Racist attacks belie presence of Africans in India for centuries

Sunday April 2 2017

Greater Noida in India

This photo taken on March 27, 2017 shows Indian police and onlookers surrounding African nationals at a shopping mall in Greater Noida. Past incidents indicate that often Africans are blamed for crimes they have not committed. PHOTO | AFP 

By RASNA WARAH
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The brutal mob attack on a group of Nigerian students in a shopping mall in the city of Greater Noida has generated a lot of discussion about how Africans in India are treated.

Although the government has condemned the attack, the incident has once again raised the issue of racism in India.

Africans studying in India report being routinely discriminated against by shopkeepers and landlords.

Residents complain that African students fail to assimilate into Indian culture and are responsible for introducing bad habits, such as alcohol and drug abuse, into their society.

Media reports indicate that the Nigerians were attacked because it was believed that they supplied drugs to an Indian man who died of an overdose.

However, past incidents indicate that often Africans are blamed for crimes they have not committed.

Last year, a Tanzanian woman in Bangalore was harassed and nearly stripped naked by a mob after a Sudanese man allegedly ran his car over a woman.

Ironically, the latest incident occurred not long after an Indian engineer was shot dead by a white racist in a bar in Kansas, United States.

That murder generated a lot of furore among Indians in India and America, many of whom favoured Donald Trump’s presidency, but who are now having second thoughts about his paranoia-fuelled racist policies that threaten to keep the majority of the world’s people, including Indians, from entering the US.

The attacks in Greater Noida and Kansas may have been racially motivated, but they are occurring at a time when ultranationalism and hatred of “the other” are being associated with patriotism in both India and the US.

SETTLERS

As one Indian commentator noted, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s hypernationalistic “Hindutva” ideology has found common cause with Trumpism.

This ideology is fuelled by ignorance. Last week, at a seminar titled, “Connectivity Revisited: India, Kenya and the Indian Ocean”, hosted by the Indian High Commission in Kenya, many participants lamented that both Indians and Kenyans have little knowledge of each other’s cultures and history.

Yet, India and the East African coast have had trade links for centuries.

When Vasco da Gama arrived in Mombasa in the 15th century, Indians had already established trading positions there.

In the 19th century, most of the commerce in Zanzibar was controlled by Indians.

With the building of the Uganda Railway at the beginning of the 20th century, the East African interior opened up to Indian trade.

Indians also took up clerical and other posts in the British colonial administration. Later, some participated in the struggle for independence.

The descendants of these pioneer Indians are found today across all East Africa.

However, while the history of East African Indians has been widely documented, little is known about the many Africans who went to India and settled there.

People of African descent known as the Sidis have been living in the Indian state of Gujarat for centuries.

Also known as the “African Sufis of Gujarat”, the Sidis are known for their Africa-inspired music and dance called Sidi Goma, which they have performed in various parts of the world, including Zanzibar and Kenya.

It is believed that the Sidis’ origins lie in East Africa; many of their songs are peppered with Kiswahili words.

MILITARY MEN
Even less known is the fact that many Africans were coopted into India’s aristocracy since the 14th century.

These former slaves came mainly from Ethiopia and Sudan and were taken to India by Arab slave traders who sold them to kings, rich merchants and aristocrats.

However, not all of them remained slaves. Some rose through the ranks to become nobles and generals.

One of them, Malik Ambar, a slave-turned-general, held a prominent position in the Ahmadnagar Sultanate in western India in the 17th century.

Evidence of Africans playing a role in India’s history can be found in an exhibition of paintings that depict Africans participating in various events, not as slaves but as important members of royal Mughal courts.

The exhibition titled “Africans in India: A Rediscovery”, which was recently held in New Delhi and New York, shows that unlike African slaves in the Americas, many African slaves in India rose to hold military and other positions.

For their descendants, however, social mobility has not been easy; they are still classified as among one of India’s marginalised “scheduled tribes”.