Attack on African nationals: Terming racist assaults as 'petty crimes' can do more harm than good

As the government of India tries to contain the damage caused by the attacks on Nigerian students in Greater Noida, it needs to draw some lessons from the Australian government's handling of the attacks on Indian students. There are several parallels in the violent attacks on African nationals in India and the violent attacks on Indians studying in Australia almost a decade ago. India-Australia relations had gone into a freeze for over a year as a result of the violent incidents till the Australian government undertook a series of measures to ensure the safety of Indians.

The Modi government has been embarrassed by the statement of the 43 African envoys based in Delhi. Describing the attacks as "xenophobic and racial in nature", the envoys have threatened to report the crimes to the African Union Commission and seek an independent investigation by the United Nations Human rights Commission.

Nigerian students were the target of two attacks in Greater Noida in March. The first incident saw a mob attacking some Nigerians accusing them of killing a teenager while in the second incident, which took place two days after it, two Nigerians were brutally assaulted at a local mall for no obvious reason. There were reports that the mob which raided the Nigerian students’ apartment had also accused the Nigerians of "cannibalism".

The unprecedented and strongly-worded statement was issued by the Dean of the African diplomatic missions in India and Ambassador of Eritrea, Alem Woldemariam on behalf of the African missions. The African envoys said that outstanding and unresolved cases against Africans were not sufficiently condemned by Indian authorities, and added their conclusion that "no known, sufficient and visible deterring measures were taken" by the Indian government.

 Attack on African nationals: Terming racist assaults as petty crimes can do more harm than good

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

Terming the envoys statement as “unfortunate”, the external affairs ministry's response detailed the measures taken by GOI such as filing FIR and local authorities taking measures to strengthen safety and security of Africans nationals. But the ministry continued to address the violence against Africans as isolated criminal acts, stating that "strong Indian institutions are adequate to deal with aberrations that represent acts of a few criminals”.

Delhi has a sizeable population of resident Africans, many of whom are students. Some are here for medical treatment while some include small entrepreneurs and a few who have overstayed their visas. Africans have often complained of discrimination and racial abuse on the streets, but the government is loathed to accept that the attacks are racial in nature. Last year, when a Congolese national was killed in New Delhi, the Ministry of External Affairs had to undertake urgent damage control measures after some African envoys threatened to boycott the Ministry's Africa Day celebrations.

Australia with its easier visa conditions had become a favoured destination for Indian students till 2009 when a number of attacks on Indian students took place in Melbourne and other cities. The Australian federal government and the provincial government in Victoria where most of the attacks had taken place were initially slow to react. The Melbourne police chief's description of the attacks as petty crimes, refusing to accept their racial nature, raised a media firestorm in India.

As the attacks continued, the Australian government was forced to react; it retrieved a bad situation by taking a series of visible measures to improve relations. There were several lacunae in the Australian foreign education system that the Australian government fixed.

Many Indian students were admitted in vocational courses or in institutes that were essentially teaching shops or coaching institutes and most of them worked illegally. Indian students tended to work late hours for the extra money and lived in cheaper accommodation in areas that were not well policed.

The Australian government closed down the dodgy educational institutes and found ways to redress the grievances of foreign students. Educational institutions with foreign students were directed to help students find appropriate accommodation closer to their institutes while better policing with regular contact with Indian student associations helped build up a sense of security among the students. A process of counselling of students planning to go to Australia was also undertaken in India. As several ministers visited India, the concerted action had the impact of restoring the bilateral ties.

Treating the assaults on Africans as “actions of a few criminals” is unlikely to assuage the African community at a time when the government has undertaken a major programme to reach out to African countries following the India-Africa Forum Summit in 2015. The envoys' statement spells out their dissatisfaction with the government response. The government needs to find ways to dispel the impression that it has not done enough.

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Updated Date: Apr 05, 2017 07:46:56 IST