In 1958, Brightson Webster Ryson Thom moved from the Central African Federation to Delhi for his higher studies. The 24-year-old had been awarded a scholarship by the Indian government, along with 31 others from what would become the independent nation of Malawi. Their host country was overwhelmingly poor, but it nevertheless set aside money and seats in academic institutions for students from Africa.

Similar scholarships were available in the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union, but some young Africans – inspired by India’s non-violent freedom struggle and post-independence political stability – chose to study in the South Asian country. Thom earned a bachelor’s degree in commerce from the University of Delhi in 1961. Two years later, he was awarded a master’s in economics. These degrees equipped him to join Malawi’s Ministry of Finance. Changing his name to Bingu wa Mutharika after returning to Africa, he would have a long career in public service that culminated in his becoming the president of Malawi in 2004.

Indian outreach

Official expressions of solidarity towards the people of Africa began even before India attained full independence. In 1946, India severed trade ties with Apartheid South Africa, and this was later expanded into a diplomatic, cultural and commercial embargo.

The African cause was close to Jawaharlal Nehru’s heart and India’s first prime minister counted Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser among his friends in Africa. In his speech at the concluding session of the Asian-African Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, in April 1955, Nehru spoke of “the infinite tragedy of Africa in the past few hundred years”: “Everything else pales into insignificance when I think of the infinite tragedy of Africa ever since the days when millions of Africans were carried away as galley slaves, to America and elsewhere, half of them dying in the galleys.” The whole world needed to accept responsibility for this travesty, he averred, while calling on “Asia to help Africa to the best of her ability because we are sister continents”.

Nehru followed up such talk with concrete action. One of his pet projects was the scheme to provide scholarships and fellowships to African students, said Richard Park, an American scholar who taught at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. “As of 1965 there are about 600 African students on fellowships in several of India’s universities,” Park wrote in a 1965 paper titled Indian-African Relations. “A good many of these students are placed at the University of Delhi, at Banaras Hindu University, and at Bombay University, but others are scattered around the country in India’s 55 universities.” India also had special faculty training fellowships for Africans.

Cultural differences

For Mutharika and his fellow Malawians, life in Delhi must not have been easy. Given that many African students suffer racism in 21st-century India, it’s hard to imagine that in the 1950s and ’60s, when an average Indian had far less exposure to the world, the situation was any better.

In his 1965 paper, Long touched on this issue, saying that many African students found cultural and educational conditions in Indian universities to be “more restrictive” than in their home countries. He wrote: “Caste and family attitudes of privacy and exclusiveness have tended to isolate African students with the result that many of them have been angered, some have become anti-Indian, and some have been recruited actively by Communists for training and future Party service in Africa.”

Seeing first-hand the challenges faced by African students, Mutharika founded the Association of African Students in India just before he left the country in 1963. The association helped unite the community that comprised students from across the African continent, but it did not succeed in keeping out political agents fishing for fresh recruits.

One African student who most certainly did not get recruited by the Communists in India was a 24-year-old from what was then the British colony of Taganyika – John Samuel Malecela. Just five years earlier, the country had only two natives with a university education, one of them being the leader of its independence movement, Julius Nyerere.

Malecela was among a group of students sent to Bombay, where he got a bachelor’s degree in commerce from Bombay University in 1958-’59. This was perhaps made possible by the fact that some African students were allowed to fast-track their education in India.

Within two years of Malecela’s graduation, Taganyika attained independence and, three years later, in 1964, it was merged with Zanzibar to form Tanzania. Malecela became the country’s permanent representative to the United Nations and had a thriving government career, becoming the prime minister in 1990. The University of Mumbai proudly claims Malecela as a “distinguished” member of its alumni.

Military leader

Along with universities, India’s defence institutions too welcomed students from friendly nations. In 1965, a Nigerian major with a certificate in engineering enrolled at the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington. Aged 28, Olusegun Obasanjo would also study at the College of Military Engineering in Khirkee (now Khadki), Pune. “None of these courses gave him the professional engineering qualification he coveted, but India made a considerable impact on him,” British historian John Iliffe wrote in his book Obasanjo, Nigeria and the World.

During his travels, Obasanjo was “appalled to see people dying of starvation in the streets of Calcutta,” Iliffe wrote. What impressed him was Indians’ “ethos of hard work, austerity and piety”. This made him more open-minded and led him to read in the field of comparative religion.

Olusegun Obasanjo. Credit: Helene C Stikkel/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Nigeria, which attained independence in 1960, faced several internal power struggles and a civil war. It remained a military dictatorship from 1966 to 1999. Olusegun Obasanjo, who left India after finishing his course in Pune in 1966, soon realised there was no scope for an Indian-style democracy in Nigeria. Even emulating India’s then-highly open and tolerant society was difficult in his home country.

His initial writings suggested he was opposed to coups, but with the military holding total power in Nigeria, Obasanjo became an important part of the system. He was the military head of state from 1976 to 1979. He continued to have warm feelings towards India, and towards the end of the military rule, when he was arrested, India was one of the countries that called for his release. He was democratically elected as president of Nigeria in 1999 and won a second term, serving until 2007.

Jawaharlal Nehru’s policy of cultivating young Africans can only be described as visionary. While less than a handful of them ended up becoming heads of state, thousands of others became administrators, professionals and businessmen and served as bridges between India and Africa.

Missing in this 1950s and ’60s outreach, though, was a serious attempt from the Indian government to get African students integrated within the Indian society while they lived in the country. Efforts by the Soviet Union in this direction led it to having so-called “cultural couriers” in Africa for decades. Now, with India once again looking to rekindle ties with Africa, the time is right to address the issue of colour bias and other forms of discrimination against Africans in India, and take initiatives to help them feel more at home in the country. This would go a long way in building India’s relationship with Africa.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.