The incident of 28 March of attacks on students of African origin at a shopping mall in Greater NOIDA has shocked everybody in India and has created a serious image problem for the country, especially in Africa. Clearly a manifestation of racial prejudice, it is also of a piece with deepening prejudices in India, be they linguistic, communal, casteist, regional or in any other form. Looking at it another way, it is also a manifestation of a vast underbelly of lawlessness and crime which has developed in our large, not easily governable urban conurbations. The city authorities and the grassroots’ level police or the magistracy are overworked, under-resourced and are in a constant firefighting mode. This abhorrent incident fits into that larger picture.
The incident took place against a background of simmering tension between the local residents and the African students. The relationship has been fraught for some time and the unfounded accusations of complicity of Nigerian nationals in the death of a local teenager became a flashpoint leading to a candlelight march by the agitated residents, on 27 March. It was accompanied by stray incidents of attacks and followed the next day by a violent attack on some Nigerian students who were out shopping. The police and the district magistrate brought the situation under control and followed it up with meetings with the Nigerian Students Association, the Nigerian High Commission and others, including the universities concerned as well as RWAs, to prevent future flare-ups. The African Students Association has threatened to write to all African Heads of State about “barbaric racism” practised in India and that they should all, collectively, downgrade relations with India. The External Affairs Minister spoke to the UP Chief Minister to bring the situation under control and to punish the guilty expeditiously. At a subsequent meeting with the District Magistrate, RWA representatives have reiterated their accusation against the afore-mentioned Nigerian students and have alleged that the police is being unfair to them. The situation has become further aggravated following the registration of an FIR by a Kenyan woman on 29 March, about being beaten by some unknown assailants in the township; the Association of African Students in India has cautioned African nationals in Greater NOIDA to stay indoors until the situation calms down.
Violent incidents of any kind, in the final analysis, boil down to issues of maintenance of law and order and the management of the passions of the parties involved. They also put the spotlight on the functioning of the systems in place and their ability to prevent violence from breaking out. In the Greater NOIDA incidents, the spotlight has been more on the police, the magistracy, the RWAs and the African students and their associations. However, the formal arrangements concerning the stay and the welfare of foreign students are much more extensive as they involve different units of the Ministry of External Affairs, The Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), the various university authorities as well as the concerned diplomatic representations in India; all of these agencies remain in touch with the students as well as the local authorities to coordinate their welfare.
As evident in the media reports, the action to bring the situation under control appears to be confined to the law and order machinery, the RWAs and the students. There is no media report about the role and the arrangements put in place by the concerned universities where the African students are studying. The deans of the universities, dealing with foreign students, need to be especially proactive in ensuring that their foreign students are staying in safe residential areas if they cannot be accommodated on the university campus itself. If the students are staying outside the campus, the deans ~ as well as student representatives of the universities at responsible levels ~ need to maintain close and continuous contact with the RWA concerned so that the perception issues on both sides can be properly addressed. Suitable advisories about lifestyle adjustments on the part of the foreign students go a long way in ensuring that there are better relations and easier communications between them and the larger host communities. The deans need to be proactive in ensuring that, when a situation is boiling over as in this particular incident, proper advisories are issued and acted upon so that foreign students are particularly careful in their movements outside the campus for their various requirements.
They are also the nodal points for the diplomatic missions, the foreign office officials as well as the higher and grassroots’ authorities to sort out any adjustment issues for young foreigners coming to live in India. They alert the local authorities about any possible signs of danger. They also ensure that the students do not indulge in any illegal and unbecoming activity and that they have a continuing legal residential status. It is a universal practice for ambassadors to call on high dignitaries in the state where the students from their countries are studying. The government as well as foreign missions, in coordination with their home governments, need to ensure that no educational institution accepts foreign students if it does not have suitable arrangements to ensure their welfare.
There is no doubt that such recurring incidents will negatively impact on India-Africa relations and, possibly, the interest of the vast Indian diaspora in that continent. Diplomats and other expatriates from India, who have lived in various African countries, find their experience as pleasant, as India is held in very high esteem both in the larger communities as well as at higher levels of government. In the interest of keeping IndiaAfrica relations in good repair, it is necessary that there is a concerted effort involving the government, the various educational institutions, the ICCR, business chambers and others to expose the wider Indian community to the ‘rainbow’ culture that Africa represents. This can be in the form of music festivals, various academic seminars involving scholars from Africa as well as promoting tele-serials from Africa on our TV channels as they do in respect of other foreign countries. One cannot close without recalling the haunting comment made by one African student ~ “In India, guests are considered gods, all we want is to be treated as humans!” Emblematic of the larger problem of urban governance, it is critical that this problem be addressed both at the local management level as well as the perception level.
The writer is former High Commissioner to Namibia.