(Siddharth Varadarajan is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University)
24 hours after using Congress President Sonia Gandhi as the foil for a racist remark, Giriraj Singh and the Narendra Modi government he represents seem blissfully unaware of the damage this witlessness has done to India's relations with Nigeria, and to its standing with the African continent as a whole.
To the loud guffaws of his supporters, the Minister of State for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises can be seen on video saying, "If Rajiv Gandhi had married a Nigerian lady, someone not white-skinned, would the Congress have accepted her as its leader?"
If you see the video, two things become apparent. The political target is obviously Sonia, but the real joke as far as the BJP leader and his chamchas are concerned is the idea of Rajiv Gandhi actually marrying a Nigerian woman. They are laughing at the mental image that Giriraj fleetingly conjures of a Nigerian woman ordering Congressmen around. The laughter is not at the notion of men following the orders of a woman in general, but those of an African woman, a black woman, a dark-skinned woman. You wouldn't even marry such a woman, the sub-text is, let alone place political power in her hands. Hilarious, isn't it?
Sonia Gandhi has heard worse in the past from other representatives of the BJP and Sangh Parivar, and Giriraj Singh's racism has already been seized upon by the Congress to embarrass the Modi government. My concern here is with the diplomatic fall-out. Later this year, New Delhi is going to play host to the India-Africa summit, a major foreign policy initiative, in which the leaders of all 54 African nations have been invited to attend. The only time such a large number of African leaders have gathered in one place outside the continent was in 2006 in Beijing for the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation.
We are used to the common-place prejudices in our society against dark skin colour, to the preference of fair over dark and the lucrative business that thrives on selling the chimera of whiteness to millions and millions of Indians by robbing them of their self-confidence and self-esteem. This is a battle that Indian civil society will have to fight. But when Indian racism begins to hurt other peoples and countries - be they African students and migrants in India, or the feelings of an entire continent - action by the government has to be swift and immediate.
Nigeria, like many other African countries, is also host to a thriving Indian community, many of whom have lived there for decades. The Indians in Africa have done well for themselves, and for India; they have preserved their national identity and language but are far more comfortable speaking the languages of their adopted homeland - Hausa, Yoruba, Swahili, Wolof, Lingala - than migrants from, say, China. The crude racism of Giriraj Singh and the failure of the Prime Minister to sack him - or even publicly reprimand him - are an affront to Africa, an embarrassment to the Indian diaspora, and a slap in the face of Indian diplomacy.
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