India has often claimed to be a leader of what used to be called the Third World. It is the leading democracy of the developing world, and the size and quality of its higher-education and medical establishments mean that it is, to some extent, a magnet for people from all over the global south. But it could do so much better if it attacked the menace of racism, instead of pretending it does not exist.
India has a long history of prejudice based on skin colour, targeted at fellow Indians. But matters are much more pointed when it comes to those of African descent. Things are bad all over, but particularly in Delhi. This was underlined recently when three young men of West African origin were attacked by a mob in the Connaught Place metro station. Video clips shared online of the attack showed that the three had to climb on top of a police booth for safety; their attackers, a milling mob of young men, were calling out “Bharat Mata ki Jai”, or “Victory to Mother India”. The three students could not escape, however, being punched or beaten with iron bars and uprooted chairs. No half-way convincing reason for the formation of this mob has emerged. Most likely, it was just a spontaneous outpouring of the casual racism that has become a cancer in Delhi. Worst of all is the fact that the police simply failed in their responsibility to maintain law and order and to protect people in their care. The young students had to try and bolt themselves into the booth for safety. No arrests were made. This casualness is astounding.
The same week, former Delhi minister Somnath Bharti was finally charged for a midnight vigilante “raid” he led on Ugandan women who lived in a part of his Malviya Nagar constituency. Mr Bharti has expressed no remorse. He tweeted, in response to this latest incident in the Metro: “Entire Delhi is suffering from some foreign nationals indulged in criminalities n illegalities [sic].” This is, of course, the opposite of leadership. That Mr Bharti’s tirade against the Ugandan women had not been duly criticised even by Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s chief minister at that time, reflected poorly not just on the Aam Aadmi Party but also on its leaders. Other violent racist incidents have also been reported in the past year – not just against Africans, but also against students and workers from India’s Northeast. Deep social prejudices inform this violence: Africans are believed by the mob to be violent, drug peddlers, or prostitutes without any basis; Northeasterners are accused of similar vices. Other parts of the country, too, have similar problems – in Goa, some villages have declared themselves to be “Nigerian-free”; and thousands of Northeasterners fled Bangalore some years ago after threats and rumours of violence.
Discrimination extends beyond open violence. Africans are not permitted into many restaurants. They are denied apartments, credit, and basic courtesy. The police refuse to register their complaints, and many shops refuse to serve them. India’s refusal to accept that this racism does not just have deep roots, but is spreading unchecked, is problematic. It stands in the way of several major attempts by this country: to become a hub for tourism, for example, for higher education and for medical care. Open contempt and racism will also mean that Indian exports to the rest of the global south are unlikely to take off as much as they should. There are sound economic reasons to be deeply concerned about pervasive Indian racism. But, above all, there is another reason: it is wrong, and immoral, and a blot on this country’s reputation.