Don't let a few hoodlums sour India-Africa ties
Racist attacks against Africans - in Bengaluru and New Delhi in February last year, in a Delhi Metro station last October, in Delhi a few days ago when a Congolese was killed and in Hyderabad against a Nigerian - have justifiably raised fears of the prevalence of a so-called Afro-phobia in India.
Notwithstanding the promise of action by the Ministry of External Affairs, the African envoys have expressed concern about the repeated attacks and the resultant insecurity among the black students and others from Africa living in India.
As it is, mainland Indians haven't always been especially considerate about those who are "different" in their appearance or ways of life, such as the people of the northeast, whose Mongoloid features make them targets of derisory remarks of being "Chinki" or Chinese. In August 2012, there was such an exodus from Bengaluru of panic-stricken northeasterners after a few cases of assault that special trains had to be arranged.
With more than 10,000 African students making India their temporary home, the feeling of racial animosity among Indians against those who are not like "us" appears to have unfortunately become much stronger.
Much of this crudeness stems from the lack of education. But not always, as was evident from the virtual campaign against Africans which was launched by the Aam Admi Party's then Law Minister - of all portfolios - Somnath Bharti in Khirki village early in 2015. His unsubstantiated contention was that the Africans who lived there were guilty of prostitution and consuming and peddling drugs.
To many, this perception is not very dissimilar to what the orthodox Hindus think about Muslims, which is why Hindus are generally unwilling to let out their flats to Muslims. Among the arguments against them are that they are non-vegetarian and that the men are promiscuous and lustful. The RSS-led Sangh Parivar's diatribes against "love jihad" are based on the belief that the Muslim men are not to be trusted.
The long-standing Hindu-Muslim divide as a result of these prejudices has led to Muslims being mostly concentrated in their ghettos in most Indian towns. In a way, this kind of segregation fits in with the age-old caste system under which people belonging to various “lowly” castes also live in ghettos, away from the upper castes who are afraid of being "polluted" by their presence.
Although Indians claim to be broad-minded, the compartmentalisation which has long characterised the lives of the Hindus and Muslims, as well as the lower castes, can give an idea of the mindset which is behind the attacks on "Chinkis" and the "kalaa” (African) fellow denizens.
Since the ideal of togetherness is generally not stressed in schools and colleges - or is done so only cursorily - there is no check on the boorishness of students who emerge from these institutions, most of which can hardly be called abodes of learning.
It is not surprising that they have no idea about what the repercussions of their mindless violence on African migrants can be on the vast Indian diaspora in Africa. The senseless killing of the young Congolese has already led to retaliatory attacks on innocent Indians in Congo.
Indians have lived in Africa for generations and their contribution, mainly in the fields of commerce and education have always been warmly welcomed, except for occasional aberrations as in Idi Amin's Uganda.
It will be a pity if the criminal acts of a few hoodlums sour the relations, even temporarily. How the ties can be affected was evident from the threat of a boycott of Africa Day on May 26 by the continent's envoys in New Delhi. It would have been a diplomatic disaster of the highest order if the threat had been carried out.
It will not do for the Ministry of External Affairs to voice reassurances. Although the miscreants are almost always caught, the focus should be on prevention rather than follow-up action. There is a need for the kind relentless campaign against attacks on Africans in line with what the government conducts on TV against smoking and public education and sensitisation to the culture, diversity and opportunities in the 54-nation continent.
But the responsibility is not merely of the government. Civil society, too, has to step in with school and college teachers doing their bit to sensitise the students about the issue. Considering how upset Indians get if any of them is beaten up in Australia in an isolated incident, it should not be difficult to drive home the message not only of racial harmony but also of decent, humane behaviour which is increasingly becoming an exception rather than the rule, as the thrashing of a boy in Delhi last Thursday on the charge of stealing showed.
That the Indians are intensely colour-conscious is evident from the search for fair brides in matrimonial columns and also in the ads on fairness creams. If the former cannot be discouraged, at least the celebrities can be urged to desist from not only promoting the "fair and lovely" ointments but also mocking them.
(Amulya Ganguli is a writer on current affairs. The views expressed are personal.)