The murder of a Congolese youth in Delhi in street altercation points to racial hatred and has come as a big embarrassment for the Indian government. Such attacks have happened in other Indian cities too. It is sad that in the land of Mahatma Gandhi, who had relentlessly fought against racial discrimination in South Africa, African youth, mostly students or job-seekers, are feeling unsafe. They are often labelled as “drug-peddlers” and denied homes on rent
The recent murder of a 29-year-old Congolese youth in New Delhi has angered the entire African continent and brought into focus racism against blacks in India.
Masonda Ketada Olivier, who taught French at a language school in the capital, had hailed an auto-rickshaw. However, three other men staked their claim to it sparking a quarrel. The angry men chased Olivier and bashed his head with a stone.
Following Olivier’s death, the heads of mission of no less than 42 African countries threatened to boycott Africa Day celebration in New Delhi on Thursday, but a hurried damage control exercise by India’s Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj helped in pacifying the diplomats.
“We will also launch a sensitisation program to reiterate that such incidents against foreign nationals embarrass the country” Swaraj tweeted.
And the celebrations were held, but observers felt a sense of deep disappointment and utter futility among the Africans present there.
Alem Tsehage Woldemariam, Ambassador of Eritrea and Dean of the African Group Head of Mission, quipped: “Given the pervading climate of fear and insecurity in Delhi, the African heads of mission are left with little option than to consider recommending to their governments not to send new students to India, unless and until their safety can be guaranteed.”
There was enough basis for Woldemariam’s fear as racist attacks on some of the 30,000 African students now in various parts of India have shown no let-up. Last February, a 21-year-old Tanzanian woman was stripped naked and beaten by a mob in Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore, which touts itself as a cosmopolitan city and the Silicon Valley of the East) after a Sudanese youth ran his car over an Indian.
A few months before that, three African men were beaten up by an unruly crowd in New Delhi after the blacks had objected to being photographed. In January 2015, no less than a minister of the Delhi government raided an area inhabited by Africans alleging that they were selling drugs and operating prostitution rings.
Nigerians had a massive problem in Goa in December 2013 after one of their fellow citizens, 36-year-old Obodo Uzoma Simeon, was hacked to death in the coastal state which calls itself a paradise destination for foreign tourists and ‘Cannes of the East’.
While the Goa police said Simeon was victim of a turf war between Nigerians and locals over drugs, his friends denied this and said he was killed because he was a black, and this was one way of showing the state’s displeasure over the presence of Africans there.
Murders of expatriate Africans may be a rarity, but racial taunts and discrimination against them is a daily occurrence. Janet, who is one of the hundreds of African students to have come to India to study in the absence of good universities back home, said: “Even landlords do not want to rent out flats to us, because they seem to hate blacks. Even in public transport, nobody wants to sit next to us”.
“People in India are racists. They often make comments on the colour of my skin and body. And they stare at me as if I’m an alien,” said Anne (family name withheld for obvious reasons), an engineering student at Delhi’s Sharda University.
Dan, a native of Congo, said: “Friends in college are very good. I have never felt discriminated against but outside the college, things are not the same. We avoid visiting public places because people stare at us… They call us monkeys and make faces”.
A Nigerian, who had come down to Chennai to have his little son treated for a heart ailment in a leading city hospital, regretted that while the doctors and nurses were kind and warm, “I could sense a certain aversion among the general public for my black skin that kind of robbed a bit of the overall goodwill I felt for India”.
Ironical as it may seem, once Mahatma Gandhi fought precisely against this kind of colour prejudice in South Africa after he — an eminent lawyer who went on to become a great freedom fighter and Father of the Nation — was bundled out of a railway carriage because he was brown.
The present-day racial attacks could not have come at a more inappropriate time for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is set to travel to Africa in the next two months as part of his efforts to increase India’s trade with countries in the continent.
As China is having a clear edge over India in Africa, Modi’s task to try and get a bigger slice of the business cake may get all the more difficult, given the kind of repulsiveness that Indians exude towards the black race. Apparently, China has no such issue, and has also been a clever early bird in Africa.
With massive opportunities still available in Africa, India, notwithstanding the belligerent race relations on its soil, will double its assistance to the continent — with $10 billion in concessional loans over the next five years. India has also offered $600 million in grant assistance to African countries for key areas such as healthcare, education, and technology.
Through these massive investments, India hopes to check China’s growing influence in the region, and infrastructure is still a virgin area in most of Africa. So it still has a chance to secure a bigger pie.
“India and Africa have had a close relationship,” Ruchita Beri, a senior associate at New Delhi’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, said. “This relationship has gained momentum in recent years. The Third India-Africa Summit held in New Delhi last year has reaffirmed the partnership”.
But the attacks on Africans in India are going to make things difficult for Modi and his men as they embark on a journey of economic enrichment.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and Seoul Times.
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