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Mixed messages

The incident caused serious concerns within diplomatic circles, as African envoys threatened to boycott the Indian government's Africa Day celebrations last week.

 "The Group of African Heads of Mission has met and deliberated extensively on this latest incidence in the series of attacks to which members of the African community have been subjected to in the last several years,” Eritrean Ambassador Alem Tsehage Woldemariam, who is also dean of the Group of African Heads of Mission, said in a statement. 

“They strongly condemn the brutal killing of this African and calls on the Indian government to take concrete steps to guarantee the safety and security of Africans in India.” But they eventually attended the function after assurances from the Indian government of stern action against the perpetrators and safety for their citizens.

 However, on the night of May 26, at least four African nationals were attacked in four separate incidents, all within a one-kilometer radius. Despite prior assurances to African missions, the Centre’s response to this latest spate of incidents has been bemusing. Minister of State of External Affairs VK Singh casually dismissed the attacks on African nationals as a “minor scuffle” on Twitter. 

What’s worse, he somehow found a way to blame the media for reporting on the issue. “Had a detailed discussion with Delhi Police and found that media blowing up minor scuffle as an attack on African nationals in Rajpur Khud,” said Singh. “Why is media doing this? As responsible citizens, let us question them and their motives.” As the Centre’s point man in dealing with distressed African students, who took out a protest against racial bigotry in the national capital on Monday, this is no way to respond.

 There is a reason why the Eritrean Ambassador asked the Indian government to “take urgent steps to guarantee the safety of Africans in India including appropriate programmes of public awareness that will address the problem of racism and Afro-phobia in India”. As the Centre’s point man, it’s not Singh’s job to pass casual remarks without a thorough police investigation. What’s worse, Singh is not the first one in his cabinet to commit such a faux pas. 

Last Friday, Union Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma said the killing of the Congolese man was unfortunate, but "even Africa is not safe". Why is that even germane to the problem of racial bigotry and the violence in India? Maintaining the External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s line that incidents like this are no good for India's image, Sharma added, "India is a large country and such incidents will give a bad name to India."

 Regret for the incident should be expressed not because it gives India “a bad name”, but because murder and the racial bigotry associated with it is unacceptable. The effort here is to manage optics rather than address the symptoms of racial bigotry. In the Congolese national’s case, police said that the incident was a dispute over the hiring of an auto rickshaw. The victim’s friend, however, said that it was a clear hate crime, with racial epithets repeatedly invoked.

 Even in the attack against subsequent attacks against African nationals, mobs reportedly shouted racial slurs and chanted “Go back to Africa”. But the police’s inability to acknowledge the problem even before completing its investigation does not bode well for the victims. A society must acknowledge the problem before it can deal with it. Sweeping it under the carpet to merely manage its “image” can never be the solution.   
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