Africa holds up a mirror to India

Shobana Shankar

Shobana Shankar's new book, 'Africa, India and the Spectre of Race' (Hurst/Oxford, 2021) explores this complicated history.

Image © Zachariah Mampilly.

Interview by
Zachariah Mampilly

In 2017, a spate of attacks against African students in the Indian capital, New Delhi, garnered outrage and headlines around the world. Responding to the controversy, Tarun Vijay, the head of the India-African Parliamentary Friendship Group and a former Member of Parliament from India’s ruling Hindu nationalist BJP, gave an interview to Al Jazeera. Claiming that Indians can’t be racist, Vijay pointed to the darker-skinned populations of South India as proof: “If we were racist, why would the entire South—you know the Tamils, you know Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra—why do we live with them? We have blacks, black people around us.”

Recurring episodes of anti-African violence in India and growing anti-Indian sentiment across the continent reveal the fissures in the carefully crafted narrative of South Asian-African relations. Where once the “Bandung Spirit” held sway, #GandhiMustFall captures the current zeitgeist. Beyond the fiction of Indo-African solidarity, Vijay’s comments unearthed the complicated emotions around India’s view of Africans, and relatedly, Blackness. Terms to denigrate dark-skinned people—Kaalu, Karuppu, Madrasi, Blacky—easily roll of Indian tongues whether referring to Africans or even their own darker-hued family and friends. In response to Vijay’s comments, North Indians on Twitter argued that India is a non-racial society, while many South Indians instead embraced the label, pointing to a long history of claiming a Black identity both as a form of political solidarity as well as a reaction to the deeply seated colorist views that pervade Indian society.

The Vijay debacle and the responses it provoked exemplify the confusion around Indo-African relations. Categorical statements about the state of the relationship whether “India and Africa are natural partners” from the former Indian President, or “the majority of Indians are racist” in the words of Julius Malema, the South African politician, reveal the range of different viewpoints. They also erase the complex racial politics of South Asia, where identities like “Adivasi”, “Dalit” and “Dravidian” have long sought to build a common cause with the global Black diaspora. Amidst this fractious debate, Shobana Shankar offers a masterclass. Eschewing the typical episodes used to prove Indo-African solidarity or antagonism, she provides a nuanced account of the myriad ways South Asians and Africans have sought to navigate their racial estrangement.

I had the opportunity to interview Shankar, a professor of history at SUNY Stonybrook, about her recent book, An Uneasy Embrace: Africa, India and the Spectre of Race (Hurst/Oxford, 2021). We talked about the enduring idea of “Black Asia,” the appeal of African Hinduism and the limits of transregional racial categorizations. It’s a timely, wide-ranging and compelling text that deserves wide attention and is sure to provoke debate.


Your book is an ambitious attempt to make sense of African-South Asian relations with a focus on the post-colonial entanglements between the two. As someone who has attempted to write about India and Africa before, I’ve always been overwhelmed by the sheer scale of such a project and the risks of generalizing about relations that encompass more than 60 countries. Between the two, we are talking about almost three billion people with a shared history that stretches back millennia! So my first question is simply, how did you decide which episodes to focus on? In particular, I was struck by your decision not to focus on the most common stories—Gandhi or indentured laborers in South Africa; “Asian” (read Gujarati) traders in East Africa; Nehru, Nkrumah and Bandung—but rather stories often ignored in the larger narrative of South Asian-African histories. I especially appreciated your decision to bring West Africa as well as Pakistan and South India to the fore. How important was it to you to tell stories that subverted the common narratives about Africa-South Asia relations?


The enormity you describe—Afro-South Asians’ deep and diverse entanglements in many historical periods and places—is precisely the reason I think so many scholars, activists, and pop culturists prefer to stay close to the familiar—the nonviolence of Gandhi, Mandela, MLK; shared experiences of Euro-American racism and colonialism, Bollywood and bhangra. And just analyze around the edges. Note these are modern, mostly male, and convenient narratives—here I mean they are accessible and easy to appreciate and feel emotionally unambivalent about.

