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India’s xenophobia shame

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India's 'the guest is divine' motto is failing to protect some visitors from xenophobic attacks. Adam Jones under a Creative Commons Licence

Hitting Indian headlines right now are stories that fill all decent Indians with sadness and shame.

Periodically, recently, we’ve had ugly racist attacks on people ‘not like us’. We’ve always had caste-based prejudice and communal clashes (read: Hindu-Muslim riots). These we are definitely inured to, and tend to treat as normal.

In Delhi, last week, a boy went missing. Somehow a rumour was started that this particular boy had been – believe it or not – attacked and eaten by cannibalistic Nigerians (yes, you read me correctly). In this day and age, where almost every Delhi-ite has a mobile phone and is active on social media, and watches news from all over the globe, the ignorant still abound. The boy, sadly, turned up dead, of an overdose of drugs. This didn’t deter the Nigerian-baiters. Word spread that the boy died because Africans had sold drugs to him. One African, like one white person, or one Chinese-Burmese-Thai-Northeastern person, is exactly like another for these sick, hate-filled people. Newspapers reported that a mob descended on a nearby shopping mall and brutally beat up a young Nigerian student to within an inch of his life. This is not the first attack on Africans in Delhi. Bangalore too, has had frenzied xenophobic spurts of violence against Africans and our own Northeastern citizens. An African woman was pulled out of a cab and stripped by a mob. Another African was beaten with iron rods and stoned to death. Regrettably, the penalties for these crimes have not made headlines.

Millions of Indians have family and friends living and working all over the globe. There is widespread anger, understandably, when Indians face hate-crimes in the US and Australia. There’s generally a nationwide rage, reflected in newspaper and TV headlines. How then, can we do this to other visitors to our turf?

What’s even more annoying is that our government, every government, continues to pretend that racism and xenophobia don’t exist in India. It’s not even treated as a seriously criminal act. So very little action is taken against the perpetrators. They get off scot-free, which emboldens people to keep bullying and beating people up. This phenomenon is also totally against Indian culture, where the guest is supposed to be revered and treated like a visiting god. ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ (‘The guest is divine’) is a phrase every Indian villager knows. So these vicious attacks are on one level incomprehensible. They are, however, very much a part of life for the bewildered African at the receiving end. African students in Delhi have messaged each other saying ‘Don’t leave your rooms, it’s not safe.’ What a shameful day for us as a country.

This time, though, outraged African envoys from several countries have demanded a separate, independent investigation by the UN into the racist and xenophobic attacks on their students. Reports are flying around that some African ambassadors, who have hitherto been fairly reticent regarding earlier attacks, have sent reports back to their home countries advising their nations to desist from supporting India’s bid for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council.

They have realized, through bitter experience, that we as a nation allow racists, bullies and bigots to get away with murder. And unless they can protest effectively, vocally and internationally, so that it hits our government where it hurts, nothing will change.

I hope India’s non-racist, global community will get together to empathize with our African visitors.

To show them we are not all the same. We are not all bigots, racists or xenophobic. African sports heroes are revered. As is Nelson Mandela. But that’s not enough. We need to show solidarity here, in our country. On home ground.

It’s time for Africa.

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