Racist attacks on Africans in India are not exactly new but the manner in which events have unfolded over the past week show a serious rot that needs to be addressed comprehensively. Otherwise, we risk damage to our civility and economy. On the eve of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second anniversary in power, which also coincided with a cultural event to mark Africa Day, the continent’s envoys sent a grim, collective reminder seeking to postpone the event after a Congolese student, Masunda Kitada Oliver, was beaten to death by an unruly mob in Delhi . They eventually did attend the event, but their message was clear. What’s more, they threatened to stop sending new students to India. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s quick promise of security to African nationals in India was at best a band-aid, because the wounds run deep. There has been a backlash against Indians in Congo, taking matters from bad to worse.
Much has happened to strengthen an increasingly prevalent perception that Indians are racist. Much is at stake for India and it cannot treat the safety of Africans as just a law and order issue. What is needed is an outreach to India’s own citizens. The tourism ministry tried to make Indians sensitive to foreign tourists with a series of advertisements on the theme of “Atithi Devo Bhava” (Treat the guest like a god). It is time to do something similar to prevent commonplace racism that seems to have ebbed in the formerly imperial countries but sadly persists in India. Ironically, this is the land of Mahatma Gandhi , whose politics to free India was shaped in a struggle against racism in South Africa.
It is important for India to court Africa beyond the razzmatazz of the India-Africa Forum Summit that we witnessed last year. Africa is today a continent on the move. Democracy and economic reform in many African countries are throwing up opportunities for India. Indian entrepreneurs including public sector giants are shaping businesses in Africa while Indian teachers are at work in the continent, shaping minds. African students bring in valuable foreign exchange through a growing number of private universities in India. India’s soft power is most visible in education and cinema. As a leader of the Non Aligned Movement, India was once considered the voice for Africa. It is time to revive that spirit. What we need most of all is a campaign to tell Indians not to fall for stereotyped and xenophobic ideas about Africa and Africans. This job is not just for the External Affairs Ministry but also for the Home Ministry to take up in coordination with other departments. The North Block and the South Block need to talk to each other on this.