06/04/2017 11:42 AM IST | Updated 06/04/2017 12:48 PM IST

The Real Reason Why Sushma Swaraj Is Peeved With African Envoys Calling India Racist

Log kya kahenge.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Sushma Swaraj is not VK Singh, her junior minister who habitually puts his foot in his mouth. He's the one who brandishes incendiary terms like "presstitute" when he does not agree with a story. He's the one who was quick to diagnose mental health issues when an ex-army man committed suicide, rather than show empathy. And to make matters worse, said the dead man was a Congress sarpanch. He's the minister who reacted to outrage over the death of two Dalit children in Faridabad by saying, "For everything ... like if somebody throws a stone at a dog, then the government is responsible ... it is not like that."

Swaraj, in contrast, is seen as one who measures her words and lets her actions speak louder. She's seen as a pro-active hard-working minister, super responsive to the plight of Indians abroad, working diligently at her job even through her kidney transplant operation.

That's why it's doubly disheartening to hear what she had to say in Parliament about the attacks of Africans in India.

What should have been more unfortunate and painful are the mob attacks on the students in the first place

The external affairs minister said the response of the dean of the heads of the African Missions was "unfortunate, painful and surprising".

What should have been more unfortunate and painful are the mob attacks on the students in the first place. The government has condemned the attacks, offered help to beleaguered African students, and arrested half a dozen people allegedly involved in the Greater Noida mayhem. But Swaraj's statements showed that the government is far more concerned with its bruised reputation than with confronting any ugly reality.

The India Today Group via Getty Images

What rankled the Indian government was that Alem Woldemariam, the dean of the envoys, had insisted the attacks were "racist and xenophobic". The Indian government is twisting itself into a pretzel to have the attacks called anything but that. "Unfortunate" is fine. Racist and xenophobic are not. That's because the former can be tagged as a bad apple one-off incident. The latter is something systemic. It's as if by admitting to racism each and every Indian will now be branded as "racist".

In order to prove they are not racist, Swaraj employed a rather baffling leap of logic. First, she said it was premature to call the attacks racially-motivated while a probe was on.

By that logic, no one should be allowed to say the attacks on the Indian engineers in the Kansas City bar should be investigated as "hate crimes" while the probe was on.

It's as if by admitting to racism each and every Indian will now be branded as "racist".

But then, Swaraj puzzlingly contradicted herself by insisting that the attacks were not racially-motivated at all. "Any race-motivated attack is pre-planned," she said. "This was not a pre-planned attack."

In effect, what the esteemed minister told the African leaders was that while they had no right to call the attacks "race-motivated" while a probe was on, she had every right to call the attacks not motivated by race while the same probe was on.

As to the pre-planning clause, where did that come from? The dictionary definition of racism goes like this:

racism: noun 1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.

2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.

3.hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.

Dave Kaup / Reuters
Alok Madasani, who was wounded in a bar shooting that killed Indian engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla, sings during a candlelight vigil at a conference center in Olathe, Kansas, U.S., February 26, 2017. On right is Madasani's wife Reepthi Gangula. REUTERS/Dave Kaup

None of it mentions that it has to be pre-planned, that it cannot be spontaneous. Adam Purinton's family insists he was not a racist per se, that he just snapped in the bar in Kansas City. There's no indication he pre-planned the attack, that he had been out that day looking for middle-easterners to shoot. After the initial confrontation with Srinivas Kuchibhotla and his friend, Purinton left the bar, only to return later with a gun. By Swaraj's definition, the FBI could claim this was not a racist attack.

In 1919, there was a famous race riot in Chicago. The immediate trigger was a white man throwing stones at black swimmers. The police did not arrest him but arrested a black man instead. Fury erupted and riots went on for almost a week. But they happened because ethnic and racial tensions had already been building up over jobs and accommodation as African Americans from the South moved into neighbourhoods occupied by European immigrants. By Swaraj's definition, this would not be a race riot since it was not planned enough.

The riots in Los Angeles in 1992, when the white police officers were acquitted after being caught on camera beating Rodney King, starkly showed a festering racial divide in America, especially with regard to the criminal justice system. Yet, by Swaraj's definition, they would not be race-motivated because they had an angry spontaneous reaction to that verdict rather than something methodically pre-planned.

The real reason India is peeved is clear from Swaraj's other comments

The real reason India is peeved is clear from Swaraj's other comments. "We have a human rights commission in this country, active NGOs, a free press, an independent judiciary — we have all these mechanisms available in this country. And you talk of going to the (UN) Human Rights Council?"

This is India's real grouse. The Africans are washing India's dirty linen in public. Junior foreign minister VK Singh told Woldemariam that the African envoys could have sought a meeting with Swaraj as they had done after the death of the Congolese student, instead of going to the Human Rights Council.

In the end, for us it's always more about log kya kahenge than anything else.

Indians can claim that India's attitudes towards darker skin is based on years of colonial brainwashing rather than the American variety of racism based on slavery. But that's cold comfort to the African students who got beaten up because of racial stereotypes of drug smugglers. Whatever the root cause of the racial stereotypes, the sticks and kicks hurt just the same.

In the end, for us it's always more about log kya kahenge than anything else

Racism is a problem around the world. Indians are not that unique that they should be exempt from it. Even the venerable father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, cannot be said to have been immune. As historian Ramachandra Guha writes in a hard-hitting column in The Indian Express, "Indeed, when he landed in Africa in May 1893, aged 24, Mohandas Gandhi was himself a racist. He saw Africans as backward and lazy, and as greatly inferior to Indians, and wrote about them in these terms."

Gandhi's views might have evolved enough for Nelson Mandela to embrace him as an inspiration but that's because the Mahatma was prepared to look into the mirror and question himself.

Swaraj's statements show that the Indian government cannot bear to do the same. Instead of seeing the face of, as Guha's article dubbed it, "the racist in the mirror", it has chosen to focus on saving face instead.

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