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Racism, xenophobia, and lawlessness

Indians are known to have racist and xenophobic attitudes. But every now and then one is reminded of how these attitudes can turn fatally violent. Last week a Congolese man was reportedly beaten to death with bricks and stones by a group of people in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj area. The matter has escalated to a full-blown diplomatic disaster. On Tuesday, African envoys from 42 nations decided to boycott the annual Africa Day celebrations in the national capital. “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.” 

The event has been deferred for the time being while the Government of India goes into damage control mode. There is little doubt that the joint statement released by the heads of various African missions in India comes as a public rebuke of India’s diplomatic response to such incidents in the past.

The Ministry of External Affairs has put out a statement calling the death of the Congolese student “very unfortunate” and condemned the incident unequivocally. Minister of State External Affairs VK Singh has been deputed by the government to assure the Heads of Missions of African countries that it will take steps to improve safety and security of African students. In addition to these steps, the Indian government has sought to downplay the racial angle, with senior diplomat Amar Sinha, Secretary (Economic Relations), emphasising that all such criminal acts should not be viewed as racially-motivated. 

However, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj brought up the racial angle in a separate tweet. “We will also launch a sensitisation program to reiterate that such incidents against foreign nationals embarrass the country,” Swaraj said. The effort here is to manage optics rather than address the symptom of racially-motivated attacks. Instead of a sensitisation programme to address the underlying problem of racism and xenophobia in this country, the focus is on protecting India’s image abroad. Indeed, the death of a Congolese student may not be down to a racially motivated attack. But once a senior minister in the government raises possible solutions to race-related incidents in India, it would be prudent on her part to be a little more sensitive to the problem. No wonder, our African brothers and sisters are deeply unhappy.

Earlier this year, in Bengaluru, such violent attitudes came to light in probably the most horrific manner possible. In February, a mob assaulted, stripped and paraded a 21-year-old Tanzanian student, in addition to setting fire to her car. 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. Suffice to say, 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. The legal adviser to the All African Students Union in Bengaluru was quite naturally livid at the entire sequence of events. “She’s Tanzanian, the man who caused the accident comes from Sudan, they didn’t even know each other,” he said. What was particularly frightening about this incident was how the collective mob attacked a helpless woman based on her colour.

In India, instances of racially-motivated collective mob action based on race have become an increasingly disturbing feature, especially with the advent of many African students moving into India for education or employment. Back in 2014, the national capital witnessed 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. Nonetheless, the problem of racism is not limited to India. Even progressive nations like Sweden and Norway are dogged with the problem. Therefore, the immediate problem is not racism but of rampant lawlessness even in our cities. The violent attack on the Congolese student is a manifestation of that lawlessness. 

It has been well documented that the national capital suffers from a desperate shortage of personnel. A 222-page report by senior police officer Sanjay Beniwal prepared in 2014 had pointed out the acute shortage of manpower in Delhi police. The total strength of Delhi’s police force is 77,894, of which 30,891 are deployed in 161 police stations spread across 11 police districts. For a population of 1.72 crores, it is clearly not enough. The active duty ratio is one policeman for 5,568 citizens, as per the report. 

What’s worse, the problem extends to the infection of corruption and criminal acts that have permeated its police force. What we have is a force that is overworked, underpaid and uselessly deployed. Experts contend that out of the box solutions are required to resolve the systemic problem. One cannot change personal attitudes overnight, but a better policing infrastructure could prevent such violent incidents from escalating. Instead of vague proposals, the Centre could start with sensitisation programmes in the police force to better the lives of our guests.  
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