William Farmer is a recent graduate from King’s College London, specializing in Postcolonial Africa and political risk.
In its relations with the African continent, the Indian state claims that historical and cultural commonalities between the two naturally engender unique and mutually-beneficial foreign relations. The main tenets of such solidarity are a shared colonial past, helped by the large Indian diaspora in Africa, and the history of the Non-Aligned Movement, of which India, and many African nations were members. This sentiment was also evident at the UN in 2010; India’s representative to the UN, Hardeep Singh Puri, remarked that ‘India’s own links with Africa go back a long way. They are anchored in a history of civilizational contact and friendship across the Indian Ocean. Our friendship and cooperation has been further strengthened through a common journey of anti-colonial struggle and post-colonial nation-building.’ This narrative attempts to set India apart from other foreign actors in Africa, such as China or Western nations, whose policies in Africa are often branded as “neo-colonial” and exploitative.
The cultural commonality of India and Africa is used by the Indian state to supplement a narrative of benevolent policy towards Africa. Specifically, the Indian state has argued that their colonial and Non-Aligned past engenders an aptitude for capacity building projects; in other words, it is the ideal nation to “develop” Africa. This can be seen with initiatives such as the Pan-African e-Network, which has been running since February 2009. It is a project that shares Indian skills (namely education and healthcare expertise) with African audiences, connecting ‘53 African countries into one network through satellite, fiber optics and wireless links to provide tele-education, tele-medicine and voice and video conference facilities’. The blueprint of the Pan African e-Network is supposedly ‘within the framework of South-South cooperation.’ Even the name of the project evokes notions of the Non-Aligned Movement, with prominent Pan-Africanists such as Nkrumah professing staunch support for the Non-Aligned Movement.
Nevertheless, the relevance and provenance regarding this narrative of cultural and historical commonality is dubious at best. When examining Indian policy in Africa more broadly, it becomes apparent that it is not particularly unique nor benevolent; rather, Indian policy more closely resembles that of China, or Western nations. This is ironic, as India expressly defines its own policies in Africa against that of these competitors. Despite the lengths the Indian state goes to, to differentiate their relationship with Africa from China’s, India has been seen to follow China’s lead. This can be seen in a number of different ways, but primarily through its investment in raw materials. The Indian Department of External Affairs has made this clear, stating that the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) ‘is very rich in natural resources’ and that ‘there is tremendous possibility of enhanced bilateral cooperation.’ India, much like China, traded in Africa largely to gain natural resources to service infrastructure advancements in their respective home nations. In 2010, 91 per cent of India’s imports from Africa were primary commodities – this meant that India bought very few processed materials or products from Africa. It is plain to see that India is, in fact, extracting natural resources from Africa in a manner strikingly similar to China, and that the Indian narrative of cultural similarity and cooperation is, in this context, nothing more than a pretext for the extraction of natural resources.
The provenance of India’s narrative of a shared colonial and non-aligned past is equally suspect. Rather than India’s colonial past engendering a relationship across the Indian Ocean that benefits Africa, it can be seen to imbue an unequal and prejudiced relationship. Under the British Empire, Indians were seen as more “civilised” than Africans. With the break-up of Germany’s colonies after the First World War, members of the Indian diaspora in East Africa, with a clear belief in the Indian “civilising mission” in East Africa, lobbied to annex German Tanganyika to British India, as recompense for India’s contribution to the war effort. This thinking has persisted: the experiences of African students in India provides a clear example. In 2013, Jalandhar in the Punjab experienced a series of racially-motivated attacks. Twenty-one Congolese exchange students were arrested and Indian state officials stated that the Congolese ‘stole the bag of the [Indian] victim’, but the Congolese students claimed that this was not the case, and that one student was ‘beaten with a cricket bat in what appeared to be a racist attack.’ The Congolese students in question, as well as the president of the Association of African Students in India (AASI) argued that racism against Africans was a big issue in India, particularly in the Punjab. Christophe Okito, AASI president, claimed that ‘many of them [Indians] believe that black people are cursed by the gods, destined to be slaves, whereas white people here are seen as intrinsically successful.’ This negative attitude towards Africans, with specific reference to slavery, implies that Africans in India are aware of the colonial roots of this racism.
The mere fact that India positions itself to be a nation fit to take part in “developing” Africa articulates an assumed hierarchical and neo-colonial relationship. Arturo Escobar’s theory of development discourse likens the practice of “development” to colonialism, as the “development” of one people by another presumes the “developer” to be more civilised than their recipients of “development” efforts. This theory helps to explain the racially-hierarchical nature of India’s work in Africa.
This article is not aimed to vilify foreign actors in Africa. Rather, deconstructing foreign policy narratives – such as India’s – aims to provide a case study of the problems presented by the utilisation of cultural or historical commonality for political and economic ends. This article is also a call to those in foreign policy, arguing that they should be equally as critical when considering the role of culture and history in foreign relations. First of all, such narratives can be largely irrelevant to the true practices of states, as shown by the nature of Indian investment in Africa. Secondly, cultural and historical narratives are often used to ingrain a false sense of cooperation and solidarity between nations. The failure of both Indian and African states to accept the real nuance in their relationship – including the hangover of a colonial, racial hierarchy between Indians and Africans – shows that simplified and reductive notions of non-aligned and post-colonial solidarity do not reflect the true nature of India-Africa relations.
Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, nongovernmental, nonpartisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.
 India’s Foreign Relations – 2010 Documents, ed., Avtar Singh Bhasin, (Geetika Publishers), page 2283.
 Ibid, page 2284.
 Standard Chartered, ‘Africa-India Trade and Investment: Playing to Strengths’, Standard Chartered, On the Ground, Global Research, (08/08/2012), page 5.
 Dhruba Gupta, ‘Indian Perceptions of Africa’, South Asia Research, 11:2, (1991), page 163.
 Christophe Okito, quoted in http://www.africareview.com/News/DRC-students-arrested-in-India-expected-to-be-released/-/979180/1889666/-/1599xfp/-/index.html, accessed 14/4/2016.
 Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World, (Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1995), page 9.