OPINION

Grappling with our prejudices

enough is enough:“The reaction by the Heads of Mission of African countries, that they would boycott the celebration as they were in mourning, was strong but not unwarranted.” Africa Day celebrations in New Delhi.— Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma  

This week has clearly demonstrated the deep insecurities that define the lives of African residents in India as they negotiate racism on a daily basis. It seemed almost ironic that while the Indian government sent out invitations to its gala celebrating Africa Day, lauding the “warm and cordial relations” and the growing “people-to-people” partnership between the two regions, a few locals in Delhi were bludgeoning Masonda Ketada Oliver, a Congolese national, to death and injuring several other Africans in a series of hate crimes.

This contrast, while stark, highlights the fact that as India and various African countries encourage trade, aid and skill-based partnerships, the movement of people between these regions is on the rise, requiring urgent mechanisms to ensure the safety and security of migrant populations. Not only is this a basic expectation from a member of the community of nations, but is also critical to the hopes of a South-South axis of economic and political partnership.

The ostrich lifts its head

The ensuing reaction by the Heads of Mission of African countries, stating that they would boycott the celebration as they were in mourning, was strong but not unwarranted. The murder of Oliver has been preceded by incidents of mobbing, beating, and stripping of African residents in various cities across India, along with wildly exaggerated accusations of criminal activity, sometimes by state authorities themselves. The Heads of Mission approached the issue strategically by stating they could no longer encourage their citizens to come to India as they fear for their safety and security. Given that trade between India and Africa has grown phenomenally in the last few years, this call assumes an economic form.

As a background, both regions have been working towards strengthening geopolitical and economic ties. Trade between the two regions has increased from $6 billion in 2005 to $64 billion in 2013. Also, India sees African citizens as prospective medical and education tourists, further bolstering the Indian economy. Thus, the threats of reducing interaction and the powerful statement of ‘mourning’ seem to be designed to hit where it hurts India the most.

It is important to note that India reacted to the murder only after the statement. The Prime Minister has not formally referred to either the murder or the press release but has retweeted his speech from the 2015 India Africa Forum Summit that enshrined the vitality of the ties between the two regions. While this response does not condemn the murder or the overall discrimination, it attempts to demonstrate the importance of India’s ties with the region. At the same time, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has been more articulate, and admitted that such events reflected unfavourably on India. Most importantly, she added that India will focus on sensitisation programmes to enable conditions that promote peaceful cohabitation. This statement, while still unclear in terms of operationalisation and effect, is essential towards creating any meaningful change in India.

Sensitisation programmes

The rampant pigment-based discrimination in India and the perception of African migrants as lawless and immoral individuals then underscores the need for public intervention. It is important to note that bridges of communication are essential to ensure meaningful exchange and a healthier lifestyle for both the African migrants and Indian nationals.

A closer look at the lives of the African migrants and their neighbours brings into view a life worn thin by constant suspicion. Africans tend to live in closed communities, and survive using tactics of invisibility. It is important to note that there is great diversity among African nationals but in the face of oppression they adopt similar tactics, and the community has attempted to move further underground. Thus they seek to minimise their interactions with Indians and the wider urban landscape by choosing social interactions that take place inside homes and at night. This strategy does not allow them the space or time to understand or successfully adapt to the social climate they now find themselves in.

Similarly, many Indians live in fear of the African population. While their ideas of Africans are regressive and absurd, to say the least, it is important to create appropriate channels of communication to allow for fraternity or at least peace to emerge. Merely shaming local residents and calling them racist will do nothing to change the situation on the ground.

The strategies used by the Central and State governments and the embassies should be varied, and involve formal and informal processes that focus on providing security and encourage mutual respect. The Indian state must provide clear guidelines for African migrants to register complaints. In addition to this, sensitisation programmes are essential to reduce the overall atmosphere of hostility and improve the quality of life for all parties concerned. These are vital in particular to improve the life of undocumented migrants who may be unable to access formal channels. The embassies could provide more informal channels of support by focussing on discussions and visibility-enhancing local interventions with the help of NGOs. They could also utilise the traditional strategy of creating safe spaces for children from affected neighbourhoods, from all the concerned communities, to learn together and normalise difference. The Aam Aadmi Party has envisaged a mohalla sabha strategy for more inclusive discussions in Delhi and perhaps these could be used in conciliatory ways to question deep-rooted prejudice and allow for more progressive political tactics. Educational institutions need to debate means to ensure inclusion of African students on campus, ensure the availability of safe and affordable accommodation within or close to campus and create channels for students to register complaints. This mixture of legal and social processes could help create a more supportive environment for migrants and Indians who live in close proximity to each other.

The Indian government and Heads of Mission have pointed towards a technological approach to reconciliation. The ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ campaign by Incredible India had attempted to address issues of defrauding and molesting foreigners. The ‘atithi’ in the advertisements were all white tourists. A new campaign would need to address this damaging void and widen the understanding of inclusion and peaceful co-existence. However, online platforms will be insufficient without clear on-ground activity.

Beyond tokenism

Most of the Heads of Mission did eventually attend the Africa Day celebrations that they had threatened to boycott, but the statement had made its impact and forced the Indian government to recognise the existence of a clear problem. Since the initial spurt of tweets, the Indian government and the police have either side-stepped or denied that the violence has stemmed from racial prejudice. This is a dangerous sign and seems almost hypocritical for a polity that has taken a clear stand on instances of racial violence against Indians in other countries.

One hopes the erstwhile strategy of willed ignorance is no longer supported by the government, and that its actions are based on the values of justice, liberty and fraternity that the Indian Constitution, and by extension India, is based upon.

Expounding slogans of shared histories from Bandung are far easier than creating structures that support the everyday lives of migrants and Indians, given the social frictions that typify globalising cities.

The current pledges of support require extensive work on the ground and in terms of policy to ensure that the ideas stated by the government go beyond tokenism.

Persis Taraporevala is based at the Centre for Policy Research. Rohit Negi is Assistant Professor at Ambedkar University, Delhi. They are co-conveners of Africa Forum-Delhi.



A closer look at the lives of African migrants and their neighbours brings into view a life worn thin by constant suspicion