Are Africans Made to Feel Unwelcome in India?

The Madras Courier of July 17, 2018 carried an article with the above caption giving the first hand experiences of some Africans. In response to that article I felt like writing my comments.

In a historicalanthropological perspective, people with an African background have been living in India since prehistoric times. In AndamanNicobar islands, four Negrito communitiesGreat Andamanese, the Jarawa, the Onge and the Sentineleseliving in the Stone Age have drawn the attention of anthropologists and ethographers from all over the world for more than a hundred years. The Great Andamanese have already vanished due to a high degree of miscegenation, especially during the Japanese occupation in WWII. Due to the wrong policies of the administration like opening of a Grand Trunk Road through the Jarawa territory despite opposition by anthropologists, it is a matter of time before the remaining three Negrito tribes, none of which number more than 500 or so (the Onge are around 100 only and till the other day the Sentinelese were totally unapproachable), also vanish ethnically, linguistically and culturally. Their destiny is controlled by the IAS and other generalist officials who consider themselves to be all knowing and have no idea of the history of vanishing tribes in the various continents.

It is a shame that barring the administrators, anthropologists and tourists (who have limited access to them), the Indian people on the the mainland are not aware of the existence of these Negrito tribes. A man named Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, imprisoned in the infamous Cellular Jail at Port Blair and on whom his bhaktas endow the title ‘Veer Savarkar’, has written cock-and-bull stories about the Jarawa without ever coming into direct contact with this beautiful Negrito tribe whom he falsely accuses of being ferocious. In early 1980s, I found them to be one of the most friendly people and described my experiences in a radio talk from Port Blair station of All India Radio. I should add here that a gentle police officer, Sardar Bakhtawar Singh, who retired as the Deputy Superintendent of the Andaman & Nicobar Police, was responsible for establishing contact with the Jarawa through sign language in 1974. The saga of that expedition, organised by the Anthropological Survey of India (AnSI), is well documented in a documentary captioned Man in Search of Man produced by the AnSI. The Sentinelese were still untouched till then. The political ignoramus of both the Congress and the BJP, including the Prime Ministers, the Home Ministers, the Culture Ministers. etc., are blissfully unaware of these facts.

On the mainland, nearly a hundred years ago the famous anthropologist Dr. B.S. Guha, who had a Ph. D. from Harvard and was the Director of AnSI, discovered Negrito elements in the Kadar tribe of Perambicullum hills. But they too are one of the smallest adivasi communities in the country.

In the 17th century, the Nawab of Junagadh and the Sultan of Mysore imported some Siddis from East Africa. In Gujarat, these tall Negroes are called Siddi Babas and live in the Gir forest reserved for Indian lions in Junagadh district. I saw some of them walking on the streets of Ahmedabad in 1966. There was absolutely no animosity towards Siddis, who are included in the list of the Scheduled Tribes.

Coming to modern times, drawing inspiration from the freedom struggle of India and the internationalism of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru several big countries of Africa gained independence from European colonial powers and some of their leaders were well-known and respected in India in 1950s and 1960s. There was a spirit of bonhomie between Indians and Africans in those days. For instance, Jomo Kenyatta, one of the leaders of the Kenyan anti-colonial struggle, became the first President of independent Kenya in 1964. Dr A. Aiyappan, a veteran general anthropologist who studied anthropology with Jomo Kenyatta at SOAS, London, told me in Madras that he was invited by Jomo Kenyatta to attend the inauguration of the free Kenyan Government. In Delhi there were a few African students, all serious scholars, studying at Sapru House which later developed into the School of International Studies and became a famous faculty of JNU. At Delhi University, the International Student Hostel housed some African students along with other foreign students, and they studied in the Department of African Studies. During the last few decades, as more and more African countries became independent, due to the lack of educational facilities there due to their colonial past, the number of African students studying in India has considerably increased.

It is indeed unfortunate that despite having such ancient links with India, these African students are today being subjected to racial discrimination and violence in our country today. Such behaviour of the average uninformed and ‘uneducated’ Indians is deplorable.