The Centre seems to have finally woken up to the recent spate of attacks on African nationals in the national capital. Union Minister Rajnath Singh on Sunday told Delhi Police to step up patrolling in neighbourhoods that have significant African populations. On the night of May 26, at least four African nationals were attacked in four separate incidents, all within a one-kilometer radius. The Delhi Police soon intervened and registered cases of assault. Attention to the problems faced by African nationals has recently come into the limelight following two separate headline-grabbing incidents. On May 20, a Congolese national was beaten to death by three men after an altercation over the hiring of an auto-rickshaw in the Vasant Kunj area.
Subsequently, on the night of May 25, a 23-year-old Nigerian student was brutally beaten over a parking dispute in Hyderabad, prompting Union External Affair Minister Sushma Swaraj to seek a report from the Telangana government. As discussed in these columns earlier, such incidents highlight the racial and xenophobic underbelly prevalent among Indians. Protests by African heads of mission and their citizens would suggest that these attacks may have been racial in nature.
Meanwhile, the Delhi Police has reiterated that these attacks were “not racial” in nature. "These are all isolated incidents and not planned attacks. There was no element of racism in the attacks. It's not as if there's a public movement against African nationals," Deputy Commissioner of Police (South) Ishwar Singh said. "Had it been planned, the victims would have received major injuries," he added.
Despite the officer's claims, such incidents tend to have a racial or xenophobic undertone to it. Claims by the victims that they faced racial slurs, while being attacked, confirms the prevalence of such an undertone. These attitudes are often triggers for the lawlessness perpetrated on not only African nationals but also Indian citizens appearing to be from the Northeast. Moreover, the scale of violence has got nothing to do with whether these incidents were planned or not. In 2014, Nido Tania, a student from Arunachal, was attacked and killed by a mob of locals in the national capital. The attack was not “planned”, according to the police. But a young boy still lost his life.
The recent spurt of violence against African nationals is not a new phenomenon. In February, a mob in Bengaluru assaulted, stripped and paraded a 21-year-old Tanzanian student, in addition to setting fire to her car. In our column on May 26, we described the horror and the repercussions of such collective mob attacks. “By all accounts, her only fault was that she happened to pass through the same neighbourhood, where an hour before, a Sudanese student had run over and killed a resident.
The Tanzanian woman became a target only because she belonged to the same race as the Sudanese driver. Meanwhile, the local police initially reacted in a manner that is all too familiar. Instead of registering the victim’s complaint, the police asked her to come back only when she had the name of the Sudanese driver. What was particularly frightening about this incident was how the collective mob attacked a helpless woman based on her skin tone. In India, one even witnesses instances of racially-motivated collective mob action. Back in 2014, there was a frightening mob attack on three black men at a metro station in Delhi for allegedly misbehaving with women. The men were forced to climb up on top of a station police booth as the baying mob thrashed at them with sticks and tried to pull them down.
The crowd forced its way into the empty police booth to try to grab the terrified Africans cowering on the roof. They were eventually rescued when a policeman arrived. And then there is the infamous Khirki Extension incident in the national capital, where a former Minister of the Delhi government led a vigilante mob against the locality’s African citizens for their alleged involvement in a drug and prostitution racket. The Ugandan women, who were hauled up and sent to AIIMS hospital for drug tests and cavity searches, were found to be innocent of any charge. They have alleged that they were groped and beaten by the crowd that followed the Minister to this raid. Racism, xenophobia, and a gross disregard for legal precedence are what tie such instances together. It is imperative to understand that complaints of so-called drug and sex rackets against African citizens should be seen in the context of organised racism. Although the problem of racism is not limited to this country, the Indian state must be more sensitive to incidents of violence against African nationals.”
The consequences of just paying mere lip service to the problem are massive. Millions of Indians work and live in Africa, and they could become vulnerable to senseless revenge attacks. Indian shops and establishments in Congo’s capital Kinshasa were recently attacked and gunshots fired injuring two Indians, in an apparent backlash against the killing of a Congolese national in the national capital. What’s worse, these attacks will have a detrimental impact on India's efforts to derive economic benefits from Africa's natural resources and its massive market. “A vast majority of exports from Africa to India are raw materials such as crude oil, gold, raw cotton, and precious stones,” according to Amadou Sy, Director, Africa Growth Initiative. “Meanwhile, most exports from India to sub-Saharan Africa consist of high-end consumer goods such as automobiles, pharmaceuticals, and telecom equipment.” Fortunately, after the initial gaffes that were described in this column on May 26, New Delhi has responded to the problem with greater alacrity.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has assured the African missions that the culprits would be arrested soon and a sensitisation campaign would be launched in areas where many African nationals reside. Meanwhile, five people have been arrested for the attack on six Africans in south Delhi's Mehrauli. But a long-term resolution would require a better policing infrastructure, which most Indian cities lack.