01 April 2017: India cannot afford to strain its ties with African countries, whose support is needed, besides other things, for a reform of the United Nations Security Council and India's inclusion in it as a permanent member
The latest attacks on African students in Noida once again underline the ugly fact that a large number of Indians are racists, and are either oblivious of, or criminally indifferent to, the potentially disastrous consequences of their actions. These further focus on the need to look closely at the role of the police which failed to prevent the attacks and did not do enough to halt these while in progress.
The argument that they were taken unawares, does not wash. The hatred fanned against African students in Noida, Delhi and some other parts of India, has been manifest for several years. In May 2016, a Congolese youth was beaten to death in Vasant Kunj, Delhi, and at least four men and two women were injured in attacks on 12 Africans in Rajpur Khurd village in south Delhi. According to reports, locals targeted them because of their “freewheeling lifestyle”. In October 2014, three Africans were attacked at the Rajiv Gandhi metro station and were eventually rescued by a CISF personnel who dispersed the mob.
In January 2014, Somnath Bharti, then Minister in the Aam Aadmi Party’s Government in Delhi, allegedly led a group of people to a house in Delhi’s Khirki Village, following a tip off about a drugs and sex racket. They reportedly mobbed four African women — two Nigerians and two Ugandans — and took them to the All India Institute of Medial Sciences hospital, where no trace of any drug was found in their bodies. The women complained of molestation by the men.
The attacks on Africans — particularly Nigerians who constituted most of the victims — had caused considerable concern in India as well as in African countries. In an interview with NDTV’s Srinivasan Jain at the margins of the third India-Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi in October 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria described as “unfortunate” the attacks on, and the racist comments hurled at, Nigerian nationals in India, and said that these indicated the mindsets of the people behind these. It was a very measured and responsible statement, and the very fact that it came from the President of Nigeria carried its own significance.
Given this background and the concentration of African nationals in the Noida area, local police personnel ought to have been extra-vigilant about signs of racial tension building up and taken pre-emptive action. While they face many challenges, making many demands on their time, three questions cannot be brushed under the carpet. Did some of them share the racism of the assailants? Were they afraid to act, given the country’s record of political victimisation of uniformed persons who did their job? Did inefficiency of the intelligence apparatus on the ground prevent it from picking up the danger signals? The third question is particularly important. India may have to pay a very heavy price for poor intelligence-gathering at a time when, facing the eclipse of its power in West Asia, the Islamic State is trying to entrench itself in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area and increasingly unleash terror strikes against India and Bangladesh.
One may be told in the case of the first question that the issue of racism is not applicable here; the attacks were provoked by the conduct of the African nationals who were involved in drug peddling, prostitution and violent quarrels. Such a contention is prima facie without basis. Africans alone have not been targets of attack in Delhi, its surrounding areas, and other parts of the country. People from the north-eastern States like Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal and Meghalaya, have also been victims of assault, battery, molestation and even rape, apart from being targets of derisive comments like ‘Chinkies’ — after their Mongoloid features. They, as well as the Africans, have been subjected to blatant exploitation by landlords and others.
The consequences of discriminatory, exploitative and criminal conduct can be disastrous. In the case of the people from the north-eastern States, it is liable to sharpen their feeling of alienation from the rest of India and boost the appeal of secessionist organisations like the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah), NSCN (Khaplang), and the People’s Liberation Army and the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak, both of Manipur.
India can ill-afford this. Nor can it afford to strain its ties with African countries, whose support is needed for a reform of the United Nations Security Council and India’s inclusion in it as a permanent member. Equally, it is necessary to develop a common approach to global warming, particularly given the Trump Administration’s abandonment of the positive role the United States played under President Barack Obama. Nor can one underestimate the need for cooperation in combating fundamentalist Islamist terrorism threatening countries such as Nigeria, Somalia, Kenya, Mali, Morocco and Egypt. While what India can offer in terms of military hardware is limited, it can play an important role in training personnel. Exchanging intelligence can be very important. New Delhi needs to keep an eye on Al-Shabaab, active in East Africa, and Boko Haram in Nigeria, and watch out for links that terrorists active on its own soil may seek to establish with these.
There is, besides, the question of rivalry with China, which has already forged ahead in terms of accessing the mineral wealth and land resources of African countries. Africa’s mineral resources like uranium, iron ore, copper, phosphates and platinum can play a critical role in India’s economic growth. Africa already provides 25 per cent of India’s crude oil requirements, with Nigeria alone accounting for 12 per cent. No less important is the question of India-Africa trade, which has risen remarkably from $25 billion in 2006 to $70 billion in 2015 — but still trails far behind China, whose trade with Africa totalled $222 billion in 2014. While the slowing down of China’s economy may provide an opportunity to enlarge India’s presence, it will still have to contend with tough competition from Japan and South Korea.
Progress on the economic front no doubt depends on the continuation of friendly ties with African countries, which in turn may run into a squall if attacks on African nationals continue in India. Such a development may also adversely affect the lives of the very large number of people of Indian origin-three million, according to one estimate, living in Africa. By all accounts, they live untroubled — and often rewarding — lives, but may well become victims of a backlash if Africans in India continue to face racist violence.
(The writer is Consultant Editor of The Pioneer and an author)