If the insecurity of women has since gone on to become a civic emergency, the shocking demonstration of mob violence against three African students at a well-policed metro station in the national capital this week must serve as India’s ‘Nirbhaya moment’ on the issue of racism, an occasion for us to acknowledge and confront the reality of racial prejudice and violence in towns and cities across the country. The students were brutally assaulted on the basis of an unsubtantiated rumour that one of them had, perhaps, misbehaved with an Indian woman on a crowded train. Nobody knew for certain, but the fact that they were African and were now being beaten up was enough for the crowd to believe they deserved what they were getting.
Let’s start with what video recordings at the metro station tell us about the incident itself and, ultimately, about ourselves.
A large crowd of commuters, mostly young men, can be seen cornering the three Africans who have sought refuge in a police booth within the underground station. At the front of the mob, one can see iron rods being swung. There is the sound of breaking glass. Then, from amidst the shouting and the general din of spectators excited by this blood sport taking place in the heart of Delhi comes an unexpected cry: ‘Bharat Mata ki…’, a provocateur screams loudly, and the mob lustily completes the slogan with ‘Jai’. The provocateur then shouts ‘Vande Mataram’, as if this frenzied attack on the three students from Africa had something in common with India’s freedom struggle.
The sudden appearance of nationalism as a non sequitur and perversity — ‘Victory to Mother India’ — confirms to us what many pseudopatriots are now seeking to deny, that the mob was indeed driven by the race of its victims. The rationalization provided at the time and later was clearly bogus. In fact, no woman has filed a complaint, and the sheer size of the mob makes it clear that most could not have witnessed anything. In any case, even if one of the students had misbehaved with a woman, nothing justifies the racist vigilantism which took place. Two kinds of mobs are quite common in India.
The first is assembled and encouraged by politicians from ruling parties with a nod and a wink from the police. These were the mobs we saw in Delhi in 1984 or in Gujarat in 2002. And then there are spontaneous mobs of unconnected individuals that emerge, say, in the aftermath of a road accident. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest these spontaneous mobs rarely emerge to defend a woman who is being harassed or even assaulted.
The flash mob that appeared and disappeared at the metro station that day was summoned to the spot by the triumphalism and crassness that India’s rise on the world stage is generating amongst the urban middle class. As the middle class prospers, it is becoming more insular, more intolerant, more anxious. No one ever told them that as we strive for — and insist on — a bigger share of global power for ourselves, we need to learn how to accommodate the world, to grow less small.
This is not only an issue of sentiment but of realpolitik too. Think of the damage done to India all over Africa by this incident and others like the murderous attack on the Burundian student Yannick Nihangaza in Punjab. Anxious parents from Kigali to Kinshasa will think a hundred times before they allow their sons to travel to India for education.
Indian politicians and civic leaders need to address racism toward Africans — and northeastern Indians — on an urgent basis. Teach, admonish, punish, shame, call out, lecture. Those universities that actively court African students should take the lead. Bollywood too, which has a loyal following across Africa, could think of ways to address this problem. Perhaps even a movie. Above all, however, racism is a matter that requires the intervention of the government at the highest level. When Indians are attacked abroad, our TV channels go into overdrive and politicians vie with each other to defend the interests of Indian students and migrants. This is what happened after the spate of attacks on Indians in Australia in 2009 and 2010. If India expects other countries to accommodate the aspirations of Indians who travel there to study or work, it must ensure a hospitable environment for those who look to us for the same opportunities.