India’s Skin-Deep Romance With Africa: Risking Hard-Won Goodwill

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After last week’s spate of attacks against Nigerian nationals in the Greater Noida area, the Heads of African missions in India expressed their dissatisfaction with the Indian government for not taking any ‘known, sufficient, and visible’ deterring measures, terming the attacks as xenophobic and racially motivated.

But Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj, in her response in the lower house of the Parliament, has, expectably but regrettably, denied that the attacks were racial in nature, and called it an unfortunate, but criminal act.

The Indian government has missed some key cues in its handling of these attacks.

Indian Govt Must Pull Its Head Out of the Sand

The Heads of African missions have called for an independent investigation by the Human Rights Council and other human rights bodies, and also demanded that the attacks be condemned at the highest political level. This has now drawn the attention of the United Nations as well. In a statement to reporters, the spokesperson for the UN Secretary General expressed hope that the people behind the attacks would be brought to justice.

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) released a statement which was ostensibly meant to defend the steps taken by the national and state governments in the aftermath of the incident, but also to reassure the African community in India of the capability of the Indian authorities to deal with such “aberrations”.

However, in doing so, the Indian government has missed an opportunity to address more severe structural issues, for what it deems as one-off incidents, seem to be part of increasingly frequent and violent manifestations of deeply embedded discrimination and malevolence.

In the past three years alone, students from various African nations have been subject to beatings and worse, and justice has not been forthcoming or swift.

In 2014, the then Delhi law minister Somnath Bharthi, rather infamously, led a raid on a house in Khirki Extension which was inhabited by African women, mainly Ugandan and Nigerian, on the basis of unsubstantiated claims of prostitution and drug peddling. Later in the year, three students from Gabon and Burkina Faso were assaulted by a mob in Delhi’s Rajiv Chowk metro station, yet no one was arrested and the case was subsequently closed in 2015.

In 2016, in another shocking incident of misogyny and bigotry, a Tanzanian female student was assaulted and stripped by a mob in Bengaluru, purportedly for a completely unrelated incident of hit and run involving a Sudanese man. And then in May of that year, a Congolese man was beaten to death by three men in Delhi following an altercation over an auto-rickshaw.

These happenings have, time and again, drawn the ire of African envoys. In 2016, they collectively decided to cancel the Africa Day celebrations in their embassies in India and also threatened to pull out of the function organised by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR). Although the MEA finally prevailed and the celebrations went ahead as planned, the larger point had been made both in national and international media.

  • Heads of African missions expressed their dissatisfaction at the way the Indian government has handled the recent racist attacks
  • MEA issued a statement to reassure the African community but EAM Sushma Swaraj said the attacks weren't racial in nature.
  • These attacks aren't "aberrations" but seem to be part of a frequent manifestation of discrimination.
  • There's been a strong attempt to build India's relationship with African nations because of its diplomatic and business interests.
  • Trivialising the experiences of African nationals could extinguish the goodwill built over years.

India’s Interests in the Region

Afro-India relations have been shaped by a shared past of struggles against colonialism and a common vision of growth and prosperity. India also has a significant diaspora in Africa, with a presence on the continent for almost 150 years now. It has nurtured close bilateral relationships with several African countries, with a special focus on cooperation to foster mutual development.

Today, India has emerged as an important development partner for many of them, providing financial assistance in the form of concessional lines of credit, and technical assistance through technology exchanges and capacity building programmes.

At the third India-Africa Forum summit in 2015, which was hailed as a huge diplomatic win for the NDA government, India’s largesse was in full display. It offered Africa USD 10 billion in concessional credit for the next five years along with a grant assistance of USD 600 million, including an India-Africa Development Fund of USD 100 million and an India-Africa Health Fund of USD 10 million.

The summit also explored greater cooperation in the fields of agriculture, renewable energy, blue ocean economy, education, skill building, and peace and security, and Prime Minister Modi invited African countries to be part of the Solar Alliance which he had launched during COP21 in Paris.

The participation of the 54 African countries can make this alliance a success, considerably boosting India’s profile in the process. Similar pragmatic and strategic concerns are the driving force behind India’s engagement with Africa.

In fact, the support of African countries is the key to India’s ambitions of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and a greater role in global decision making.

Business interests are not too far behind. India has substantially increased its trade with Africa in recent years; it is already the largest trading partner of sub-Saharan Africa, and it is expected that the bilateral trade between India and Africa as a whole, will soon reach USD $100 billion. Private Indian investment in African nations has been on the rise, and was pegged at more than US$ 50 billion in 2013.

In an increasingly multipolar world, both China and India are acutely aware of Africa’s rising geopolitical significance, and are consequently competing to consolidate their political influence and economic foothold on the African continent.

At this juncture, therefore, it would be a huge misstep for India to expend all the goodwill it has earned over decades by trivialising the adverse experiences of African nationals and ignoring the legitimate concerns voiced by them. Instead of assuming a position of privilege bolstered by its economic diplomacy, the Indian government ought to adopt a stance of mutual respect and empathy, starting with acknowledging the issue of racism and taking credible measures to address it.

(Divita Shandilya is a researcher with a Masters in International Relations. She is currently working as Programme coordinator at South Solidarity Initiative, a knowledge activist hub of ActionAid India. She can be reached @DivitaShandilya. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)