The Indian-African alliance

Little attention is given to how Indians are viewed and treated not only on the African continent, but by peoples of African descent across the world.

Vik Sohonie (left) and friends in Somalia. Image supplied by author.

There has been a healthy response of anger in the wake of unjustified, brutal attacks against African nationals — particularly students — in recent days in India. Indian racism against black Africans is not a new phenomena, and such hatred is deeply embedded into the Indian psyche since the days of colonialism, when the British Empire’s classic strategy of divide and rule placed Indians as indentured servants, one artificial level above enslaved Africans. However meager the distinction, the damage was done, leaving a chilling legacy that plays out until today. Africa Is A Country has previously documented India’s hostile nature towards Africans.

Why do I say brethren? Because in all the analysis and outrage, little attention is given to how Indians are viewed and treated not only on the African continent, but by peoples of African descent across the world, whether in the Caribbean, South America or the United States.

I was born in India, grew up in Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines, with academic and working stints in the United States, Germany, Haiti and across the African continent. I run a music label dedicated to African music. As an Indian, I see my mission not only as disseminating the magnificent music cultures of Africa that rarely get international exposure, but also connecting India and Africa through forgotten cultural ties in a way that all the burgeoning bilateral trade deals simply cannot.

From my experience, Indians are respected and often adored across Africa. Our merchants and traders, particularly from the Gujarati coast, have long been welcomed to East Africa’s shores. The pre-European Indian Ocean economy saw a kinship between the peoples of the subcontinent and particularly the people of the Somali and Swahili coast. Our cuisine, language, dress and music profoundly influenced many African cultures.

In my travels to Ghana, I was afforded curious attention by Ghanaian women who reminded me that Indians are considered icons of beauty. In Sudan, revealing my Indian origin elicited smiles from everyone — immigration officials to the tea lady on the street. “You are always welcome in Sudan,” the customs agent told me at Khartoum airport as I departed. The same words were spoken by the immigration office in Mogadishu, Somalia.

In Somalia, where Indian music inspired generations of Somali musicians and Hindi words pepper the Somali tongue, I was often told “You are our brother.” Somalis, like so many Africans, received their degrees in New Delhi and Hyderabad. They used those skills to build their country before the civil war of 1991 decimated it. My music label’s latest project focuses on Somali music before the civil war, an innovative period that drew greatly from Somalia’s infatuation with Indian cinema.

In Djibouti, where French is spoken, telling people I was Indian was met with a heartwarming response: “Les Indiens sont un grand peuple (Indians are a grand people).” Having faced overt and latent racism for most of my life, particularly in Southeast Asia, where the common tropes of being unclean and sexually deviant were leveled with tiresome frequency, hearing how Djiboutiennes held us in such high regard came as a positive surprise. Finally, Uganda, which has a tempestuous relationship with South Asians thanks to the antics of Idi Amin, holds as its national dish the ever-present “Rolex” — a chapati roll filled with egg, avocados, cabbage and chilies. The US dollar might be the global reserve currency, but Indian food in many countries in Africa is without doubt the reserve cuisine.

My travels to Africa made me proud to be Indian, while most of my youth was spent lamenting the fact, thanks to anti-Indian racism. And the reverse is also true. In New York, as a graduate student, I visited an exhibition in Harlem on the African presence in India. The artwork told a story of Africans forging their way within various civilizations on the subcontinent. Ethiopian traders like Malik Ambar advanced to positions of great authority.

Harlem was an apt location to host this exhibition. In the book, Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, writer Vivek Bald reveals how Indians fleeing British ships found sanctuary in the northern Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem amongst black Americans. Our food and music intermingled with the soul food cuisine and jazz culture of the time. The Harlem Renaissance welcomed Indian influences. Intermarriage became common.

This mirrored my experience in the United States. Despite attending American schools in Asia, my multicultural upbringing made finding a clique in university challenging. Yet it was the students from the Caribbean, Nigeria and Ghana who took me in. We shared similar values, a compatible sense of humor, a love for spicy food, and of course, football. Many Indian students, uncomfortable with their new American surroundings, found solace in Afro-Caribbean and African student communities, where an unknown but very real fraternal bond existed.

Indeed India and Africa’s trade ties grow greater by the day. Airtel dominates the mobile sector in much of the continent. Indian banks like Bank of Baroda can readily be found in financially liberalized African economies with shared legacies of British rule. The Indian presence and experience in Africa is ancient and welcomed. Visas are not a hinderance. I have never traveled elsewhere in the world where my Indian passport is a marker of respect rather than a guarantor of scrutiny — not even the countries I once called home.

India might still get the raw end of the deal in the ever-so problematic worldview of powerful western media outlets, but in the forums of the Global South, India remains a respected leader. But it seems India’s role in the world and how it views itself has changed dramatically, and that has had a direct impact on how Indians view time-honored friendships and those that share a similar history of colonial rule and exploitation. The alliance of Hindu nationalism and neoliberal capitalism has moved India further away from its role as a vanguard of the dispossessed and displaced, to be a convenient ally of western power. In doing so, its historic ties with Africa have been replaced with solely a desire for profit, rather than continuous exchanges of solidarity.

African diplomats and governments have every right to threaten downgrading ties if Indians continue to treat people they should regard as their kin as subhuman targets of national frustration. More so than our neighbors to the east, who do not welcome us as Vedic brothers and sisters, or our neighbors to the west, who see our bodies as disposable labor, Africans are our closest natural allies in the world — more so than the United States, certainly more so than the government of Israel (India is the largest importer of Israeli arms). If we fail to realize this and continue our brutal ways against their most studious and ambitious, we risk losing our place in the world, alienating those that who hold us in high esteem, and dismantling a relationship forged over millennia. We must decolonize our minds to truly assume the leadership role we want — and deserve — in the modern world. That begins by welcoming and treating Africans in India the way Indians are welcome and treated in Africa.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.