Charu Sudan Kasturi, TT, New Delhi, April 5: Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj today accused African ambassadors in India of overreacting to the attacks on Nigerian citizens in Greater Noida last month and the government's subsequent response, suggesting the Narendra Modi government's reaction had been adequate.
But four African ambassadors independently indicated to The Telegraph that they stood by the scathing statement the African heads of mission had collectively issued earlier this week accusing India's "political leadership" of not condemning the attacks adequately.
The African ambassadors are expected to meet by the weekend to respond to Sushma's charges.
Their statement, issued by Alem Woldemariam, the ambassador of Eritrea and the dean of the African heads of mission, insisted that the attacks were racial and xenophobic, and demanded condemnation from Modi and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath.
"What the dean of the African diplomats has said about the silence or inaction of our political leadership is completely contrary to facts," Sushma said in the Lok Sabha. "And every criminal act is not racial in nature."
Her statement represented rare public criticism by an Indian foreign minister of the decisions of multiple foreign ambassadors posted in New Delhi - and included contradictions within her own argument.
The criticism is unlikely to help the foreign ministry's efforts to put a lid in public on the diplomatic tensions sparked by the latest attacks, and sections of India's foreign policy establishment are worried about the possibility of retaliatory attacks in African countries.
Sushma spoke in Parliament after junior foreign minister V.K. Singh summoned Woldemariam to the foreign office to argue that the African ambassadors should have refrained from public criticism of the Indian government.
Instead, Singh told Woldemariam, the African envoys could have sought a meeting with Sushma if they were unhappy with the government's response - as they had done last year after the killing of a Congolese student-cum-teacher.
Late this evening, Woldemariam told this correspondent: "The decision to issue the statement was taken collectively by the heads of mission. We will collectively decide how to respond (to today's events)."
The tensions stem from a set of incidents in late March after a 19-year-old local resident in Greater Noida went missing. A mob forced their way into an apartment rented by African students, accusing them of killing the boy and of selling him narcotics.
The boy was later found unconscious in a park and died in hospital. The police have said there is no evidence suggesting any link between the dead teenager and the attacked Nigerians.
But the following day, another mob attacked a different group of Nigerian nationals in a mall in Greater Noida, thrashing them in an assault caught on camera.
The police have since arrested six men, Sushma said, listing a series of steps she took following the attacks - from calling up Adityanath to assuring a fair probe.
But the Indian foreign minister appeared to contradict herself, arguing on the one hand that it would be premature to call the attacks race-motivated while a probe was on, and then claiming the assaults could not have been racial.
"We have only said that don't label these attacks racist before the probe is complete," she said in her statement, before playing detective seconds later. "Any race-motivated attack is pre-planned. This was not a pre-planned attack."
It is unclear why racial hatred cannot, in Sushma's view, trigger spontaneous reactions - or how she concluded while the probe is on that the attacks were not pre-planned.
Instead, she referred to allegations by a Kenyan woman - that turned out to be untrue - that she was attacked in Greater Noida to question the credibility of the African concerns.
The Kenyan woman, Sushma said, had an expired visa and "was living illegally".
Sushma also questioned a threat from the African ambassadors to seek an investigation by the UN Human Rights Council into the attacks.
"We have a human rights commission in this country, active NGOs, a free press, an independent judiciary - we have all these mechanisms available in this country," she said. "And you talk of going to the Human Rights Council."