists: The privileging of the svadharma or caste dharma, the difficulty this poses for the practice of a maanav-dharma or humanitarian dharma, and eventually, the derision of all for all, which leaves little room for productive solidarities based on universal values that lie beyond the interests of the caste-group or community.
Caste-commitment and Afrophobia are not unrelated. And one additional detail: Our self-hatred, based on the certain knowledge, daily reinforced by the mirror on the wall, that most of us are only a few shades distant from those we profess to despise and humiliate with ugly terms of abuse like kaaliya, translations of which, in English, German and Danish, can easily be applied to many of us when we ourselves are in foreign lands, at the mercy of strangers.