A country in damage control is not a pretty sight. The debate in India about recent attacks on Africans shows up both our governments’ failings and the country’s cultural anxieties at once. It betrays social assumptions about colour, reveals the mental maps of hierarchy that we instinctively operate with and the instrumentalist frame through which Indians view Africa. Looking at the way the NDA government has handled the situation so far, it also underlines the role leaders can play in nurturing public attitudes – a sphere where India’s post-colonial past has much to teach us.
There are a few things we learned about India following the recent attacks. There is a now a greater consensus, even among scholars who are usually reluctant to draw dramatic conclusions, that a significant proportion of Indians do sport racist attitudes. The lived experience of Africans provides ample witness: from being called demeaning names, to being explicitly told they are not wanted, to a refusal to sit alongside them in public transport, Africans endure hostility and outright disregard on a daily basis in India.
Sociologist Dipankar Gupta said this week that part of this stemmed from us identifying with Europeans, assuming that we are Aryans while being troubled about having a skin colour that is somewhere between white, black and oriental. Attitudes to Africans also arguably draws on a cultural instinct of conflating dark skin with ‘low caste’ status and when you have commercial advertisements on TV usually representing the idiot in narratives as being dark or fat or both, it is easy to see why Indians don’t display the ingratiating curiosity about black people the way they do about white tourists. Indian men are known to walk up to white women at tourist spots and demand selfies with them; it’s anybody guess if black women are similarly asked. Cultural products reinforce these attitudes. The popular animated comic series ‘Chhota Bheem’, for instance, has a fair-skinned, cherubic hero who is pitted against a fat, dark-skinned kid named ‘Kalia’ who is described as being jealous of Bheem and “tries to land him in trouble”.
Politics of Colour
Political leaders want to paper over these trends. BJP representatives, keen on mounting a civilisational defence, angrily insist on TV that racism is not a motivation in the attacks; minister VK Singh dismisses the attacks as a “minor scuffle” and blamed the media. The more level-headed external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj was more alert to the implications and exhorted Indians to openly express their love for Africans. This approach stems from the fact that India stands to lose a lot if loses goodwill in Africa. India’s trade with the continent is worth about $72 billion, it gets about 24 percent of its crude oil requirements from Africa, a lot of Indian private companies are invested there in sectors including agriculture, renewable energy, pharmaceuticals, automobiles, telecommunications and engineering goods. India also casts a wary eye at China’s ambitions in Africa; its trade with the continent was worth $198.5 billion in 2012, nearly twice as that of the US at $99.8 billion.
With around 40,000 Africans studying and working here, India can hardly afford the perception that it is a racist country. Changing Indian public attitudes to Africans ought to therefore be the Modi government’s top priority. Two approaches may be in order: One is to grasp how India got close to Africa in the first place. A large part of the credit goes to Jawaharlal Nehru, even though PM Narendra Modi made it a point not to mention him in the India-Africa Forum Summit speech last year (even as seven African envoys specifically praised India’s first prime minister). By consistently championing national liberation struggles, anti-apartheid movements and Afro-Asian solidarity in the heyday Non-Aligned Movement, Nehru socialised Indians to African leaders and their causes while setting the stage for India to emerge as a reliable and economical source of training, expertise and technology for developing African nations. Ajay Kumar Dubey, an academic at JNU, reminds us that Nehru, among other things, rejected requests for a meeting with Benito Mussolini after Italy invaded Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). Between 1946 and 1962 the UN General Assembly passed 26 resolutions against racial discrimination in Africa which were “activated” by India. So much so that in 1976 a special session of the UN Committee against Apartheid was to pay a special tribute to India for its “consistent cooperation”. It is that kind of activism that helped shape the extensive cooperation that India has now where African students, government officials and professionals get Indian training and technical assistance while New Delhi is able to coordinate positions with African nations in multilateral forums.
Likewise, the Modi government ought to seek out opportunities where African concerns are advanced internationally, which can add to India’s credibility in the continent and challenge racial biases at home. And India’s public understanding of Africa needs to change quickly; its representation has to move beyond scenery, wildlife and exotic tribes which is what we get from private television programming. Africa has 54 countries; the Indian government has to take it upon itself to acquaint audiences with a textured, changing, and fast-growing continent, through films, documentary, intellectual exchanges and art forms. This is one cultural project that Indian liberals and conservatives can both agree on.
Lastly, this project can only succeed if there is a genuine embrace of diversity in India. A party or a government that defines national and personal identity in narrow, exclusive terms, has a habit of stigmatising minorities and does not countenance individual choices is not in a position to substantively embrace another diverse continent like Africa. Diplomacy may be a transactional art but few would argue against authenticity as a building block of soft power. Failing to do so is to let ties run on the energy of events and summitry, which can only go so far. Really repairing ties with Africa (and diplomatically thriving in an interdependent world) may depend on fixing India’s soul.
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