The nouveau riche Indian

Published January 8, 2019
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent to Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent to Delhi.

LET’S not blame Mahatma Gandhi for the removal of his own statue from a university campus in Ghana following protests from students and faculty alike.

True, the hero of Indian nationalism held racial ideas about the black community during his tenure in South Africa. South African scholar Ashwin Desai has dilated on the Mahatma’s pro-colonial role on behalf of the rich Indian diaspora in The Stretcher Bearer of the Empire. Arundhati Roy’s introduction to Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste offers a sharp reminder of Gandhi’s regressive approach towards the black communities in South Africa, and with the Hindu caste system in India.

Also read: Facing abuse, Africans in India refuse to give in to fear

However, blaming Gandhi’s worldview, which he is believed to have subsequently discarded, for the latest episode in Ghana is to miss the woods for the trees. Or, as Samuel Beckett’s tramp says in Waiting for Godot: it’s like blaming the boots for the faults of the feet.

Observe the widespread influence-peddling and power play, which impoverished Africans watch rich Indians indulging in.

Consider the likelier possibility that the anger in Ghana was a reaction to a more contemporary provocation than Indians — living in India, or those doing business in Africa — would be willing to concede. The reaction, in fact, appears to be rooted in the affront the average African feels when African students are harassed or beaten up in (only) northern India for their eating habits, or lifestyle, or simply out of pure malicious racism.

Take a look: Intolerance in India

The anger is even likelier to be the outcome of the growing clout of Indians as part of the power elite in many African countries, owning vast tracts of lands and eyeing more, not any different from the way they are vying for the virgin forest tracts of Chhattisgarh, while blaming the native tribespeople for the ensuing violence.

What happened in Ghana the other day had occurred in Malawi in 2015 and elsewhere on the continent, though the Indian-blacks run-in has remained a lurking feature in South Africa. Nelson Mandela’s ‘rainbow nation’ vision of Indians, whites, and blacks living harmoniously was challenged in his lifetime when an anti-Indian song stirred up racial and ethnic tensions among groups that had unified in the fight against apartheid. The source of the controversy was Mbongeni Ngema, a noted anti-apartheid songwriter and playwright who has long championed a multiracial society. But one cut on his album was at odds with his past.

‘AmaNdiya’, written in Zulu, the language of the African people who live in Natal, said: “Oh brothers, Oh my fellow brothers. We need strong and brave men to confront Indians. This situation is very difficult, Indians do not want to change, whites were far better than Indians. Even Mandela has failed to convince them to change.”

Even the New National Party, the remnant of the party that built apartheid and Mandela roundly condemned the song. So it’s not about Gandhi. The malaise is more immediate and the trigger lies in a daily experience of inequality. “You’ve got the Indian trader, the Indian shopkeeper, who is constantly in the eyes of the African because he trades with them,” Dr Fatima Meer, head of the Institute for Black Research at the University of Natal, is on record as saying. “The African looks at him and thinks, ‘even he has more than I do’.”

Deepening the existing racial fault lines is a radically new image of the nouveau riche Indian as depicted approvingly in Hindi movies. Sample a much-travelled Amitabh Bachchan’s instructions to Sridevi who was on her maiden flight to America in the movie English Vinglish. “You can press the call button at will as many times as you wish. Have no hesitation. It is the job of the airhostess to come running to you. Don’t be afraid.”

Then, in the same movie, Mr Bachchan gets asked by the US immigration officer about the purpose of his visit, which is what any officer on duty would be asking visitors to their country. “I’ve come here to spend some dollars. You don’t want me here? I can go back.” Contrast this arrogance rooted in new money with the clamour for work visas for Indian computer graduates at the highest levels in the Indian government, and you would wonder whether the politicians ever cared as much for the farmers who are committing suicide in droves.

Instead of blaming Gandhi or his detractors for African anger, observe the widespread influence-peddling and power play, which impoverished Africans watch rich Indians indulging in. There was this event reported widely in the South African press. A planeload of Indians landed at a military base in South Africa for an Indian wedding not long ago. They were reportedly guests of a wealthy Indian family with ties to Jacob Zuma. So they were allowed to land in a privately chartered jet at the country’s main military air base.

Guests then reportedly climbed into a fleet of luxury cars and buses to be transported with a blue-light police escort to Sun City, South Africa’s gambling capital, for the four-day ‘wedding of the year’ — said to be costing millions of pounds.

The government’s own alliance partner, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, said it was an “absolute insult” to South Africans that private individuals could use a public facility for a wedding party. “Some family with not a single scar to show for a struggle for democracy now using national key point for wedding. This is just a scandal,” Cosatu head Zwelenzima Vavi is reported to have said. 

There was a time when Indian intellectuals and political leaders were spearheading the Afro-Asian solidarity movement against colonialism and imperialism. There was a time when Nehru’s India was embraced across African nations as a beacon of hope and Third World solidarity. What happened in Ghana with Gandhi’s statue didn’t happen when its leader Kwame Nkrumah looked up to Nehru as a comrade in a shared struggle. That’s the point to ponder.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent to Delhi.

Published in Dawn, January 8th, 2019



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