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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