Or so it seemed until Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed’s book The South African Gandhi and the #GandhiMustFall movement (which began in Ghana and reverberated throughout the world) garnered a great deal of discomfort, debate, and disagreement. Little do some realize that anti-Gandhi opposition is not new or isolated, nor is it the only manifestation of ambivalence or contention in Afro-South Asian relations. When I taught a course for social studies teachers in New York City public schools, some told me that some African-American high school students say they do not want to learn about Gandhi because of his racism and anti-Blackness. I doubt most of these teenagers have read Desai and Vahed’s book—so from where do they draw their conclusions? I wasn’t completely surprised because for all the decades I’ve been working in Nigeria, Nigerians have long queried me about caste and gender discrimination in India, voicing a mix of disquiet and admiration about India and Indians.

These uncomfortable dynamics captured my interest, how they were negotiated in everyday encounters. The changing and sometimes unpredictable nature of African-South Asian tensions lay in plain sight but has been silenced for a lot of reasons—lack of language to discuss the complexity of race outside Black-white tensions, the need for Afro-Asian solidarity to fight European colonialism and racial oppression, and the desire to create strong postcolonial alliances in the new world order. So I traveled beyond the world of formal politics, to examine Afro-South Asian interactions apart from and against the backdrop of Bandung and the non-aligned movement. What lay beyond the image of Nkrumah and Nehru huddled together, planning the next move against the British? This image was just that: an image—to reconstruct the idea of Africa-South Asia relations as a politically important and positive one that recent history challenged. I was intrigued by West Africa as a seemingly new frontier for African-South Asian relations and an important one, which is why I turned my focus to the neglected stories in that part of the continent.


Running through the book is the history of racial estrangement between Africans and South Asians. But one thing I appreciated is the way in which you challenge essentialist racial categories. Instead, the reader is confronted with many other racialized identities that often do not translate to a Western audience. Speaking personally, I loved your writing about “Afro-Dravidians” and the attempts by West African and South Indian scholars to fold them into globalized conceptions of Blackness. This resonated with my own personal experiences in South India and in Afrocentric circles in the West where the Dravidian has been constructed as a part of “Black Asia.” Long championed by South Indian scholars and as you show, by post-colonial African leaders like Senghor (and echoed by no less a figure than W.E.B. DuBois in the United States), the concept of Black Asia is largely dismissed in the West, both by mainstream South Asian scholars who fold all desis into a generic “Asian” racial category, as well by Western scholars who tend to view Blackness as a transhistorical identity biologically linked to Africa. (To clarify for the reader, South Indians are often understood as “Black” within the Indian subcontinent and, many South Indian as well as Dalit scholars and activists have long embraced a Black identity in contrast to North Indians who champion an Aryan identity for upper caste and North Indian peoples.) For example, I’m thinking of the way in which many Asian-American studies scholars in the United States challenged Nikki Haley’s claim to be white, when she was actually expressing a common view shared by many North Indians that their Aryan racial origins qualify them for Caucasian status. My question is in the context of increasing global migration, what are the stakes of taking seriously non-Western racial categories, especially when they upend or directly challenge the accepted meaning of those terms in the West?


Dismissing “Black Asia” is almost as unproductive as arguing that race is not a biological fact, so therefore irrelevant. Ideas are powerful, and as a social scientist who focuses on religion, I tried to focus more on how actors use and spread ideas rather than on the phenomenology of belief. As you say, some South Asians refused and still refuse the idea of Black Asia or the possibility of their own Blackness, but I turned my attention to those who accepted this idea and how they made it part of their lives, whether in education, activism, or other experiences. Through this prism of interests and distinterests in Black Asia, I show that what India is and who Indians are is hardly unitary and that African history deconstructs, in some important way, India—just as any homogenizing construction of Africa is problematic and a product, to some degree, of a form of racial normativity.

