Another racist attack: India must go beyond platitudes; its reputation is at stake

The racism debate is back again. MK Olivier, a Congolese national, was killed in the Vasant Kunj area of Delhi last week over a minor tiff. As this piece is being written, there’s news that Indian establishments in Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, have been attacked by local goons. During the Africa Day celebration in Delhi, envoys from the continent made a pointed mention to continuing racial prejudice in India against Africans. After similar incidents in Bengaluru, Goa, Hyderabad and other parts of the country over last many years, the question is whether we should even be discussing whether we are racists any longer.

We are racists. If that appears too sweeping, then let’s say we have too many people around us who are. Our action or the lack of it after every such attack speaks louder than our words. The argument that Olivier was killed by criminal elements and this could happen to anyone does not wash anymore. When students from African countries say they are more likely to be attacked than others during unpleasant arguments, there’s no reason to disbelieve them. That has been the case with students from the North East too. They are not received with the same sense of awe as those from European countries or with specific physical features. Yes, we are selectively racist.

 Another racist attack: India must go beyond platitudes; its reputation is at stake

Representational image. Reuters

There’s little point in getting into why we are so. Born into societies where discrimination of all kinds is institutionalised in the form of social hierarchies, this is in some ways a genetic flaw. We either look up to people or look down upon them. Education and exposure do not do much to change our attitude. If it’s an outsider, then there’s mental judgment whether he is superior or inferior to us. The complexion of the person concerned plays a role here, as does the perceived notion of the quality of their social life. African students feel they are generally perceived as frauds and unruly people by locals.

Deep-rooted biases don’t go away easily. But the Indian establishment should wake up quickly to the potential damage from it. While African students shunning India as the favoured destination for higher and technical education could be among the immediate ones, the long-term damage could be in the form of deep ruptures in the process of engagement between India and the African countries. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has started engaging the later with a sense of urgency with a view to deepening trade and economic ties. He also needs them on his side to take on rich countries on several issues on the global platform, the most important of them being the WTO talks and climate change negotiations.

A country vying to establish itself in the global leadership space can hardly afford to ignore cases of alleged racism at home. Leaders of African countries raised the issue with great passion on Thursday. The envoys and governments of the African countries have to face public opinion at home too. Unless the issue is addressed with seriousness by the government the fallout may be unpleasant. So India, even if it does not accept the existence of racism, has to treat the attacks on students as cases of that nature.

The solution does not lie in policing only. While it inspires confidence among outsiders, it does not do much to sensitise the other side. The solution is perhaps more deeper inter-community interaction to dispel the element of distrust. This has to be carried out rigorously as a joint effort between the government and the police. India cannot sit silent and wait for the trouble to pass over all the time. It has a responsibility towards foreigners staying here.

Updated Date: May 27, 2016 12:04:45 IST