01/06/2016 2:25 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST

Dear Sushma Swaraj, You're Embarrassing India By Denying Racism

Kommersant Photo via Getty Images
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - APRIL 18: Foreign Minister of India Sushma Swaraj during the 14th Russia-India-China (RIC) meeting of foreign ministers on April, 18, 2016 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Pyotr Kassin/Kommersant Photo via Getty Images)

At a news conference yesterday, India's external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj told a roomful of journalists: "I held a meeting with African students… Tried to explain to them that the incident is huge but it isn’t an incident of racial discrimination."

She was referring to the brutal murder of a 23-year-old Congolese man, Masonda Ketanda Olivier, who was beaten to death in an argument over hiring an autorickshaw. Three Indians were identified for allegedly carried out the attack.

Swaraj continued in a painfully patronising tone on Tuesday: "CCTV footage clearly shows that Indian citizens who were present at the spot (of the crime) tried their best to save Masunda Olivier."

From Swaraj's statement it is clear — the veteran political leader and India's main political representative abroad believes that if some Indians helped an African from being violently assaulted by another group of Indians, it cannot be a case of racist attack. And she has to "explain" it to students from different African countries living in India, for whom it is a daily reality.

It is deeply problematic when those who are not in a position to speak as victims deny their oppression and suffering. When it comes from an official of the stature of India's external affairs minister, it becomes even more embarrassing.

But this is unfortunately a deep Indian affliction.

Earlier, Swaraj's statements had exposed what she considers the real concern with these attacks: that they "embarrass" India, and the country's image suffers when news of such incidents make it to international media.

After three separate attacks on seven Africans living in south Delhi, VK Singh, who is the minister of state of external affairs, termed it a "minor scuffle". Meanwhile, one resident of the area where the attacks took place told The Indian Express, "Even if they are not fighting, the way they speak makes it seem like they are having a fight. This is not our culture and it is very difficult for us to accept it.”

Far from taking the issue seriously, Singh shrugged off the attack on "African nationals". Africa is its own continent, Mr. Singh, not a country. Maybe you should also let your boss, Ms. Swaraj, know. So you don't "embarrass" the country.

Writing this incident off as a "criminal incident" instead of acknowledging the race tensions at work is the worst way to address the problem. In a country where locals believe attacks on Africans are justified because "they were almost asking for it" and country leaders and citizens seem to be echoing each others' words, the Indian officialdom's denial of racism is not going to help matters at all.

Sample Indian culture minister Mahesh Sharma's response to the incident. “India is a large country and such incidents will give a bad name to India. It is an unfortunate incident. However, even Africa is not safe,” Sharma said an interview. “Such incidents happen in other parts of the world too.”

His comments aren't very different from how political leaders have responded to similar incidents in the past.

After a Nigerian man was murdered in Goa in 2013, a state minister, Dayanand Mandrekar, called Nigerians "a cancer". Meanwhile state tourism minister Dilip Parulekar claimed Nigerians "created problems" across India.

Earlier this year, when a Tanzanian woman was assaulted and paraded naked in a case of "mistaken identity", the external affairs ministry chose to sweep it under the carpet as an "isolated incident". Despite a statement from African diplomats in India who want to discourage students from African nations to visit India because of “stereotypes and racial prejudice" against Africans in India, the Indian government refuses to acknowledge the elephant in the room.

Whether Olivier's murder was the result of a racially-motivated attack or "murder on trivial grounds" (a category that the Delhi Police regularly tracks and maintains a separate account of) is yet to be conclusively decided. Olivier's friend, who is an eye witness in the case, has earlier said that the 23-year-old was attacked on racial grounds, and other Africans living in the area have corroborated this. Irrespective of this, Olivier's description of his experience living in India is telling.

"Here we are treated like nothing, and nothing is not good."