Black Asia, therefore, is an intellectual product and productive intellectually, to think with, and it has global and ongoing possibilities. Take recent lawsuits alleging caste discrimination in employment practices relating to Indian workers in the United States. The cases concern different classes of workers—in one case, an IT worker in Silicon Valley in California and, in another, stone carvers and other manual laborers hired to build Hindu temples in America by a New-Jersey based organization. These attempts to force the US legal system to recognize that racialized inequality—held in place, in this case, by religion and endogamy—are embedded in contemporary immigration and labor systems; are radical because they show clearly that South Asian systems of enslavement are not relics of the past but entirely capable of being modernized, indeed, incubated within the world’s most populous “democracy,” India, and, from there, exported to and harbored within Western liberal economies.

Yet when I say radical, I do not mean these attempts are altogether new—segments of the African diaspora in America well before these lawsuits exposed how slavery, casteism, and racism operate on the African continent and shape contemporary migration patterns—especially in refugee, undocumented, and asylum-seeking diasporas. The African Services Committee in Harlem, to take one significant grassroots organization founded by an Ethiopian-American who was a refugee, has worked for decades to show that the effects of slavery and discrimination, for example in Mauritania, and gender-based violence and trafficking on the African continent are life-threatening factors forcing many African immigrants to flee to the US under extraordinarily dangerous circumstances. These cases of Africans’ and now South Asians’ use of American law and precedents of organizing for civil rights struggles show that America is a place where oppression thrives, but so too does the possibility of transformation. The recognition of the complexity of non-Western racial categories is in many ways more possible in the West, thanks to the work and sacrifice of revolutionary social critics and agitators of different races but especially among the African diaspora, who have never lost sight of the connection between racial and economic oppression or allowed it to be erased. Critical African-Indian histories are unraveling myths—of Hindu universalism and non-violence, American meritocracy and race blindness, and slavery’s disappearance.


One of my favorite chapters is the one on the excellently named Swami Ghanananda and the African Hindu community in West Africa, something I’ve almost never heard about. I was interested especially in his efforts to foster a syncretic practice that drew on both Hindu and West African indigenous beliefs and the ways you frame it as an increasingly appealing alternative to Hindutva, especially among the Indian diaspora in Ghana. I found it fascinating how Ghanananda linked together Hindu sciences with African traditional healing practices in what you describe as a sort of “racial transnationalism.” You end the chapter by suggesting that African Hinduism may even emerge as a “refuge” to rightwing Hindu nationalism in India (and increasingly the Western diaspora as well). The chapter put me in mind of the scene in Black Panther where M’Baku of the Jabari tribe says, “Glory to Hanuman,” a line that was bleeped out of the Indian version of the film by government censors so as not to offend the Hindu community. It strikes me that Africans both on the continent and the diaspora (as a quick perusal of “#BlackYoga” reveals) have long been drawn to Indian spiritual practices but in ways that make them unique and, perhaps controversially, more in tune with how these traditions have been practiced historically. Yet, as the policing of these practices by Hindu nationalists demonstrates, there is considerable resistance to allowing Africans entry into these spaces. My question is while the influence of South Asians on Africans and the diaspora is widely recognized and occasionally celebrated, there is far less recognition of how Africans, both on the continent and in the diaspora, are actively reinterpreting and reimagining South Asian traditions. Why do you think that is and do you see it changing over time?


The overwhelming emphasis on economic relationships in the context of Indian traders in Eastern and Southern Africa means that everyday cultural and social life has been too often ignored—the works of Jon Soske and Thomas Blom Hansen, on life in multiracial South Africa, and Sana Aiyar, Ned Bertz, and Jim Brennan on East Africa offer antidotes to the economic determinism so common in Afro-Asian studies. But I wanted to go deeper than using sources like film and also to the Black Atlantic, with its own vibrant cultural universe, to look at religion, which gets lost because most scholars have a secular bias or see Africa-India through the Eurocentric lens of colonial political economy.

