African students should not fear for their safety, President Pranab Mukherjee said on Monday as the government took multi-pronged measures to contain a diplomatic disaster over a spate of vicious attacks on Africans living in India.
The President’s remarks at a gathering of Indian envoys complemented steps by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and foreign secretary S Jaishankar to calm the anxiety and anger of Africans over “racism and Afro-phobia” in the country.
“It would be most unfortunate if the people of India were to dilute our long tradition of friendship with the people of Africa and the welcome we have always extended to them in our country. African students in India should have no reason to fear for their safety and security,” Mukherjee said.
The crisis was triggered by the murder of Masonda Ketada Oliver, a 29-year-old from Congo, in an altercation over hiring an autorickshaw in south Delhi’s Vasant Kunj on May 20. This was followed by four separate attacks on Africans in south Delhi’s Rajpur Khurd last week.
Foreign minister Swaraj moved swiftly to reassure African envoys of the safety of their nationals. Foreign secretary Jaishankar tried to calm frayed nerves, telling a group of students that their security is an “article of faith” for the government.
The students raised visa issues, problems in getting accommodation and the need to make police aware of African sensitivities when they deal with them. Jaishankar assured them all help.
Foreign ministry officials received family members of Oliver at the airport and assured a swift trial to punish his assailants. The government will bear the expenses for transporting Oliver’s body — currently kept at a morgue in AIIMS — home.
The government’s crisis management is on overdrive as the 54-nation African bloc is the pivot of India’s plans to expand its international footprint, especially the country’s push for a permanent member’s seat at the United Nations Security Council.
A snowballing diplomatic row could endanger efforts to take ties with Africa to a new high, which includes new partnerships and high-level visits.
“We shall have to create appropriate awareness in the minds of our youngsters who may not know the history, age-old relations with Africa. India has had trading relations with African countries for centuries and each of the 54 countries of Africa has a thriving Indian community doing business,” President Mukherjee said.
He is scheduled to visit Namibia, Ghana and Ivory Coast early next month. Vice-President Hamid Ansari and Prime Minister Narendra Modi too are likely to visit the continent this year.
Incidents of assaults on African nationals in recent years have put ties under strain. Earlier in January, a mob in Bengaluru allegedly dragged a Tanzanian girl out of a car and stripped her. She was travelling with friends, who were assaulted too.