At his maiden UN General Assembly address in New York on September 27, Prime Minister Narendra Modi loftily referred to the Indian ideal of “vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the world is one family)”. Yet in New Delhi, the very next day, three African students were mercilessly attacked at a metro station.
Video clips of the deplorable incident reveal the ugly, racist face of Delhi, and by extension, an attitude that prevails in most of India. This is not the first time that residents of African origin have been targeted. It may be recalled that in the brief period that the Aam Aadmi Party was in government in Delhi, then Law Minister Somnath Bharti had led a charge against Ugandan women living in Khirki Extension, accusing them of prostitution.
The apathy with which such racist atrocities are handled by the state machinery is evident from the fact that the Bharti incident took place in January this year and it was only last week that the former minister was charged for his midnight vigilantism. After the metro incident, the Indian government made the mandatory statement condemning such racism, in order to assuage the bruised sentiments of the African community in Delhi. But this response will be seen as ineffective and perfunctory, especially with the Bharti case as a precedent.
What makes the Delhi Metro incident even more disturbing is the frenzy that seized the flash mob which attacked the African students. Chanting slogans like “Bharat Mata ki jai”, the more militant among the mob chased down the African students as if on a hunt. Cries of “vande mataram” also rent the air. This distorted nationalism is an instance of a trend that has slowly gathered momentum since the BJP’s emphatic Modi-led victory in the Lok Sabha polls.
The response of the people who were not part of the flash mob is equally deplorable. It is also familiar. Rarely do victims of mob violence, which could end in a grisly lynching, get any help from the average Indian onlooker. The Delhi Metro incident was no different. An extension of this indifference was the behaviour of the police, which was unable to control or prevent the mob from attacking the students. Despite the visual evidence available, at the time of writing, no arrests have been made.
Delhi’s street power is formidable and menacing. Even road rage leads to stabbing and shooting, and not a day passes without such incidents being reported. The Delhi Police have also been attacked where they have tried to intervene. A latent violence pervades the city, which would explain why the default mode of both the onlooker and the policeman is “I do not want to get involved”.
The African in India is a victim of a deeply embedded racial and colour bias. This bias rears its ugly head even among Indians, and on a daily basis. Take the matrimonial advertisements seeking “fair-wheatish [sic] skinned brides” and the jingles singing of magical creams and lotions that guarantee whiter skin.
The “other” has become an easy target in contemporary India, whether it is the Indian citizen from the Northeast who is derided as a “chinki” (slang for being of Chinese origin) or a member of the minority community, forced to live in ghettos. The racist attitude that contemporary India presents is depressing and potentially dangerous. It is prickly about what it perceives to be a patronising “white-Western” attitude, yet it is far from equitable in its own dealings with “black” interlocutors. India refuses to acknowledge its own racial hypocrisy and double standards.
Given its vast and complex ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity, India’s societal stability has been nurtured by a tradition of deep tolerance for the “other”. Yet this ozone layer of tolerance has been irreparably damaged in recent decades. Divisive and short-sighted political opportunism has created sectarian vote banks that are visible in every election.
A by-product of this trend is the shameful Delhi Metro incident. It ought to impel national introspection and sustained corrective measures. Apart from tendering an unqualified apology to the victims, Modi, who has extolled the virtues of “vasudhaiva kutumbakam”, has to walk the talk. Bringing the culprits to book is the immediate priority. This must be complemented by a national effort to make the foreigner feel safe and welcome in India. This is not just about tourism and commercial opportunities. It is about India, collectively, having the moral courage to see its own reflection and apply the ethical corrective.
The writer is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi