We Indians may or may not be racist, but most of us are certainly ignorant fools. The solution to the frequent attacks on African nationals and those from North East India is not policing, but fighting the silly notions about them that many locals carry.
Here’s a snatch of conversation with a regular autorickshaw driver on way to office. Asked what he makes of the attack on Nigerians in Noida, he replies he finds nothing wrong with it. Why? You ask and get a bizarre answer.
"The habashis (the generic name given to all Africans among a section of people) eat people. Once, after a ride from Delhi, one of them asked me to come to his third-storey flat to collect the fare. I had heard from my friends about body parts of men and women being found in the refrigerators in the flats of habashis. So, I fled. Since then, I have stopped giving them a ride on my auto.”
Habashis, for those not in the know, are Abyssinians who played a role in the medieval political history of India. In the 13th century, jealous of the rise of Raziya, the first female monarch of Delhi, the members of the ruling Mameluk family spread rumours of her romantic relationship with Jamal Yakut, an Ethiopian courtier.
Yakut was killed and Raziya’s rule came to an end soon as a fallout of the court intrigue. Malik Sarwar, the ruler of Jaunpur in the early 15th century, was a habashi too. As was Malik Ambar of Ahmadnagar in the early 17th century and Saif-ud-din Firoz Shah of Bengal in the late 15th century. There were others too, like many foreigners who entered the country and made it their home.
But for some reason habashis, now extended to mean everyone from African countries, have come to be identified with something sinister in the public imagination. The autorickshaw driver is not the only one to have such a negative impression of the Africans. All those attacking them recently carry the same toxic notions about them.
They are believed to be drug peddlers, internet fraudsters and generally unruly besides being involved in sex trade. The absurd stereotyping blanks out the fact that most of them are good students from good families, pursuing studies in reputed universities in India.
The incident in Greater Noida should not be considered an isolated one. There have been similar incidents in Bangalore and in the Capital as well. Only a couple of years ago, Delhi’s then law minister Somnath Bharti had, during a raid at Khirkee Extension, allegedly called Nigerians 'criminals involved in prostitution and drug-running rackets.' With the attitude towards all Africans remaining similar in a large section of Indians, one can expect Noida-type incidents to surface again and again.
Strong policing is fine but it is abnormal when foreigners in India have to stay in a state of constant tension with locals. The police can step in when situations escalate and violence takes place. But such interventions can only be periodic.
Permanent peace requires mutual understanding and seamless acceptance of each other, by both sides. The biggest measure in this direction could be the setting up of a mechanism to facilitate an interaction between the locals and the outsiders.
Such a mechanism would not only dispel the horrible notions both have of each other, more specifically of the hosts about the guests, it will also remove cultural barriers that make them feel distinct from each other.
For example, if the likes of the autorickshaw driver mentioned above are made to interact closely with African students, it is likely that they would transmit a positive impression about the latter among their ilk. Such people are not inherently racist by character, but rather ignorant, who believe and spread spurious information.
The attack on African nationals is a matter with grave ramifications, the most important being the reputation of the country. The government would be better placed if it focused on facilitating an interaction among both, rather than emphasising on policing alone.
Updated Date: Mar 30, 2017 18:56 PM