Masunda Kitada Oliver, who was beaten to death in the capital following an altercation, is not the first victim of Indian racism. Sadly, he will not be the last, either, for the disease seems deeply ingrained in our psyche and value systems. It betrays itself in our speech when, for instance, we speak of “black” and “white” money. It finds blatant expression every day on our television screens, where fairness products are advertised. And yet, the government is full of injured pride when the United Nations attempts to read caste as a form of racism.
The savagery that Oliver faced at the hands of a few Indians has stirred diplomats from the African nations to anguished action, and had caused them to consider boycotting Africa Day. The event at the Indian Council for Cultural Relations was held on schedule, but it was sombre. In the meantime, some citizens of Kinshasa had retaliated, targeting shops and establishments owned by Indians in the city. Given the deep connections which India has had with several African nations, it has been foolhardy of the government to imagine that the issue of racism would go away if it was ignored with sufficient obstinacy. The grim reality is that people of African origin are being baited and attacked in India with shocking regularity. In 2014, the matter caught the attention of the public following a mob assault on some black students in a Metro station in the city, as they sought refuge in a police booth. The horror was recorded by hundreds of people, using cellphone cameras. Earlier, a minister of the Aam Aadmi Party government had led a raid on African women living in Delhi, in which they were roughed up and humiliated.
Racism is a social affliction which cannot be cured overnight, but the government and social organisations must acknowledge the gravity of the problem and act on it. India hopes to compete with China for land, resources and markets in the African continent, but it does not stand a chance if its citizens’ view of humanity is coloured by racist ideas. Besides, several African countries host large populations of Indian settlers, who have built careers and small businesses, and who would become pawns in a violent game. But the most powerful connection between India and Africa is moral rather than material. Can we possibly forget that the decisive stage of the Indian freedom struggle was triggered in Africa, by a racist incident on a railway platform in Pietermaritzburg?