The news, at first, was scarcely believable. A mob in Bangalore, of all places — a city that struts as “India’s Silicon Valley” — had set upon a Tanzanian woman, reducing her top to shreds, raining blows on her and beating up her African male companion.
They torched the car in which the pair had been travelling and pummelled a chivalrous Indian man who’d given the woman his own shirt to cover herself.
The Tanzanian college student and her friend were attacked because another African, entirely unrelated, had killed a local resident in a hit-and-run incident minutes earlier. The two were targeted for their race: by the mob’s logic, an African had killed someone so Africans should pay the price. Officers of the Bangalore police stood by as the mob thrashed the Africans, and passengers ejected the victims from a passing bus they’d attempted to board to save themselves. Later, police refused to register the Tanzanian’s complaint until she produced the hit-and-run driver. (A cop told her, “You all look alike.”)
Racism (and racist violence) is only one of many forms of intolerance in which India specialises. But it’s the most modern of India’s evils. Particularly sickening is the casual racism shown by Indians toward Africans in their midst — mostly students, numbering around 5,000, who come to India to study engineering, science and medicine at universities that charge a fraction of the fees of a Western institution. Many are on Indian government scholarships, offered as a way of building bonds with African countries.
These bonds were on impressive display in October last year at the India-African Forum Summit, at which pretty much every African head of state was present. It was a moving event, proof that Indian diplomacy is not without sensitivity and savoir-faire. How tragic, then, that much of the good work done at the summit — by Prime Minister Modi and senior officials — should unravel on the streets of Bangalore. For at the end of the day, news-reading Africans aren’t going to remember that their (often unloved) leaders were wined and dined in India; they’ll remember that one of their women was stripped on the country’s streets because of her race.
Indians need to take drastic action to end racism against black Africans. We can’t ask to be regarded as leading players in world affairs while behaving like animals toward foreigners in our country. Indians live in every country in the world, often in numbers, and are quick to take offence when they face racism. This Indian expectation of equal treatment is entirely justified. But we must do unto others as we expect others to do unto us.
India needs, quickly, to educate its young people and its police on the evils of racism — especially in the big, cosmopolitan cities. In the case of Bangalore, local icons like Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble should be asked to feature in public information TV commercials on the evils of racism.
Bollywood, for so long a perpetuator of ugly African stereotypes, should atone by making films that promote tolerance and portray Africans in relationships with Indians.
The need for public action is so grave as to require intervention at the highest level. I’d like to see the Prime Minister appear on TV and apologise on behalf of India for the latest racist attack. He should invite the Tanzanian woman to Delhi to express national contrition, and be photographed with her. This will send a message to Africa and Africans — and to all Indians — that a great country will not tolerate racism.
The writer is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.