GHALEB CACHALIA: Conversation on Indian-African relations requires more nuance


In a recent opinion piece published by Eyewitness News; Yonela Diko, former spokesperson for the Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation; tackles the issue of violence that erupted in Phoenix and seeks to root it in what he calls "Indians’ dangerous colour complex", linking it to racism in India aimed at black Africans.

While it is common cause that black Africans suffer racial discrimination and have even been victims of violence in a number of incidents across India, Diko’s attempt to connect racism in India with the violence in Phoenix is disingenuous and plays into the hands of populist race baiters like Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters, who thrive on divisive policies built on a platform of intolerance. Populism of this sort is cheap: votes come easily when the unifying principle is finding a common enemy. Moreover, Diko’s attempt to attribute the genesis of racism and colour prejudice in Indian society to some deep religio-cultural element in the sub continents’ history is problematic.

The reality is very different and altogether more nuanced.

In the first instance, by way of debunking Diko’s attempt to connect the dots between the current manifestation of racism in India and the caste system, it is useful to note the studies of Indian sociologist Dipankar Gupta who points out in his examination of racism in India: “racism is a freshly minted colonial fiction invented specifically to justify domination of the colonial variety. In pre-colonial societies people were interested and fascinated by difference.” Even the Crusaders and their counterparts of the Crescent were not racially minded.

In pre-colonial times, cultural differences were never used to justify conquest or domination but as Gupta says, “with colonialism a big change happened. For the first time in human civilisation, people from elsewhere did not come to loot and scoot, but to loot and stay put… it was long-term rule by aliens whose loyalties remained with their mother country. Hence, the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ had to be constructed on a firm foundation, and what could accomplish that best but physical differences built around the conception of race.”

Diko’s conflation of caste and colour is equally unhelpful. The social stratification under the simple varna caste system was never more than a theoretical socioreligious ideal and the highly complex division of Hindu society into nearly 3,000 castes and subcastes was probably in place even in ancient times. Wendy Doniger – author of several books on Hinduism – places this in context: “the belief that impure status [of castes] is the result of former crimes is widespread in India.” The complex caste system was not based on skin colour, as castes included people of all physical variations.

Yes, there is undoubtedly some obsession with lighter skin amongst a number of Indians – as is also the undisputed case among many South African black Africans – but to jump to the conclusion this preference for lighter skin tones that results prejudice and disdain translates into “deep-seated anti-African sentiments that seek not to punish those who have committed a crime, but anyone who shares their skin pigmentation [and] is very much alive in both south India and Phoenix,” constitutes a leap of dubious proportion.

Diko tellingly downplays the near total absence of police to protect communities in the face of looting, personal attacks and property destruction in Phoenix and ignores the responsibility placed on residents to protect themselves. He steers clear of the class divisions that straddle race and reflect government’s failure over more than a quarter of a century to uplift and integrate communities. Instead, he resorts to factual inaccuracy and hyperbole of note in his description of what he describes as “brutal scenes of Indian groupings in Phoenix driving around, carrying weapons of war, looking for anyone with a black skin with the aim to punish and inflict pain – not on the perpetrators themselves but on anyone who was part of the guilty black race. This makes one realise we remain strangers to these people, sojourners, as were all our fathers.”

In his sweeping description of these people, he fails to record or acknowledge the considerable support given by these same people and their forebears to Afro-Indian unity and common struggles against oppression. These struggles date from the turn of the 20th century and are described as shared recently with me in draft by the author, Salil Tripathi. I share them at some length here because it places in perspective the efforts of the much-maligned Mahatma Gandhi in forging and championing Afro-Indian unity in struggle. While Gandhi’s views – like those of most engaged people – progressed from his initial views informed by an affinity with empire, the quotes below reflect this evolution.

“Writing in the Times of Natal in 1894, Gandhi said demanding voting rights for the capable Indians and natives, as he described the black community: "The Indians do not regret that capable natives can exercise a franchise. They would regret it if it were otherwise. They, however, assert that they too, if capable, should have the right they can use.” Far from ignoring black consciousness in South Africa, the newspaper that Gandhi edited, the Indian Opinion, praised black leaders like Walter Rubusana and John Dube (founding president of the South African Native National Congress, which would later become the African National Congress). The newspaper warmly welcomed the birth of the African National Congress in 1912, calling it "an awakening". ANC founding members like Pixley Seme were seen at the Phoenix settlement that Gandhi set up, meeting and consulting with Gandhi (like Gandhi, who sought to unite all Indians, Seme sought to unite all African groups).”

“Like Dube, Gandhi admired the work of African-American educationist Booker T Washington, and Gandhi wrote in support of initiatives to promote African education. When Gokhale visited South Africa in 1912, Gandhi took him to visit Dube and his settlement, Ohlange, which was near Gandhi’s own Phoenix settlement. Criticising race-based segregation policies, he said in 1908: “We hear nowadays a great deal of the segregation policy as if it were possible to put people in watertight compartments.” And at a speech in Johannesburg, he almost presaged the term post-apartheid South Africa adopted for itself – the rainbow nation – when he said, “If we look into the future, is it not a heritage we have to leave to posterity that all the different races commingle and introduce a civilisation that perhaps the world has not yet seen?” He also wrote several editorials and articles commending the use of passive resistance by African leaders and criticised the government for not allowing its black critics to stand for elections. The Indian Opinion severely criticised the Native Land Act of 1913 as "an act of confiscation", backing Dube’s struggle. In 1913, when the African and coloured women of the Orange Free State protested against pass laws, Gandhi called their passive resistance “the only means of fighting against the immorality of the white unwashed of the Free State”.

This laid the basis for ongoing Afro-Indian cooperation of the Three Doctors Pact of 1947 signed by three doctors: Dr AB Xuma, president of the African National Congress (ANC); Dr GM Naicker, president of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC); and Dr YM Dadoo, president of the Transvaal Indian Congress. This was done in the recognition that all "non-Europeans" should unite in the struggle against the National Party government and it's segregationist policies. This agreement was a forerunner to the Congress of the People, which drafted the Freedom Charter in 1955. The pact commanded the massive support of the Indian community in South Africa – many of whose descendants live in Phoenix.

The focus of Diko, Malema and others on selectively manufactured "racism" attributed to Indians in general is more than unhelpful. It is divisive, dangerous and designed to foment strife and scapegoating. It needs to be called out and the contribution of Indians to the struggle for freedom – which some now seek to subvert – needs to be recorded.

Ghaleb Cachalia is a Member of Parliament in South Africa and a member of the Democratic Alliance. You can follow him on Twitter on @GhalebCachalia.