African diplomats in India have had enough.
The heads of mission of 42 African countries have threatened to boycott Africa Day celebrations in New Delhi to protest against the ceaseless racist attacks on their citizens in India.
A week-long celebration was planned to showcase Africa and build on the newfound bonhomie following last October’s India-Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi. But African diplomats may not attend.
The immediate trigger was the death of 29-year-old Masonda Ketada Olivier, a Congolese national. A French language teacher in New Delhi, Oliver was allegedly killed by three drunk men following an argument over hiring an auto-rickshaw. The police have so far arrested two suspects, and are on the lookout for the third.
This isn’t the first time an African national has been attacked in India. In February, a 21-year-old Tanzanian woman was allegedly stripped and beaten up by a mob in Bengaluru after a Sudanese man ran over a local. A few months before that, three African men were beaten up by a mob in New Delhi after they objected to locals taking their pictures. In Jan. 2015, a minister of the Delhi government even raided a neighbourhood inhabited by African nationals, alleging that they were peddling drugs and ran a prostitution ring.
Olivier’s death, though, seems to have been the final straw. Eschewing diplomatic channels, the heads of African embassies in New Delhi have written a strongly-worded letter to the Indian government to take “concrete steps” to ensure the safety of Africans.
“Given the pervading climate of fear and insecurity in Delhi,” Alem Tsehage Woldemariam, ambassador of Eritrea and dean of the African Group Head of Mission, said, “the African heads of mission are left with little option than to consider recommending to their governments not to send new students to India, unless and until their safety can be guaranteed.”
Shortly after the statements were made public, India’s ministry of external affairs, led by foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, swung into damage control mode.
“I have asked my colleague General VK Singh to meet the heads of missions of African countries in Delhi and assure them of the Indian government’s commitment to safety and security to African nationals in India,” Swaraj tweeted.
The foreign minister, however, seemed more perturbed about the damage such incidents do to India’s image and the ensuing “embarrassment”, rather than the loss of life and rampant racism. “We will also launch a sensitisation program to reiterate that such incidents against foreign nationals embarrass the country,” Swaraj tweeted.
But that isn’t going to be easy.
There are 30,000-odd African students living in India, and many have faced racial discrimination on a daily basis. Earlier this year, Quartz wrote about how these students are called ”frauds” and “prostitutes” by locals, even as landlords refuse to rent them houses.
“These incidents reflect how we as a society treat other human beings and show our racist tendencies,” Rajrishi Singhal, senior geoeconomics fellow at Mumbai-based think tank Gateway House, said. “But the government must also be proactive in reaching out and expressing regret over such incidents and take corrective actions. Law and order is a state issue and the central government must take an effort to set things right.”
For Modi and the Indian government, the open rebuke by African nations couldn’t have come at a worse time.
The Indian prime minister is all set to travel to Africa in the next two months, as part of his plan to broaden engagements with the continent. While trade between India and African countries has risen in recent years, there’s much left to be done.
Last October, New Delhi announced a doubling of India’s assistance to African nations, with $10 billion in concessional loans over the next five years. India also offered $600 million in grant assistance to African countries for focused spending on key areas such as healthcare, education, and technology.
Although some of the big spending is with an eye on China’s growing influence in the region, the Modi government is also aware of the massive investment opportunities in the continent.
“India and Africa have a close relationship,” Ruchita Beri, a senior associate at New Delhi’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses said. “This relationship has gained momentum in recent years. The Third India-Africa Summit held in New Delhi last year has reaffirmed the partnership. There is a need for enhanced consultations between India and Africa on a wide range of issues.”
But seemingly endless attacks on Africans in India is not going to help.
“Certainly, such incidents chip away at the goodwill that has been created over the years,” Singhal of Gateway House said. While he reckons that such attacks may not have an impact on trade between the countries, these definitely “create a negative perception of India” in Africa, which will “affect friendships.”