Charu Sudan Kasturi, TT, New Delhi, April 3: African ambassadors in India today jointly demanded "strong condemnation" of the recent attacks on Nigerian students in Greater Noida from the Prime Minister and the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, escalating diplomatic tensions that New Delhi thought were subsiding.
The envoys, from the 43 African countries with missions here, challenged India's claim of having adopted deterrent measures. They branded the attacks "xenophobic and racial in nature" - a label New Delhi is shying away from.
The diplomats threatened to seek a probe by the United Nations Human Rights Council and report their concerns "comprehensively" to the African Union Commission. Such steps, if taken, would mean international embarrassment for India.
African nations and heads of mission had in the past too protested attacks on people from their continent, which India has for decades counted as a steadfast international ally.
But veteran diplomats told The Telegraph they could not recall any previous instance of foreign diplomats publicly demanding condemnation "from the highest political level (both nationally and locally) of the Government of India" - a reference to Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath.
The statement, issued by Eritrea's ambassador Alem Woldemariam, dean of the African heads of mission in India, is based on decisions taken by the ambassadors at a previously undisclosed meeting on March 31.
Late evening, the Indian foreign ministry called their statement "unfortunate".
"It is unfortunate that a criminal act triggered following the untimely death of a young Indian student under suspicious circumstances has been termed as xenophobic and racial," the foreign ministry said in a statement.
Neither Modi nor Adityanath has condemned the attacks.
A mob had barged into a Greater Noida flat occupied by Nigerian students on March 24, accused them of killing a local teenager and, led by suspicions of "cannibalism", searched their refrigerator. Police later concluded the boy had died of poisoning and that the Nigerians were not involved.
Another mob attacked another group of Nigerian students at a mall, also in Greater Noida, two days later, leaving several of them seriously injured.
"The African heads of mission strongly condemn the incident and express their deep concern and also take note that these reprehensible events, both outstanding and unresolved cases against Africans, were not sufficiently condemned by the Indian authorities," the African ambassadors' statement said.
"They reviewed the previous incidents that have taken place... and concluded that no known, sufficient and visible deterring measures were taken by the Government of India."
Senior foreign ministry representatives rushed to speak with Woldemariam, who also held a meeting at the foreign office, as New Delhi tried to contain diplomatic damage. The ministry representatives detailed the steps that New Delhi says it has taken proactively following the Greater Noida attacks.
Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj has spoken to Adityanath and sought a speedy probe. Junior foreign minister M.J. Akbar has met Nigeria's acting high commissioner and promised help.
Uttar Pradesh police have arrested men accused of leading the two mob attacks and placed round-the-clock security in Greater Noida neighbourhoods with significant African populations.
India's foreign ministry had condemned the first attack the day after the assault, and again later in the week. "Such criminal acts are completely unacceptable and have been condemned," foreign ministry spokesperson Gopal Baglay had said on March 30.
But to many African diplomats, these steps reek of damage control. They point to the murder of a Congolese student-cum-teacher in New Delhi last year.
Then too, Indian officials had promised a speedy trial after African diplomats threatened to boycott a foreign ministry programme to celebrate the African Union's relations with New Delhi. Ten months later, one of the accused in the murder remains untraced and the trial is yet to begin.
That trust deficit needs to be bridged urgently, said Anil Trigunayat, former Indian ambassador to Libya, Jordan and Malta, who also served for several years in Nigeria.
"It will be difficult to prevent all such acts, but the law must be seen to be taking its course, and efficiently," Trigunayat told this newspaper. "Our actions must be visible and quick. That's the only way we can rebuild the trust we need with our African partners."
For India, the embarrassment over the Greater Noida attacks and the subsequent diplomatic storm is especially deep because they come at a time the Modi government is leading New Delhi's most intense diplomatic engagement with Africa in decades.
The Prime Minister, President and Vice-President have between them visited 16 African countries over the past two years. And every African country barring Libya and the Central African Republic has received at least one of Modi's ministers as a guest during this period.
The gains from the outreach are now under risk. Nigeria, visited by Vice-President Hamid Ansari last September, had summoned the Indian high commissioner in Abuja last week to protest the Greater Noida attacks.
A key point of discord for many African diplomats is India's reluctance to acknowledge racism as a possible motive behind many of the attacks. India insists that the attacks be treated as individual law-and-order incidents.
"Such acts represent the action of an uninformed misguided few," Baglay said last week. "They do not detract from the deep belief of the government and people of India (in the idea of) vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the whole world is kin)."
India, Baglay said, would "continue to welcome African people including students and youth as valuable partners".
But India needs to ensure that such assaults don't trigger an African exodus from the country or deter fresh student arrivals from the continent, Trigunayat said.
"Ordinary Africans like India; this is where so many of their leaders have studied," he said. "But if these attacks create the perception that India is unwelcoming to them, their views may change. That would be sad."