NEW DELHI: A number of envoys to India from African countries have boycotted today’s “Africa Day” celebrations, prompting Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj to step in. The envoys have written a letter to the Indian government asking for the deferment of “Africa Day” celebrations given the "racism and Afro-phobia" prevalent in India.

The boycott comes in the wake of the brutal murder of a Congolese national, who was chased and thrashed in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj neighbourhood this Saturday. In a measure of solidarity with the victim, MT Olivia -- who taught foreign languages as at a private institute in New Delhi -- the African Group of Heads of Mission declared that it would not join the May 25 Africa Day celebrations.

“Given the pervading climate of fear and insecurity in Delhi, the African Heads of Mission are left with little option than to consider recommending to their governments not to send new students to India, unless and until their safety can be guaranteed,” a statement from Alem Tsehage Woldemariam, Ambassador of Eritrea and dean of the group said.

“Accordingly, the Indian government is strongly enjoined to take urgent steps to guarantee the safety of Africans in India, including appropriate programmes of public awareness that will address the problems of racism and Afro-phobia in India,” the statement added. ““As regards this year’s celebration of Africa Day being organised by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations for Thursday, the African Group has requested a postponement of the event. This is because the African Community in India are in a state of mourning.”

The statement followed a meeting of the group’s members at the High Commission of Ghana on Tuesday, after which senior African diplomats met officials at India’s Ministry of External Affairs and demanded that India “take concrete steps to guarantee the safety and security of Africans.”

India’s Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj roped in minister VK Singh, asking the minister to meet the African envoys and reassure them of India's commitment to the safety and security of their nationals in India. Minister Swaraj called the murder of Olivia an "unfortunate and painful incident" and asked Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor to fast-track the case.

The envoys correctly point out that several cases targeting African nationals in India have gone unresolved "without diligent prosecution." Earlier this year, a Tanzanian student was stripped and beaten following a road accident in Bengaluru in February. The 21 year old Tanzanian student was assaulted and partially stripped by a mob in Bangalore, after a Sudanese student's car ran over and killed a local woman. The crowd chased the young woman and "removed her top," and her three friends -- also Tanzanians -- were harassed as well.

Another high profile case includes the harassment of three African nationals at a metro station in New Delhi. A video posted to YouTube shows the three students being beaten with belts, shoes, rods and glass, with the police making a half-hearted attempt to intervene. Although the Indian government condemned the attack -- four days after it happened -- and assured the envoys of Gabon and Burkina Faso that the police were investigating the attack, little action was taken.

This routine discrimination complemented by insufficient action has been a point of concern for African nations for some time, with several officials speaking to The Citizen about India’s reputation as a racist country. A senior Ambassador here pointed towards this, maintaining that even more than business and trade it was essential for the Indians to be made more conversant with the African countries, their culture and their people “to at least try and end this obvious prejudice and discrimination.”

African students in Delhi and other parts of the country are on record now expressing fear for their safety. Many told reporters from The Citizen that their friends are no longer seeking admission in Indian universities, even as they said that they are seriously thinking of leaving altogether. A young woman who is studying here in Delhi University was categorical, “my family wants me to come back, but I still have a year to go for my degree, I just do not know what to do.”

And as the boycotting of ‘Africa Day’ is a concrete measure of protest, this is not the first time African nations have highlighted their concerns. Sources said that the African envoys have raised this issue informally at different levels, looking for ‘solutions’ but finding none. 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.”

And though he did not add, there is a clear obsession here with the fair and the white. The ‘fair and lovely’ creams play on this phobia against the dark skin, with marital advertisements all promising ‘fair and beautiful’ girls as prospective brides.

Even tourist friendly Goa turned completely racist in 2013 with a popular beach putting up signs reading “Say No to Nigerians, Say No to Drugs.” The placards compared the Africans to cancer and wild animals while the authorities looked on.In 2014, the newly elected Aam Aadmi legislator Somnath Bharti led a vigilante mob to abuse and beat up Nigerian women in Delhi. Why? They were running a drug and sex racket, said he. And how had he come to that conclusion? That is what the residents of the colony where they lived maintained was the response.

The incidents against African students fill a volume. In all cases the action has been niggardly and the political response pathetic. In all these cases, little action has been taken to bring perpetrators of violence to justice, all whilst New Delhi quips that it has a “zero tolerance policy” when it comes to racism.

The biggest irony, perhaps, is that all this is playing out whilst the Modi government intensifies measures to woo African nations. The mega Indo-African summit last year was indicative of that renewed push. The summit was the largest diplomatic enclave the Indian capital has hosted in more than thirty years, with over 40 African heads of state or government present. The largest gathering prior to last year’s India-Africa summit was the rather aptly the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit of 1983, when 51 leaders from 91 countries had attended.

India has several reasons to target Africa. For one, African nations seems to be tiring of China -- who is by far the leading player in the continent. The Modi government’s reoriented foreign policy is the perfect platform for India to take advantage of this shift. And although India remains far less capable than China to provide large-scale infrastructure projects backed by commodity deals, it does offer other benefits to African countries, including its experience in education, security and human resource development -- all of which were key areas outlined in the India-Africa summit.

In turn, India’s growth objectives remain linked to Africa, with India now sourcing more than a quarter of its oil imports from Africa, with an estimated 10 percent to be sourced from Nigeria alone, in order to reduce its dependence on the Gulf countries. Additionally, PM Modi’s Make In India policy crucially depends on Africa’s rapidly expanding consumer markets (Africa’s economic growth rate is expected to peak at 5 percent in 2016).

Further, quite interestingly, on paper India and Africa share a unique history -- that of colonialism marked by racism and oppression. This common history was the basis of the Non Aligned Movement, where India and African nations defined their foreign policy in terms of their support for democracy, human rights and equality, and in opposition to racism, discrimination and oppression. This history continues to resonate with many in Africa.

In India today -- which is desperately trying to woo African nations to drive its own growth agenda and foreign policy muscle -- the main thread binding it with African nations is ironically being forgotten.

(Photo: mob attack at a Delhi metro station on African nationals)