The Ministry of External Affairs, in the end, was mobilised sufficiently to persuade African envoys to call off their proposed boycott of the Africa Day event in the national capital on Thursday. But by then, by their extreme threat of rebuffing the host country’s invitation, they had made their point — and for India, embarrassingly so. First, by centring their protest around something as particular to them as Africa Day, the African Heads of Mission have highlighted how India fails to appreciate the continent’s changing identity and aspirations by not forging constructive people-to-people contact. And second, by making common cause around the murder of a Congolese student in Delhi, they have shown India a brutal mirror. Many attacks on African students may be isolated incidents of urban crime that could catch any individual in its grip, irrespective of identity, but there is a latent expression of discrimination in our everyday interactions that is stinging, that makes the next attack a reminder of a larger problem. Upon hearing of the boycott threat, the government went into damage control, with the Minister of State in the MEA reaching out to African envoys, and a mechanism being worked out for a meeting with Heads of Mission every three months. However, the remarkable manner in which the problem of “Afro-phobia” has been brought to public attention demands more — more diplomatic introspection and more political will to address dehumanising prejudices in Indian society.
It is not that India has not recognised the growing importance of Africa. Last year, the Modi government rendered the Africa Summit a spectacular splash to show that it is mindful of the continent’s rising profile. The 54 countries of the African Union — indeed, the 54 seats in the UN General Assembly — are key to India’s global ambitions. African countries too are responding to India’s rise by appointing more senior diplomats and often senior politicians to their missions to New Delhi. One consequence is that the envoys do not follow an older, sedate template for their roster of duties. As the MEA’s announcement of the mechanism of minister-level interactions shows, the diplomatic outreach needs re-evaluation. More importantly perhaps, envoys today are more conscious of public opinion back home. They see it to be their remit to respond to anxiety, even anger, over the treatment of their citizens. India is scaling up its engagement with Africa — Vice President Hamid Ansari begins a visit to Morocco and Tunisia next week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi goes later this year. But this is not only about Africa. India fails itself by carrying on, business as usual, instead of politically and socially tackling the discrimination and violence faced by its citizens as well as visitors.