Technology, it is often assumed, can help India, with its diverse population, leapfrog to a brighter future, skirting the ignominy of having to live through, for example, Dickensian squalor and wages from the dark ages. And economic freedoms are meant to make us all more socially liberal, accepting—and then welcoming—of people of different races, religions and sexual orientations.
But technology and economic freedoms do not ensure a cruise on the highway to modernity (there are too many factors at play—was your country ever colonized, for instance?). It’s been a very bumpy ride. Continuing acts of racial and religious intolerance in parts of the US and Europe test the multicultural and secular fabric of these regions.
Not even proximity helps. In Bengaluru, home of India’s information technology revolution and arguably one of its most modern cities, where many expats live and British-style pubs proliferate, a mob of angry men recently set upon a Tanzanian woman. They were incensed at the death of a woman hit by a car driven by an African man. The Tanzanian, a student, just happened to have driven into the area on her way home from dinner with her friends.
Was this a one-off? No, it wasn’t. In 2015, a huge mob assaulted three students from Gabon and Burkina Faso with sticks in the presence of police and security guards at a Delhi Metro station on the suspicion that they had harassed a female passenger.
A year before that, Delhi state legislator Somnath Bharti led a crowd of supporters from his Aam Aadmi Party into the south Delhi home of a Nigerian woman, in a midnight raid allegedly to highlight drug crime. All three were lynch mobs, and it’s a miracle no one was killed.
As with similar attacks on north-eastern students, there is stout denial that any of this had to do with racism. The reasons proffered range from crowd rage to the urban-rural divide to cultural differences. But cultural differences do not lead to killings. The Bengaluru mob did not assault just any driver—they attacked a random black African. This is called racist violence.
Whatever the underlying long-term reasons, when you attack an innocent person simply because of their nationality, looks or colour of skin, it is an act of racism.
It is increasingly evident that not only schoolchildren and college students, but also politicians, police officers and civil servants need to be familiarized with what constitutes racism. Such awareness programmes have been part of many western countries for decades and the need for them continues to exist there. Indian policymakers should try and familiarize themselves with this body of work and programme and introduce elements into the curriculum of schools, colleges and civil service training back home.
Racism does not exist in a bubble—it is the product of other inequalities. The anecdotal evidence is that racism is growing in India, perhaps because more Africans now live in India, and among Indians, not necessarily on university campuses. Many are students—the outcome of a boom in the Indian tertiary education sector. And it is quite likely that many Indians are looking for scapegoats for their own economic marginalization.
I asked four African friends what they thought of the attacks. As expected, their historic admiration for India and Indians shone through their sense of disappointment.
“The attacks have more to do with ignorance than racism. I’m not sure there is any institutional racism in India but what we saw is close to race chauvinism,” said John Kamau of Kenya. “There could be underlying problems which sparked these attacks, and that is what ought to be isolated.”
“We should not lump (together) all Indians as racists. I think that would be unfair to millions of Indians who relate with everyone equally. Secondly the Gandhi dream and legacy still lives on. What is required is some dose of tolerance, equity and rule of law. When people take law into their own hands, it informs us about the collapse of both the judicial and security systems. People vent their anger elsewhere. I think that is what we are seeing from the outside,” he said.
Francis Kokutse, a Ghanaian, knows India well. He said, “From the Ghanaian point of view, Indians are a group of people who show no sign of superiority. They are received as people who are hard working. If racism is showing up in India among the young people, then there is the need to step up education.”
South African Paula Fray said, “Given our own internal struggles with xenophobia, it is difficult to ascribe the actions of a small group to a whole race or people.”
Kumah Drah is also from Ghana, where India has built the national Parliament—a beautiful building. He said, “The mob attack on an African student in Bengaluru should be condemned by all peace-loving people. I am surprised that in an era when knowledge has grown so much, with the world becoming smaller and with human beings interacting with each other more easily, groups of people could attack someone because of the colour of his or her skin. I cannot imagine Africans attacking foreigners because of the colour of their skin. Should a group of Africans carry out such a crime, they should be dealt with as criminals.”
“But what happened in Bengaluru should not be generalized that Indians are racists. African and Indian leaders including (Jawaharlal) Nehru and (former Ghana president Kwame) Nkrumah worked for world peace with the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement. In some African countries, including Ghana and Kenya, people of Indian descent are accepted as citizens. Africans expect similar respect in India. Economic hardships tend to fuel xenophobia. While citizens are educated about human rights and peaceful coexistence, efforts must be made to improve the well-being of ordinary people. This will ensure citizens do not see foreigners as being responsible for their economic predicament,” Drah said
Our denials must end. Because awareness and acceptance are the first steps to healing.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1