Among the least studied aspects of African-Indian encounters is Africans’ perceptions of and responses to Indianisms, to use a more capacious term that includes traditions, religions,  behaviors, sociability, and mannerisms. But the unseen, to generalize somewhat for both African and Indian religions, relates directly to what happens in the material world, and human actions pertaining to the material world are navigated through the use of objects and sensory experiences—fire, water, and other earthly elements and scents, sounds, and dreams. Indians in Africa and Africans in South Asia recognize these repertoires, even considering the differences in their indigenous religious practices.

Two differences, however, seemed to occupy African perceptions of Indian traditions, as far as I could see—the stringent operation of caste and very strict codes governing the separation of the sexes. These are not absent in African religions and, in fact, Africans seem to question these practices as insiders, wondering why they seem intractable and why Indians do not allow them to change. This question of changing or modernizing tradition is perhaps one of the most fascinating to me—many Africans described Indians as traditional, in positive and negative ways. And in fact, Indians from Nehru to Sindhi businesspeople found West Africans to be modern in their outlook, able to survive European slavery and colonization with a sense of self intact. The interest in spirituality, ultimately, is connected to survival as non-Westerners, as indigeneity is continually reinvented and reinforced with the absorption of new and foreign elements, which is especially apparent in African responses to Hinduism, but also Indian responses to African migrants’ practices of Christianity and Afro-Indian Muslim interactions.


You explicitly reject an interpretation of African-South Asian relations that focuses on elite confabs like Bandung or the non-aligned movement in favor of cultural narratives that center the lives of middle-class people involved in academic or spiritual enterprises. Yet, there is still a way in which the stories of more marginalized groups are left out. I’m thinking of Suraj Yengde’s work on lower caste Hindus in South Africa, or my own work on Indian peacekeepers in Congo, where many Indian soldiers had children with local women during their stints as UN Peacekeepers. How much do you think caste and class shape African-South Asian relations and what would a history of the subject that really centers the experiences and interactions of less-privileged groups look like?


I think the question misses the different framings of subjectivity. While your examples center on less privileged Indians as the starting point, which I applaud, my work, by contrast, focuses on the experiences of Africans with India and Indians. We cannot escape the fact that Indians—of different backgrounds—had relatively privileged positions in African contexts. African responses to this privilege have too often been analyzed in reductive ways—I wanted to challenge this characterization of African reactions. Moreover, not all of the Africans with whom I engage fall into the category of middle class or privileged, and regardless of their social status, some experienced racism. Painting African students who travel to India as middle class or privileged can obscure a lot of the most fascinating aspects of identity-formation through which skin color, class, religion, occupation, and gender all create layers. For example, African students in India might use travel to India and Indians’ connections as a kind of capital-formation to achieve social mobility in African settings, but African women students, who suffer more and different kinds of discrimination in India, find themselves more vulnerable than African men studying in India. Yet, in Senegal, female performers inventing an Afro-Indian artform and even generating new media access, find social mobility they might not otherwise have had. Senegalese women have also challenged the light-skin preoccupations of Indians in significant ways. I emphasize these stories of women, which are rarely seen in Afro-Indian studies but reveal that assumptions about caste, class, and even race can obscure more than they reveal.

So I would not define lack of privilege in terms of only caste location or mixed-race/racial minority status but also gender, occupation, age, and ethnicity, which goes back to your point about the lack of unitary identity among Indians and, I would add, Africans. Among low-caste Hindus in South Africa, a major issue is ethnolinguistic and regional origin (or putative origin or even the lack of known origin), which divides South and North Indian Hindus. In other words, caste is a complex structure, and Yengde’s point that it travels with/in the diaspora challenges any simplistic notion of privilege, as low caste Hindus in the diaspora might opt to self-fashion a conservative Hindu identity and assert themselves over Blacks and others, rather than fight to end casteism and racism. It is only by studying the interworkings of status in all kinds of institutions such as academia or temples, without a priori assumptions about their social make-up, and doing deep sociocultural archaeology that we begin to understand intersectional layers of identity-making and power-brokering.


