Attacks on African nationals: Racist slur could jeopardise relations, impact Indian industry

India’s push to rekindle its relations with African countries has suffered a heavy blow with recent incidents of violence against Nigerians living in India. But this, not the first time that African students have been at the receiving end of uninformed mob ire. Last year there were similar attacks and assurances of protection were given by the government. Repeated incidents can take a toll on diplomatic relations.

When the Indian envoy to Nigeria, Nagabushana Reddy was summoned, Olushola Enkanolaiye, the Permanent Secretary at the Nigerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, commented on the recurrent attacks. “This is not the first time… Nigerians have suffered similar attacks in the past," Enikanolaiye was quoted as saying by the Nigerian press.

 Attacks on African nationals: Racist slur could jeopardise relations, impact Indian industry

The racist attacks on African nationals can jeopardise latest strives in India-Africa relations

This time the violence was in Uttar Pradesh. Earlier, incidents like this could be quickly blamed on the breakdown of law and order under Akhilesh Yadav’s rule. Now it has happened within days of brand new Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath taking over the administration with promises to restore the rule of law in UP.

Delhi is scrambling to contain the damage. Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj has promised an impartial enquiry and quick action while condemning the attacks. Arrests have been made, five persons booked and the Ministry of External Affairs is making reassuring statements promising better protection of African nationals.

But in an increasingly violent society, there is only so much the law enforcers can do. Violence against Africans, vigilante groups springing up across the country to take on anyone going against the beliefs and practices of the majority community is becoming a major problem here. Muslims, Christians, as well as people from the northeastern parts of the country, regularly face attacks. Add to this the ignorance about Africa, the deeply ingrained prejudices about colour and there is a heady mix.

“The media has created stereotyped images of Africans. They appear in the media as criminals, drug dealers, cheats as well as violent,” Ajay Dubey the head of African studies in JNU said. “This must change. There should be law at par with the Schedule Caste, Schedule Tribe act to respond to racism-inspired crimes,” he added.

Unfortunately, this has happened just when India-Africa ties are poised to take off, following the 2015 summit in Delhi. African leaders attended the mega outreach effort initiated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. All countries were represented and over 40 heads of states were personally present.

As of today, India has extended a credit line of $1.5 billion dollars to African countries. There are Indian investments roughly worth $40 billion in Africa. Private Indian companies are into setting up car manufacturing units, while the government is on to hydel projects and water management systems. E-learning is a big Indian contribution.

The pan-African network covered 11 countries initially while the second phase added 12 more. The e-network scheme connects India with all the African Union states via satellite and fibre optic networks for sharing India’s expertise in education and health. Many hospitals in far-flung areas of Africa often hold consultations on cases with major hospitals in India. With the Africa Development Bank meeting scheduled for later this year, the frequency of high-level visits has multiplied. This year alone, four African leaders have visited India. Last year, the president, vice president and prime minister all visited different African countries. “This kind of intensity in relations have not been seen before,” a senior official who did not wish to be identified said. Scholarships for African students have gone up dramatically in the recent years. India-Africa two-way trade is over $100 billion and growing.

However, the MEA can do only this much to reassure the African diplomatic community who are outraged at the rampant attacks on their youth. The face of Africa in India are mainly students and young people. The diplomats are there but they live in a cocoon with little exposure to the ordinary people of the country.

Many of the African students are here on scholarships extended to them by the Indian government, through its Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) Programme. Getting youngsters to study in India is a part of the government’s plan to build goodwill for India among future leaders of the African continent. ITEC has been one of India’s most successful schemes and helped to build India’s image among other developing nations.

But the blowback from what many young African students regard as racist attacks is enormous. Those who have experienced the violence will return home with stories of Indian racism. Ironically, it was an Indian, Mahatma Gandhi, who raised his voice against racism way back in South Africa. That regard for India remains with the older generation of leaders. Mahatma Gandhi influenced Africa’s iconic freedom fighter Nelson Mandela while Jawaharlal Nehru, as one of the leaders of the anti-imperialist, non-aligned movement, was well-known. In fact, during the third India-Africa Summit, held in new Delhi in 2015, when the current BJP regime bypassed the contribution of Nehru to fostering India, several African leaders poured fulsome praise on Nehru’s contribution to fostering ties with African nations. For the last thirty years or so, as African countries got enmeshed in their own wars, India’s relations remained mainly on paper.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the African leaders during the India Africa Forum Summit, in New Delhi on October 28, 2015. Image Courtesy: Ministry of External Affairs

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the African leaders during the India-Africa Forum Summit, in New Delhi on October 28, 2015. Image Courtesy: Ministry of External Affairs

However, as news of China’s rapid footprints in the continent grew, not just India but the rest of the world also woke up to Africa. China with its rapacious hunger for energy and raw materials began wooing African nations with its chequebook diplomacy. The UPA began the India-Africa forum on a modest scale, with Manmohan Singh hosting African leaders in 2008. This was followed by another forum summit in Ethiopia in 2012.

The idea of the forum was borrowed from China when Beijing hosted 48 African leaders in 2006.The US, India and EU have followed China’s example of major gatherings of the continent’s power wielders. However, unlike Manmohan Singh, when Modi decided to host the Summit in 2015, it was a mega event with invitations going out to all the 54 African nations.

The carefully planned diplomatic outreach to African nations could stumble because of the foolish behaviour of unruly mobs. The overall good will India has generated in the African continent could well disappear if violence against Africans continues. Stringent action against the culprits could be a good starting point to improve India’s image.

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Updated Date: Apr 02, 2017 16:06:13 IST