Opinion

Attacks on Africans: Remember how it feels when an Indian is attacked abroad

The same lethal cocktail of illogic, racism, intolerant nationalism, absence of moral judgement and xenophobia operates in both cases.

Greater Noida has witnessed bursts of violence directed against Africans in the last week. A mob attacked a Nigerian national after the death of a teenager who was believed to have died from a drug overdose. The parents of the deceased alleged that he often kept company with Nigerians in the neighbourhood, whom they suspected of drug-dealing. This was the first of nine separate attacks on African nationals, many of whom had to be hospitalised.

The narrative is disturbingly familiar. In 2013, a Nigerian was killed in Goa, allegedly in a drug war. In 2014, Ugandan women had their houses in South Delhi’s Khirki Extension raided for allegedly running a prostitution racket. In 2016, a Tanzanian girl was stripped and beaten in Benguluru, and later that year, three Nigerians were racially abused and attacked in Hyderabad.

These incidents usually provoke immediate reactions from a number of actors. In the most recent case, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has pledged a “free and impartial” investigation into the matter. Indians took to social media platforms to condemn the event. The Association of African Students in India issued warnings on their Facebook page to Africans to stay indoors and avoid certain parts of Delhi, as well as asking students to boycott lectures until their safety had been guaranteed.

These events are always followed by soul-searching in the Indian media, which reminds us how India constructs its “others”, through religious, caste, class and colour differentiation. Africans are the recipients of prejudice merely on account of being dark-skinned, a condition that many Indians go to lengths to reverse. Africans complain of the difficulty in transacting everyday business in India on account of racist prejudices. That sentiments reinforcing boundaries of caste, class, religion and race have gained momentum in post-liberalisation India is surprising, given that the country celebrates its experiments with free markets and globalisation.

These expressions of antipathy towards Africans in the everyday are in sharp contrast with warming diplomatic ties between India and Africa. India has sought to portray itself as a political ally of Africa, and a responsible trading partner concerned with the development of the continent. The Third India-Africa Summit in 2015 drew more African heads of state than ever, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s five-nation visit to Africa last year was presented as a diplomatic success.

Idea of Africa: Then and now

Analysing how discourses of the Indian involvement with Africa are constructed in relation to India’s ideas of its own progress reveals what space Africa occupies in the Indian consciousness.

Ideas about Africa are as follows: a conflation of half-truths, projected self-interest and out-dated colonial prejudices. Africa is resource rich, and India needs to leverage its resources for its continued development. African markets (along with increasing consumer demand and growing spending power) present opportunities for Indian firms. Land is abundant in Africa but under-cultivated: India needs access to this land in the near future to feed its own bourgeoning population. India must get involved in Africa if it is to counter China’s influence on the continent and sub-region. Africa could absorb excess Indian labour, as it lacks a skilled working population.

In all these constructions of Africa, (African) human players are absent or peripheral: they exist, but they are not cast as central to India’s engagement with Africa. The India-Africa engagement in the Indian public consciousness is one devoid of people – of human actors, and arguably, humanity.

Re-inserting African agency into the Indian consciousness could help combat this state of affairs. Amnesia reigns in the national psyche with regard to how significant India-Africa relations were in the past. Africans played a crucial role in the Deccan. Malik Ambar (1548-1626), the Harar-born Abyssinian, emerged as a crucial king-maker, and without him, the Maratha kingdom may not have become as powerful as it was. There were other key historical figures of African origin: Barbak Shahzada, the Abyssinian who founded the Habshi dynasty in Bengal in 1487 and became its first ruler with the title Ghiyath-al-Din Firuz Shah, Ikhlas Khan, the vizier of the Sultan of Bijapur in the 17th Century, and the African rulers of Janjira.

Africa was good to Indian traders. Gujaratis have been frequenting East Africa from the 13th century for trade. Colonial Bombay’s prosperity was linked to demand for Indian produce in East Africa. Indian communities have made their fortunes in Africa in the colonial era, settling especially on the east coast. In the build-up to decolonisation, Jawaharlal Nehru enjoyed close friendships with many African leaders, such as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, and was greatly influenced by them. Anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela claimed to have been inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s ideology of peaceful resistance. As of 2015, India-Africa trade was valued at $75 billion, up from $1 billion in 1995, and is set to reach $100 billion in 2018. Africa was, and is, important for India.

Backlash fears

Sporadic bursts of violence directed towards Africans in India will, without a doubt, give rise to anti-Indian sentiment in Africa. This slight but growing antipathy towards India in Africa recently manifested itself in 2015, when a statue of Mahatma Gandhi was vandalised in Johannesburg (South Africa), with protestors citing that some of his memoirs suggest that he was racist. Demonstrators bore placards that read “Gandhi Must Fall”, which was reminiscent of another similar campaign. In 2014, students at the University of Cape Town demanded that a statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes be taken down, arguing that he was a symbol of white supremacy and racial inequality. The “Rhodes Must Fall” movement became a global phenomenon, with British students in Oxford protesting against his statue, demanding a decolonisation of the educational institution.

The “Gandhi Must Fall” movement re-emerged in the University of Ghana in 2016, where some lecturers and students demanded that a statue of Gandhi presented by the Indian Council of Cultural Relations be taken down. According to them, in some of his writings between 1894 and 1906, he described the “natives of Africa” as savages and Kaffir, which they interpreted as his hostility towards Africans. To have the Mahatma, who stood for non-violence and anti-imperial resistance, at the receiving end of the same treatment as Rhodes was rather ironic, if not slightly unfortunate.

In February, India was shocked by the murder of information technology engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla in suburban Kansas, United States. A witness reported that the attacker shouted “get out of my country” before shooting him. The Indian media was quick to represent the event as the byproduct of a lethal cocktail of illogic, racism, intolerant nationalism, absence of moral judgement and xenophobia. Attacks on Africans in India are representative of the same lethal cocktail. Addressing the roots of the problem, by a sensitisation towards and appreciation of otherness, remains an urgent task.

Meera Venkatachalam works with the Gandhi-Mandela Centre for African Studies and Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai.

Johann Salazar is with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.