The five-day India-Africa Summit held in New Delhi in October 2015 seemed to have paved the way to both strengthen and push the boundaries of the relationship between India and countries in Africa. Subsequently, New Delhi announced a doubling of India’s assistance to African states, through a $10 billion loan concession and $600 million in terms of grant assistance.
Viewed as the cementing of long standing friendships between the two continents, an attempt to take this forward crystallized in the form of the May 2016 Africa Day Celebrations in New Delhi with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. However, in the wake of attacks against African nationals in the country and the murder of Masonga Kitanda Olivier, a 23-year-old Congolese French teacher, 42 countries threatened to boycott the event, declaring that they were in mourning.
“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,” said Alem Tsehage Woldemariam, ambassador of Eritrea, when asked about the death. A strong letter demanding improved safety measures was sent to the Indian Government by envoys. The Association of African Students of India and scores of individual African students had intended to hold an anti-racism rally to condemn the act and bring to light the issue of discrimination that they faced, though the rally was put on hold subsequently.
New Delhi has been quick to react to this situation. Five arrests have been made in the wake of Olivier’s death, as well as some instances of assault that took place the subsequent week. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has assured the victim’s family a speedy trial and harsh punishment to the perpetrators of the crime, and a sensitization program has been launched to address larger concerns regarding violent outbreaks.
Some students in New Delhi have met with city officials in order address concerns and allay fears. However, these reactions can be read as defensive, in the context of India’s need to maintain diplomatic relations and to prevent the incidents in affecting its foreign policy.
For instance, President Pranab Mukherjee declared in his public statement that it was important to remember India’s long-standing ties with African states and prevent these from being jeopardized, while trying to put forward assurances that there is no need for African students to fear for their safety. Sushma Swaraj, in her own statement, expressed her regret and sympathies as a mother, but stressed the importance to not view this as a premeditated racial crime. She appeared keen to divorce racist intent from the case and instead pointed out the fact that the violence affected Indians as well, going so far as to declare that Indians are incapable of vociferous racism.
It is important to regard these reactions in the context of the numerous instances of victimization of Africans in India. In the same week following Olivier’s death, two other major instances of violence were reported. In Hyderabad, a 23-year-old male Nigerian student was beaten up with a rod and hospitalized after a tiff over a parking lot. In the south Delhi area, three separate attacks took place, when a group of men with bats and rods launched allegedly unprovoked attacks on nine African nationals, four men, four women and a boy.
In February, on the streets of Bengaluru, a 21-year-old Tanzanian woman was pulled out of her car, stripped down, and beaten up as a mob assumed she was part of an earlier incident, where a Sudanese man had run over a local woman. This woman was allegedly pushed out of the bus when she tried to escape the mob and her car was torched in the presence of the police.
The incidents did not just begin in 2016. In March 2015, men from Ivory coast were targeted in northeast Bengaluru where locals reportedly found the African community to be a “nuisance.” A mob of over 20 people pelted stones and beer bottles at African students on passing vehicles; there were also the assault of a man on a motorbike as well as of four students in a car, which passed the location of the previous attack soon after.
In September 2014, three male students from Gabon and Burkina Faso were attacked by a mob at a Delhi metro station for allegedly cat-calling women – an allegation they denied. In January 2014, Ugandan women were molested during a raid on “drug and prostitution rackets” in Delhi, led by the Aam Aadmi Party’s cabinet minister, Somnath Bharti. In December 2013, a 36-year-old Nigerian male, Obodo Uzoma Simeon, was hacked to death in Goa – supposedly due to (yet unproven) connections with drug peddling. In April 2013, Yannick Nihangaza from Burundi was attacked by seven men in Punjab, hospitalized and went into a coma, from which he recovered a few months later.
This list is not exhaustive and, in several cases, definitive arrests were not made; some incidents were passed off as minor and nonchalant statements were made by the authorities. Moreover, while the most disturbing incidents get reported, several smaller instances of daily racism continue to go unreported. Students endure racial slurs on the street, refusal from landlords to grant accommodation, and some African students have even said that they are feared by locals and constantly stereotyped. Instances like the above have added to their sense of insecurity.
Defensive reactions by the Indian government, as well as the police force, that underplay any accusations of xenophobia will not help address such insecurities. The strategy adopted seems to be geared more towards immediate appeasement rather than long-term redress. The stance itself seems contradictory–if the government firmly believed that there was no racial intent, then the emphasis on sensitization programs, as opposed to merely pumping up security, seems unwarranted.
It appears as though the government as well as law enforcement officials do recognize the racial basis, but are unwilling to acknowledge it–either due to a misplaced intent to suppress panic among the African nationals, or to nip a diplomatic nightmare in the bud. This is not, however, a problem that can disappear overnight.
The promises of support and assurances of security can only be carried forward effectively if the government legitimizes the fears of the African student community in India. Even if the incidents are as isolated as the public statements seem to suggest, it does not take away from the growing unease that the community is experiencing.
As long as the government shies away from acknowledging even a smidgen of the problem of xenophobia, it runs the risk of developing severely ineffective policies of remediation and settling into complacency while the situation escalates. Already there have been instances of mob retaliation against Indians in Congo. If the government truly wishes to make the African community feel welcome and safe once more, perhaps it needs to act the way it would expect other governments to act when Indians are attacked abroad.