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30 Mar 2017

Racism home truth showing

The Kenyan student who was thrashed by some unidentified men is
wheeled into a hospital in Greater Noida . Pic:Prem Singh
TT, New Delhi, March 29: Mid-way through his three-nation breeze across West Africa last June, President Pranab Mukherjee had called his outreach part of India's "grand strategy" for the continent. Nine months later, New Delhi is worried that strategy may be unravelling, on the streets of Greater The spotlight on racism on India's streets against people from other countries coincides embarrassingly for New Delhi with xenophobic attacks on Indian-origin people in the US, Australia and New Zealand.
Foreign secretary S. Jaishankar and Indian ambassador in Washington Navtej Sarna have sought action from the US government in some of these cases. India's consulate in Houston had mobilised the Indian-American community to collect $100,000 for Ian Grillot, the American who tried to tackle a gunman who shot dead Indian engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla in a Kansas grill-cum-bar last month.
Frequent reminders of India's own warts on racism against foreign nationals complicate efforts to lean on other governments to protect Indians, officials here said.
President Mukherjee, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Vice-President Hamid Ansari - the three leaders at the apex of India's constitutional structure - have between them visited an unprecedented 16 African nations over the past two years.
At least one member of Modi's council of ministers has visited every African country other than Libya, which is caught in a civil war, and the Central African Republic.
The trips are part of the Modi government's efforts to deepen India's strategic footprint in Africa amid deep forays by China, and to reshape New Delhi's image from that of a reluctant, unresponsive partner.
But the attacks in Greater Noida could undo any gains made from these visits and a spate of soft loans promised by India, officials and analysts said.
"They seriously undermine India's political outreach in Africa," Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, said. "African leaders don't operate in a vacuum - they have to carry public opinion at home. If India develops a reputation as a country where their people are constantly under threat, nothing can be worse."
The attacks in Greater Noida, which started with a mob entering the home of a group of Nigerian students, claiming that they had killed a young man, are only the latest in a regular string of assaults on people from African countries in India over recent years.
These assaults have spanned the current Modi-led NDA government and the previous UPA administration, and across locations ranging from New Delhi to Bangalore and Jalandhar to Goa.
But the diplomatic fallout had appeared to come to a head last year, after a Congolese student-cum-teacher was killed here over an argument with a group of local men on hiring an autorickshaw.
That murder sparked a common protest from African diplomats, and led to a series of promises from the Modi government to try and avoid a repeat.
Police presence was stepped up in neighbourhoods in the capital that house significant African populations. Delhi police also set up helplines dedicated to foreign nationals in India facing threats.
These measures have played out in Greater Noida too, where battalions of police have fanned out over the past two days - and represent recognition in the foreign ministry of the diplomatic damage the attacks have caused.
"Yesterday's incident in Greater Noida, in which several people of African origin were injured, is deplorable," the foreign ministry said in a statement yesterday. "The government is committed to ensuring safety and security of all foreigners in India. People from Africa, including students and youth, remain our valued partners."
The foreign ministry has cited its response - quicker than last year following the murder of the Congolese man - to nudge African diplomats here to avoid taking a confrontational posture.
The ambassadors of two African countries independently told this newspaper on condition of anonymity that they would allow New Delhi to demonstrate its commitment.
But that may not be enough to insulate ties from the attacks, both also suggested. Already, Nigerian news publications have over the past three days reported extensively on the attacks. This has drawn comments from readers threatening a backlash against Indians in the West African nation.
The Association of African Students in India has threatened to ask the African Union and member countries to snap trade ties with India unless the government guarantees the security of Africans.
An increasing number of Africans are coming to diplomats with the same question, one of the ambassadors said: "How many more times do we just accept these attacks before advising everyone back home to boycott India?".
The recent attacks on nationals from different African countries in the capital's suburb threaten to negate India's most intense diplomatic engagement with the continent in decades, senior officials and analysts have said.
The attacks, in which Nigerian nationals were allegedly thrashed on the basis of innuendo and stereotypes while a Kenyan woman was beaten up today, also blunt India's ability to pressure other countries to prevent race-related attacks on people of Indian origin, the officials said.

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