The strong and justified rebuke from African Heads of Mission is a wake-up call to all Indians

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Attacked Nigerian student Endurance at Kailash Hospital on Tuesday. (Source: Express photo by Gajendra Yadav)Earlier this week, senior African diplomats issued a joint statement deploring the spate of recent attacks on African students and citizens in India. Although these attacks had occurred at regular intervals over the years, these diplomats noted that, worryingly, “no known, sufficient and visible deterring measures” had been taken by the Government of India. Further, the envoys “unanimously agreed that those accumulated attacks against Africans” were “xenophobic and racial in nature”.

The African envoys said that they expected “strong condemnation from the highest political level (both nationally and locally) of the Government of India”, as well as “legal actions against the perpetrators”. If these remedial actions were not forthcoming, the African Heads of Missions were considering asking for “an independent investigation by the Human Rights Council as well as other human rights bodies, and also to comprehensively report the matter to the African Union Commission.”

The wording was unusually strong for a diplomatic statement, as witness the use of the words “xenophobic and racial”. The strictures were merited. While xenophobia in India has been on the rise in recent years, racism has deep historical roots. Consciousness of skin colour, the marked preference for those of lighter complexion, has long been pervasive in, and endemic to, Indian society. Growing up in Uttar Pradesh, I was often asked why “Madrasis” were so dark; returning south for holidays, I found my aunts and uncles, when searching for brides for their sons, specifying that these must be “paalmadri” (literally, the colour of milk, whiteness itself).

Everyday racism within Indian society is reflected in such matters as matrimonial advertisements asking for (or demanding) women with fair skin. And it is reflected outwards in prejudice against Africans. Indeed, when he landed in Africa in May 1893, aged 24, Mohandas Gandhi was himself a racist. He saw Africans as backward and lazy, and as greatly inferior to Indians, and wrote about them in these terms. These prejudices he shed, slowly, the longer he lived in the land. In a speech in Johannesburg in 1908 he insisted that the British rulers should give both Indians and Africans “equality with themselves. free institutions and make them absolutely free men”.

After his return to India in 1915, Gandhi’s views evolved further. In his book Satyagraha in South Africa, written in 1924-5, Gandhi argued that Africans had “a perfect grasp of the distinction between truth and falsehood”, adding that “it is doubtful whether Europeans or ourselves practise truthfulness to the same extent” as Africans did. Through the 1930s and 1940s, many African and African-American activists came to consult with him in his ashram in Sevagram, with Gandhi insisting to them (and to his fellow Indians) that “the slogan today is no longer ‘Asia for the Asiatics’ or ‘Africa for the Africans’ but the unity of all the exploited races of the earth.” In 1946, Gandhi spoke of the common thread that bound all “the exploited coloured races of the earth, whether they are brown, yellow or black.”

The greatest of modern Africans, Nelson Mandela, liked to tell visiting Indians: “You gave us a lawyer; we gave you back a Mahatma”. In so generously overlooking Gandhi’s early racism, Mandela was no doubt mindful of the substantial assistance that India and Indians had afforded the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. At a time when Western democracies were propping up the racist regime in Pretoria, the Government of India gave the African National Congress both moral and material help. In fact, in canvassing global support for their struggle, Mandela’s great mate, Oliver Tambo, was facilitated by the provision to him of an Indian passport by Jawaharlal Nehru’s government.

Indian patriots and anti-racists were a source of inspiration for freedom fighters in many other parts of Africa as well. The lawyer-scholar, Anil Nauriya, has documented how anti-colonial movements in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana and other countries were directly influenced by the Indian example.

The recent attacks on Africans in India run counter to this political legacy of support and solidarity. But they are tragically consistent with a deeper history of racism, whereby ordinary Indians are brought up to regard those of dark or darker skin as somehow inferior to themselves. This societal racism has been intensified by a politically induced xenophobia, which stokes a suspicion, and even hatred, of those whose culture, faith, ways of life, and (not least) skin colour is different from ours. There is a familial resemblance between the demonisation of Muslims and Christians across the country, the harassment of students from the Northeast in Bengaluru and Pune, and the attacks on Africans in Greater Noida.

Indian attitudes to racism and xenophobia are also marked by a notable hypocrisy. Middle class Indians complain loudly when Europeans and Americans do not give them the respect and honour they think they deserve. They feel insulted when their food, culture and form of dress is insufficiently appreciated overseas. Yet these same Indians act in a contemptible manner towards Africans, making racist remarks about their food, culture, and form of dress (and, of course, skin colour too).

The leading scholar of modern nationalism, Benedict Anderson, once remarked that all true nationalists must feel a sense of shame at crimes committed by the country to which they owe allegiance. Anderson was himself Irish by birth, American by domicile, and Indonesian by cultural affiliation, and he was equally unsparing of the crimes committed in the name of Irish, American, or Indonesian nationalism. The recent attacks against Africans, and the failure to prevent and even to properly condemn them, shame both the people and the Government of India. The strong and entirely justified rebuke from the African Heads of Mission in New Delhi is a wake-up call to all Indians, the aam aadmi in the street or the khas aadmi in his ministerial bungalow.