One can understand that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj would like to douse concerns raised by African envoys and students following the death of a Congolese national M.K. Olivier on the night of May 22 in New Delhi.
She has been proactive in trying to assure Africans that they are safe in Delhi and the police and administration would act in protecting their lives and person. That is how it should be.
But her statements have gone much beyond assurances. In fact, Ms. Swaraj has flatly denied that Indians could ever have a racist mindset.
In a statement issued on May 31, the Minister said, “All criminal acts should not be construed as racial attacks. As the CCTV footage of the incident in question showed, this was an act committed by goons who also thrashed the Indian bystanders who had attempted to intervene to save Mr. Olivier.”
“India is the land of Gandhi and Buddha… These were not premeditated acts against a particular community, rather these were spontaneous attacks perpetrated by anti-social and criminal elements,” she added.
One day later, a bench of the Delhi High Court took a view which is diametrically opposed to the statement made by the External Affairs Minister.
“…Now Delhi is becoming racist. There have been attacks on African nationals. We do not know what is happening in the city,” a High Court bench comprising justices B.D. Ahmed and R.K. Gauba observed.
“We can only express anguish, you [government] are the executive, you will have to implement the directions given by the court,” the Press Trust of India reported the judges as stating.
It would appear that the judges seem to have a better sense of what has been happening on the streets of Delhi than the Minister.
Any resident of Delhi who uses public transport or visits public spaces would know the kind of hostility and derision that Africans face in this city. As The Hindu has reported, even > African diplomats have not been spared racist abuse in Delhi .
The Delhi High Court’s observations are in line with the concerns raised by African heads of missions, who announced that they would boycott the Government’s Africa Day celebrations after pointing to the fear and uncertainty among their nationals.
“…the Indian government is strongly enjoined to take urgent steps to guarantee the safety of Africans in India, including appropriate programmes of public awareness that will address the problems of racism and Afro-phobia in India,” African envoys said on May 24.
So, there are no doubts in the minds of African high commissioners and ambassadors that racism and Afro-phobia is a major issue in India and needs to be addressed.
To deny racism in India is to live in denial. Everyone knows about our obsession with “fair” complexion and the lengths to which many Indians will go to ensure that their partners are of the correct skin colour.
By saying that Indians can never have a racist mindset, the Minister has only added to the controversy. If the effort was to simply play troubleshooter, then there was no need to venture into areas that go against the experiences of those at the receiving end.
Africans are not the only category of persons that have come under attack in Delhi and beyond. Nido Tania, who hailed from Arunachal Pradesh, was beaten to death in New Delhi in January 2014.
Just like many people can’t deal with diverse Africans, they can’t deal with people from the North-East as well. Given the scale of diversity in India, it’s scary that we don’t have more tolerance for those who look different or dress different.
The fact is that racist attitudes are embedded in our society. Doesn’t matter if they are from Congo or Manipur. We have a problem across the board. Often, our racist tendencies are compounded by caste biases and anti-women prejudices.
Rather than denying the problem, it would be better if the Government listens to African high commissioners and ambassadors and launches public awareness programmes to deal with racism and Afro-phobia.