Friday,20 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1268, (29 October - 4 November 2015)
Friday,20 October, 2017
Issue 1268, (29 October - 4 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

People-to-people relations

This week’s India-Africa Forum Summit in the Indian capital of New Delhi is an opportunity to build engagement between India and Africa in the interest of both peoples, writes Rajiv Bhatia

Al-Ahram Weekly

The peoples of Africa and India represent a third of humankind. They have known each other for thousands of years. As victims of exploitation and injustice in the colonial era, they were linked through mutual empathy and a common goal, namely freedom from domination and discrimination. In recent times, they have struggled together to attain socioeconomic development and a just global order.

But their relationship is still marked by an awareness deficit and gaps that need to be addressed. Of the three pillars of Africa-India engagement — namely, government-to-government (G-to-G), business-to-business (B-to-B) and people-to-people (P-to-P) ties —the third pillar is unique. It dates back to prehistoric times and has immense potential for expansion in the future.

Historians tell us that it was the people from the Indian subcontinent who made the first attempts to connect with Africa. Curiosity, a sense of adventure and a desire to trade and arrange cultural exchanges took courageous Indians to Africa. They travelled through the Indian Ocean route to the eastern and southern shores of Africa and across West Asia and the Mediterranean to North Africa.

The colonial period witnessed the sizeable migration of indentured Indian labour as well as of free Indians. In post-colonial times, Indians discovered other parts of the continent too.

The Mahatma Gandhi who invented the techniques of the Satyagraha movement on African soil, brought his new weapons of truth and nonviolence from there and helped India secure her independence from Britain. He left an imprint on succeeding generations of African leaders. He remains by far the most influential link between the two sides.

The Indian diaspora in Africa is estimated to be 2.6 million strong and is spread among 46 countries. It is about 12 per cent of the total Indian diaspora worldwide. The largest concentration of persons of Indian origin (PIOs) is in South Africa, Mauritius, the Reunion Islands, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique, but the presence of PIOs and nonresident Indians (NRIs) in parts of West and North Africa is also becoming a notable phenomenon.

Migration has not been a one-way street, however. Africans also travelled to India and many settled there. Reference is often made to the Siddis, who descended from the Bantu tribes of southern Africa. They were brought to the subcontinent by Portuguese colonisers and Arab merchants. The Siddis served as slaves, mercenaries, sailors, soldiers and royal guards. One of them, Malik Ambar, rose to become “the military guru of the Marathas” in North India.

 In October and November 2014, Indians had the rare privilege to see a special exhibition entitled “Africans in India: A Rediscovery.” The event was sponsored by the Schomburg Centre of New York and Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) in New Delhi. The exhibition showed how Indians and Africans have co-existed since time immemorial. At present, a large number of Africans live in India, studying at academic institutions and attending professional programmes.

Like diplomats, diaspora communities are valuable communication links and bridges between India and African countries. They need to be welcomed and nurtured. We in India have to do some serious homework in this regard.

With globalisation gathering pace, international tourists are a country’s temporary ambassadors, besides being the source of considerable income. Tourism promotion should be a higher priority for the industry and governments of both regions.

The number of Indian tourists to selected African countries — Mauritius, South Africa and East African countries — has been increasing steadily, though slowly. India, too, is in a position to welcome a much larger number of African tourists.

What is needed is a coherent strategy that focuses on creating new civil aviation links, innovative tourism packages and a change in mindsets. Both sides should realise that their countries have much to offer as attractive tourist destinations.

The role of art and culture as a means to bring the two peoples closer together has also been rapidly increasing in scope and impact. Indian films, arts, dance, music, literature and crafts have reached almost all parts of Africa. They continue to gain in popularity.

“Canoeists in Cairo,” note Indian writers Neeti Sethi Bose and Fakir Hassen, “belt out Indian film songs. Say ‘India’ in Sudan and the Sudanese are likely to hum their favourite Bollywood songs.”

During my time in South Africa we exposed the host country to an innovative cultural festival created by Indian impresario Sanjoy Roy. This festival, “Shared History: An Indian Experience”, has continued to return to South Africa every year since 2007, attracting divergent people from the Rainbow Nation to some of India’s best offerings in classical and popular culture. While in Kenya, we discovered that Kenyans enjoyed both the classical music of Pandit Jasraj and masala movies from Mumbai.

India’s crafts, costumes and cuisine have left a deep impact on many African countries. The reverse inflow of African influences should not be ignored. Whenever a talented African dance or music troupe visits Indian cities, it impresses audiences. What is required is more exposure of the Indian viewer and listener to the rich heritage of African culture. Greater attention needs to be paid to enhance cultural cooperation between the two sides.

Sports are another potent connector. Cricket is the popular bond and also football, to a degree. Indian sportsmen can learn much from their African counterparts when it comes to track events, especially marathons.

However, a major constraint on developing closer relationship is the absence of direct sources of information about each other and inadequate media coverage. In both Africa and India, the media is failing to play its due role. Consequently, Indians and Africans still learn about each other from largely Western sources. This must change. We need to know each other directly, not through the lens of a third party.

Media outlets, it is claimed, do not station representatives in African capitals and the Indian capital of New Delhi because doing so is not financially viable. This should be reconsidered. Knowing the high stakes involved in Africa, the Indian side should take effective measures to correct this anomaly.

Technology should be leveraged optimally. Nothing prevents our prestigious media organisations from establishing a network of local stringers and part-time correspondents who could regularly file stories for Indian audiences. The African side could do likewise.

Civil society also has a role to play in promoting understanding and friendship at the popular level. Institutions devoted to education, healthcare, labour welfare, women’s empowerment, youth issues and environmental causes need to explore opportunities for dialogue and cooperation.

A substantial increase in the number and reach of such exchanges would be desirable. They will, in turn, encourage governments to pay greater attention to diversifying the India-Africa engagement.

Two suggestions are offered for consideration: African diplomatic missions in Delhi should gather together interested friends of Africa to establish a Pan-Africa India Friendship Foundation and strengthen P-to-P relations; and, because our think tanks have a special responsibility to lead by generating new ideas and pressing for their implementation, an India-Africa Think Tanks Network (IATTN) should be created. Existing institutions can set the ball rolling.

The pillar of P-to-P relations, with a little imagination and effort, can thus be strengthened significantly in the short to medium term. The time for action is now.


The writer served as India’s high commissioner to Kenya, South Africa and Lesotho and has overseen an extensive research and outreach programme engaging Africa and the Indian Ocean region.

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