One of the largest divisions in writing on Africa and South Asia is between those who focus on official policies and discourses and the more organic relationships between South Asian migrants and African host societies, a division you attempt to bridge in this book. This is an important intervention, because as you demonstrate with your discussion of Senghor’s initiatives in Senegal, official policies are often responding to sentiments emerging from the ground up. Yet you also seem to suggest, as the debacle of the Gandhi statue in Accra demonstrated, that this is perhaps less true today with the rise of the far-right wing Modi government in India. I know this is not the focus of the book, but could you comment on the longer-term trajectory of African and South Asian governmental relations? To be clear, while Third World Internationalism seemed to flounder amidst divergent economic and political trajectories between Africa and South Asia, it seems that whether we are talking about climate change, poverty, or the decline of formal democracy, Africans and South Asians have more grounds for collaboration at the international level than ever before. Is there space for a new, ground-up internationalism between the two or have those dreams been permanently deferred?


To me, #GandhiMustFall reveals a mature understanding of the Modi government and Indian rightwing populism—it was no kneejerk response, as some observers liked to claim. The opponents of Gandhi, who pointed to both his racist views when it came to Blacks in South Africa as well as the work of Indian radicals such as the Dalit leader BR Ambedkar, wanted to press for more than mere tokenism.

For years, the Modi government has taken a paternalistic posture in its relations with African nations. Meanwhile, more Africans have traveled to and lived in India—as students and businesspeople. So in countries like Ghana (where #GandhiMustFall started) and Uganda, the understanding of Indian politics is hardly naïve. Many Africans view India with the same critical approach to exclusionary nationalism and elite corruption as they view African politics and events around the world. They are also suspect of the Indian government’s history-production about decolonization, non-alignment, and the anti-apartheid struggle—manipulated to prop up the idea that Afro-Asian solidarity has been unswerving and unproblematic. Assistance from the Indian government and support for private businesses in Africa have been represented as a part of an interest in African national development, in an effort to sustain and increase Indian power on the African continent. Early history, too—of African slaves in medieval India—has been twisted into a story of Indian multiracialism and tolerance. These uses and abuses of history are not at all surprising given Hindutva remaking of history and insistence that information-producers, such as academics and journalists, fall in line. Africans are no strangers to these machinations, and the Gandhi debacle was proof that some Africans, along with Indian allies, are not blind consumers of political propaganda.

Moreover, African governments have not remained silent when there have been incidents of racial discrimination and violence against African students and other migrants living in India, and their protestations have been noted and echoed by some more progressive Indian citizens following and commenting on these incidents in the media. With the increased visibility of Africans in India, the subject of India’s commitment to equality is intensely debated, and the rights of Africans, ethnic and religious minorities, Muslims, and Christians are seen as suffering under Hindu nationalism. Therefore, #GandhiMustFall garnered support from Indians to become a transnational movement composed of engaged citizenry in many countries. I touch on other collective efforts—such as the rejection of skin lighteners by Black women, which has influenced Indian women in recent years. The effect of Black activism on Indians in this instance is important to recognize—we usually hear the mantra about Indian influence on Africans (typically or rather stereotypically illustrated through Gandhian thought in African and African diaspora non-violent resistance).

Africa and Africans help hold up a mirror to India and Indians in a moral and ethical sense–hence my focus on religion, gender, and other themes that are often ignored in the histories of trade unionism and anti-colonial protests. The relationship of African and South Asian countries is inextricably intertwined but also dynamic. There are economic dependencies—India needs Nigeria’s oil, agricultural outputs from Ethiopia and minerals from DR Congo and South Africa, while South Africans rely on Indian-produced pharmaceuticals. Some of these interconnections are very much tuned into pressing issues, such as food security and health rights, but when politicians and governments tout liberationist images such as Gandhi statues for crassly transactional purposes, there will be vocal and organized opponents who will emerge to galvanize transnational activism.

Further Reading