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BRP Bhaskar: Racism raises its ugly head
May 31, 2016
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

A few incidents of attacks on African nationals in and around New Delhi, one of which resulted in the death of a young man from Congo, has turned the spotlight on the ugly face of racism. Though officials are in a state of denial, conscientious Indians accept that racialism is a reality.

Masunda Kitada Oliver, 23, a graduate student who supported himself working as a French tutor, was beaten to death by three men on May 20. Police said the attack followed a late-night quarrel over hiring of an auto-rickshaw. Two men were immediately taken into custody but 10 days later the third remains untraced.

The African embassies decided to stay away from the Africa Day celebrations by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) on May 25 in protest and to advise their governments not to send new students to India. There were retaliatory attacks on a few Indian grocery shops in Congo. All this forced External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to act.

She sent out tweets to assuage African feelings and deputed her junior colleague, VK Singh, to talk to the envoys. Singh offered to meet the envoys once in three months to discuss the problems African nationals experienced.

The envoys were assuaged enough to drop the planned Africa Day boycott. Officials said the minister of state would do an outreach event with African students, along with the embassies concerned, each quarter to reassure them of their safety. But African outrage did not subside. The Association of African Students (ASA) in India scheduled a demonstration in the capital today (May 31) to “get justice and help prevent more tears”.

The official response was too little and too late. Prime Minister Narendra Modi failed to deplore the violence. Sushma Swaraj erred in leaving it to VK Singh, who, as a former Army chief, is no credible guarantor of human rights, to interact with the African envoys. Singh used the opportunity to settle scores with his pet aversion, the non-complaisant media.

Last Thursday, six Africans were attacked with sticks and cricket bats in a Delhi suburb. The victims included a Nigerian priest attached to a local church, a Ugandan woman who runs a salon and a Cameroonian businessman who was in the city for a surgery.

The priest said this was the third time he was attacked. This suggests he may have been targeted on religious grounds.

However, some local residents said there was resentment over the Africans playing loud music.

The police met residents’ association members and asked them not to misbehave with foreigners living in the area. They also met representatives of the Africans and advised them not to play loud music at night.

The Delhi incidents are a manifestation of the deep-rooted prejudice in the society, which the authorities refuse to acknowledge. African nationals are stereotyped as fraudsters and drug addicts. Racist epithets are hurled at them.

Typical of the authorities’ insensitivity to racism is Tourism and Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma’s comment that the Delhi lynching was unfortunate but “even Africa is not safe”. To prove the point, he said when he went to South Africa he was not allowed to go for walks for reasons of security.

In February, a Tanzanian woman was attacked in the city of Bangalore following a road accident. One of the men held in connection with the incident was a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Two years ago Somnath Bharti, Minister in the Aam Admi Party government of Delhi state, personally led a raid on a house occupied by Ugandans accusing them of drug addiction and prostitution.

The first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had instituted a scholarship scheme to enable young Africans to study in India. Graduates of Indian universities occupied important positions when their countries became free. Many of them had experienced discrimination on the campuses but did not encounter violence.

The ICCR still offers several hundred scholarships to African students. With private universities attracting paying students in large numbers, many cities now have hundreds of African students. Complaints of discrimination are common.

Racism in India is an extension of the centuries-old exclusionary caste system. The demand for fair brides in matrimonial advertisements bear out the ingrained colour prejudice. White foreigners rarely encounter hostility.

The current spurt in racist attacks coincides with the increasing incidence of violence against Dalits, Adivasis and minorities in the wake of the rise of the Hindutva ideology, predicated on the concept of Us and Them. People from the northeastern states, who constitute a racial minority, have come under attack in Delhi and Bangalore in the recent past.

Modi, who played host to 41 African heads of state and governments in New Delhi last year, is due to visit South Africa and Mozambique this year. He must think of some clean-up job at home before that.

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 The author is a political analyst of reckoning

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