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The nouveau riche Indian, and the global after-effects

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in New Delhi
Published : Jan 9, 2019, 2:25 am IST
Updated : Jan 9, 2019, 2:25 am IST

Even the New National Party, the remnant of the party that built apartheid, and Mandela roundly condemned the song.

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)
 Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

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’sAnnihilation 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.

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.

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.

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 faultlines 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.

By arrangement with Dawn

Tags: mahatma gandhi, nelson mandela
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