NEW DELHI: ”These were not premeditated acts against a particular community, rather these were spontaneous attacks perpetrated by antisocial and criminal elements” said External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj after meeting a delegation of African diplomats in Delhi on May 31.

She also added “India is the land of Gandhi and Buddha. We have fought consistently against racial discrimination. Gandhi himself championed the cause of fighting against this evil. We can never have a racist mindset. It is incumbent upon us to prevent such attacks and we are determined to do so.” The Minister put forth the perspective that the murder of Congolese national Masunda Ketanda Olivier in Delhi's Vasant Kunj area was not racial in nature.

The minister’s statement followed an uproar by African nationals in Delhi, who have been referring to racism in India more openly than ever before. Olivier’s brutal murder, in fact, prompted envoys of African countries to boycott annual ‘Africa Day’ celebrations in New Delhi earlier in May as a measure of protest, agreeing to intend only after considerable persuasion by the Ministry of External Affairs.

This has not been the first time that India has had to respond to complaints of racism, although officially the governments have always tried to downplay the incidents.

In February this year, when a Tanzanian girl was allegedly stripped in Bengaluru, Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Vikas Swarup said it was an “isolated incident”. Karnataka’s Home Minister G. Parameshwara too said it was a matter of road rage. In fact, following the death of Olivier, VK Singh went as far as calling the attack that led to the murder of the Congolese national a “minor scuffle.”

Africans living and working in India feel entirely differently. “Yeah, of course Indians are racist. Not all, but the local ones are” said Zaharaddeen, a Nigerian student. Speaking to The Citizen he said, “It happens in the metro everyday, commuters stare at us, pass comments. We are not invited to homes. Because we are ‘Blacks’, they don’t trust us”. Two African nationals were attacked by a mob earlier this year at a Delhi metro station.

Growing racism and the government’s inadequate response to the problem has led to protests. African nationals gathered for a peaceful protest at Jantar Mantar recently to highlight the incidents of racism and urge the government to take action. One of the protestors Ejimkoya Otujeme said, “We are here because of those killed. We are here to respect them. We want your government to do what it is supposed to do. We have more than 5 lakh Indians in Africa and they live in peace. We are not disturbing anyone. "

Another protest was planned by the Association of African Students in India to be led by JNUSU’s President Kanhaiya Kumar on May 31 at Jantar Mantar, but it was cancelled as AASI representatives met with government officials who assured them of security. AASI had sent a letter to the Delhi police saying that “racism towards (the people of) African descent is not acceptable at any cost in the twenty-first century.”

When contacted by The Citizen, the AASI students said that they had called off the march because:

1. There was a high level meeting today with MEA officials, who listened to our grievances and ensured our safety. Envoys representing African countries were present at the meeting.

2. There was also a high level meeting with the Delhi Police Commissioner in which promises and commitments to ensure better policing with respect to Africans were guaranteed. Community building initiatives are to be carried out by the Delhi police to make Africans more safe.

3. There was also a meeting with the African Ambassadors in which they advised us to have confidence in the Indian government. The parents of Olivier have also requested us not to carry out a protest.”

AASI officials met with Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar on May 30, where they were assured of their safety and grievances of African students were heard. Olivier’s family was promised help in taking his body back to Congo. The government further instructed Delhi police to be alert in areas where there are significant numbers of African people residing. Delhi police also launched a helpline number for foreign nationals – 8750871111.

As a measure of recourse, President Pranab Mukherjee also reassured African nationals by saying “It would be most unfortunate if the people of India were to dilute our long tradition of friendship with the people of Africa and the welcome we have always extended to them in our country. African students in India should have no reason to fear for their safety and security.”

However, the official government narrative seems to be centred on projecting the attack as a law and order problem, and not of racism that African nationals have often said is ingrained in Indian society. African nationals studying or working in India have repeatedly pointed towards the constant threat to their security, with people harassing them on the streets, shouting comments, and making fun of their colour. “We are lucky if it stops at this,” a student confided.

At the airports the African visitors are detained, and usually subjected to an extra frisk and search. “We are lumped together in this stereotype that all Africans are peddling drugs, or sex,” the students point out. No one in India is willing to make a distinction. A student who is leaving for his country added, “Indians seem to be more racist than the white western countries.”

Since the death of Oliver and the protests that have followed, a series of incidents have made the news, with the added perspective of racism in India being attached. A few days ago, the media reported. a group of Africans allegedly beat up a taxi driver in Delhi after he refused to carry more than four passengers. In Goa, police on Monday arrested a Nigerian accused of raping a local woman. There is an attempt to draw a link between these incidents and the complaints being made by African nationals regarding India’s racist mindset. This conflation of the two is unfortunate, as African nationals have perhaps a very genuine complaint regarding India’s racist attitude, which cannot and should not be discounted by bringing up unrelated incidents that attempt to further demean and disrepute the African community in India as a whole.

Perhaps the most unfortunate outcome of all of the above, however, is the fact that some people in Congo chose to respond to Oliver’s murder in racist and violent terms. Shops of a few Indians in Congo were attacked. “Our embassy in Congo is in touch with local authorities and, as of now, things have calmed down. India’s relations with Congo go back many years,” the MEA said.

Denial and violence on both sides will only perpetuate racism, with India’s reputation as one of the most racist countries in the world only being cemented. This is something India cannot afford, especially given its long, shared history with the African continent. Africa continues to be strategically and culturally important to India, with Vice-President Hamid Ansari having left for a five-day visit to Morocco and Tunisia on May 30. PM Narendra Modi is expected to visit South Africa, Mozambique and Kenya in July whereas President Pranab Mukherjee is likely to travel to Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Senegal in mid-June.