Attack on Africans: Envoys show the mirror to what India has become | opinion | Hindustan Times
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Attack on Africans: Envoys show the mirror to what India has become

Regrettably, India is also known for breakdown in the rule of law. It is known for the lynching of people on the mere suspicion of possessing beef, the relentless targeting of Muslims by political leaders, a social media sphere steeped in hate speech and misogyny.

opinion Updated: May 30, 2017 16:16 IST

In the week that The Economist published a widely-read column with the title “Is China challenging the United States for global leadership”, African diplomats in India issued a joint statement expressing their indignation with Delhi for not sufficiently condemning recent “xenophobic and racist” attacks on Africans.

The contrast between China looking to extend its influence in the world in the age of Trump and diplomats of a continent collectively censuring an emerging power is a reminder that India’s slide into illiberalism is not only fanning social unrest within the country but its effects are now beginning to wash ashore on India’s prospects abroad and affect its stature in the world.

The Indian government has understandably downplayed the intensity of the envoys’ views. The ministry of external affairs first termed it “unfortunate” and minister Sushma Swaraj subsequently called it “unfortunate, painful and surprising”. The Narendra Modi government may push this off news cycle soon but the implications are far-reaching.

To begin with, India has fallen in the estimate of Africa in ways that was unimaginable a couple of decades ago. To recall, India was a country Africa looked up to during the Cold War for its support to anti-colonial movements, the fight against apartheid; it was a source of bureaucratic and technological expertise which African countries found helpful in their development journey. India’s moral leadership and substantive cooperation helped it to emerge as a leader of G-77 nations and developing countries often looked to Delhi for steer on dealing with global institutions and their agendas.

The mood has now perceptibly changed. In their statement, African nations agreed to take further action including the call for an independent investigation into attacks on their citizens in India by the UN Human Rights Council and other human rights bodies and also to report the matter to the African Union Commission. That the envoys invoked the Human Rights Council, knowing fully well that India dislikes the body owing to its potential for hosting difficult discussions on Kashmir, points to their depth of outrage. Indian officials may contend that India-Africa ties remain robust as ever –in 2015, Delhi announced a $10 billion concessional credit to Africa, a $600 million grant plus 50,000 scholarships over five years.

Notwithstanding old linkages, it does not take long for perceptions to change. We have seen how Donald Trump has changed the world’s perceptions of the United States in a couple of months with his isolationist, majoritarian nationalism – America is no longer seen as the open country it used to be because the public sphere has turned toxic and because Trump has actively undermined the liberal tenor of American society. America’s influence may wane over the next four years and other countries will adjust their geopolitics while culture wars in the US take time to resolve themselves.

Police hold a confidence-building meeting with Africans at The Alstonia Apartments in Greater Noida. (Virendra Singh Gosain/HT Photo)

Likewise, India’s ties will Africa are poised for decline. India can no longer gloat that Africans view it more favourably than China owing to the conditionalities the latter imposes with its investments. Hate crimes register with just the same finality in societies as the inequality embedded in the fine print of project contracts. Tunku Varadarajan has written that an immediate consequence of the racist attacks “will be a drastic fall in support from African nations for India’s ongoing bid for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council”. The effects will be felt elsewhere too. Just as the murder of Srinivas Kuchibotla has seen a decline in the number of Indian students applying for US universities, we can anticipate a dip in the number of African students willing to study in India. Medical tourism may also take a hit. Around 20,000 Nigerians visited India in 2015 for medical reasons. That could change too as China is a key competitor in the sector; it is for instance, planning to set up a “special economic zone for medical tourism” in Hainan province within five years.

Frankly, the issue of racial attacks on Africans should not be framed in transactional terms; it is not about what it will cost us but about what India wants to be known for. Central to India’s self-definition is the fact that it is the world’s largest democracy. This is not just an empty slogan but about being admired the world over for demonstrating that communities with different histories, languages, beliefs and conceptions of sovereignty can come together as a nation-state. That individuals can be bounded by a constitution that guarantees freedoms and representation and welded together by political rhetoric that socialises citizens into the values and discourses of rights, diversity, pluralism and tolerance. Post-colonial societies with their arbitrary division of boundaries imposed by European rulers were not supposed to get along – they were supposed to breakup; India bucked the trend with its unflinching assent to democratic rhetoric, practices and institutions, however flawed and hypocritical it was in practice, showing that a continent-size diverse nation can get along – and in fact it was democracy that set the stage for its intellectual depth and prosperity. That was the source of India’s brand and the respect it secured abroad.

Regrettably, no longer. India is now known for Talibanising at the rate of knots, for the lynching of people on the mere suspicion of possessing beef, the relentless targeting of Muslims by political leaders and destruction of their livelihoods through government regulation, a social media sphere steeped in hate speech and misogyny, the silencing of free speech in universities through brazen thuggery, the strictures on content of movies and books and the freelance policing of personal relationships by right-wing groups. This is nothing short of a widespread breakdown in the rule of law.

There are three takeaways from the African envoy’s statement for the Modi government. The BJP must realise that its strategy of polarising communities may be politically beneficial to it but it does not stop where one wishes it to. Nurturing an ecology of hate against Muslims is bound to harden into a social reflex that is intolerant of others. With beliefs in India about dark-skinned people being what they are it is no wonder that a charged social climate leads to frenzied attacks on Africans. As noted, the international consequences of such developments are also real. A country deemed unsafe for women, experiencing social turmoil with a poor reputation for policing will not be the country that foreigners will be rushing in to as tourists, students or entrepreneurs.

There is a way out of this though – and the African envoys have pointed to it in their collective statement. They said that they reviewed previous incidents of violence and note that no “known, sufficient and visible deterring measures were taken by the government of India”. They express deep concern that reprehensible events “were not sufficiently condemned by the Indian authorities”. And lastly, they express their “expectations for strong condemnation from the highest political level (both nationally and locally) of the Government of India, as well as expediting legal actions against the perpetrators”.

What the envoys are essentially saying is that political leaders must set the tone for public conversations and that society takes its cues from what those in authority utter. In this respect, the frequency and intensity of the Modi government’s rhetoric against extremism has been nowhere adequate to violence and hate speech that we have seen over the last couple of years. To reiterate, the attacks on Africans are a consequence of the extremism we now see unleashed in India. Stopping the former depends on ending the latter. The BJP is under the impression that it can do cultural reform through vigilante violence while yet upholding the rule of law. It cannot do both and has to choose which option it wants.