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Why is everyone reluctant to brand attack on the Tanzanian girl in Bengaluru so?

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Monday, February 8th, 2016
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The Karnataka government was accused of utter incompetence and insensitivity in the handling of the affair of the attack on the Tanzanian girl. But events on Friday seemed to swiftly turn things around.

In what can only be seen as a volte-face, Tanzanian High Commissioner to India John WH Kijazi said in Bengaluru that the attack on the Tanzanian woman last Sunday was not racist. He told the media on Friday, after being briefed by the state government, “What has happened is very unfortunate. We had a meaningful discussion with the state government and I am happy with the action taken against the policemenand we were told nine persons have been arrested. I have got a clear picture of what happened prior to the accident and after that. It is not a racist attack. It is a case of friction between the local community and the students.”

Minister of External Affairs (MEA) joint secretary Partha Sathpathy chipped in: “I request the media to refrain from being judgmental while reporting such incidents because the media’s projection about the country and Bengaluru would send a wrong message.”

Without doubt, Kijazi and the MEA have both bought into the state government’s story that this is not a racist attack. Even more interesting, Kijazi told the Bangalore Mirror, “It is the media that projected it as racist attack.” Indeed, national TV channels did go berserk terming this an assault prompted by the fact that the woman was from Africa, which is only partly true. Firstpost discovered while reporting the incident that the attack was fuelled by a combination of road rage, racism, and a clash of rural and city cultures.

But why is the Karnataka government denying that the incident had no elements of racism in it? Even more interesting, you would think the opposition parties such as the BJP would do their best to politicise the incident. Instead, audiences of TV debates have, for the first time in many years, been treated to the piquant situation where spokespersons from the Congress, the BJP, and even the RSS are all agreeing with each other and refusing to acknowledge its racist elements.

A couple of days after five people were arrested for the incident, some Congressmen on social media announced that one of the arrested persons was a prominent BJP panchayat leader. This, they said, was an attempt to derail the then on-going state government’s Global Investors’ Meet. However, the strategy of trying to blame the BJP was quickly dumped; there were no follow-up posts on this angle. In fact, outside of social media, it never made the news.

Meanwhile, Home Minister Dr G Parameshwara, city police commissioner NS Megharikh, and BJP local area MP and union law minister DV Sadananda Gowda, have, to the point of insensitivity, denied that the incident was racist, but insisted that it was road-rage. Interestingly, till yesterday, when Kijazi switched his stance, the Tanzanians were not buying the road-rage story. The victims themselves alleged racism in the attack on those in the second car, which arrived on the scene of the accident around 30 minutes later. Although its occupants had nothing to do with the accident, they were attacked, the girl stripped (although there are varying accounts of this, she certainly was not paraded), and their car set on fire. This happened only because the occupants of the second car were African.

Back in Tanzania, the incident has understandably created a furor. According to reports appearing in The Citizen, a leading Tanzanian newspaper, the Tanzanian foreign ministry summoned Indian high commissioner Sandeep Arya, who was told in no uncertain terms that Tanzanian students in India need to be fully protected and action must be taken against the offenders. On the floor of the Tanzanian parliament, MP Augustine Olle, who himself had studied in India for four years, said, “It is unfortunate that while we encourage diversity in Tanzania and we live in peace with people of various races, the situation is very different in India where Tanzanians are subjected to serious abuse.”

In the light of all this, the Tanzanian high commissioner’s about-face is somewhat surprising. The question that needs answering is this: why is there such a staunch denial of the incident’s racial overtones? Who, if anyone, is being protected?

The police have been cagey of releasing the names of the arrested persons, but some newspapers and channels did carry the names of the first five persons arrested. The Hindu identified the arrested persons as Lokesh Bangaru, Venkatesh, Saleem Pasha, Bhanuprakash, and Rahmatulla. Lokesh reportedly belongs to the BJP. Since then, four more were arrested and three policemen suspended for dereliction of duty, all of which seems to have gone down well with the Tanzanian high commissioner and the MEA, both of whom appreciated the police action.

But going back to the list of people arrested, odious as it may seem, it is impossible not break it down to its communal components. Shabana Taj, 35, the unfortunate victim of the accident who has been forgotten in all the brouhaha over the attack on the Tanzanian girl, is Muslim. The Sudanese student driver, allegedly drunk, as well as the Tanzanian girl who was attacked, belong to the same community. But, as can be seen from the list of the arrested, the mob that attacked the Tanzanian girl, beat up her friends, and burnt the car was constituted of people from both majority and minority communities.

When Sadananda Gowda visited the site of the incident he was heckled by Hindus and Muslims alleging wrongful arrests and demanding their release. They complained that the African students of the area were known for their loud behavior and rash driving. The attack on the students, following Shabana Taj’s death, was a reaction to years of pent-up anger. Gowda was quick to buy it. This was not racist, he declared to the media. Instead, he blamed the state government for failing to protect the interests of the people.The government should also ensure that the foreign students abide the law and also ensure their safety, he told The Hindu.

Except for such low-level rebukes, neither political party has come down hard on each other, both preferring to stick to the road-rage theory, which dismisses racism. The liberal elite, which normally feed on such events, has also kept away. With the Tanzanian establishment acquiescing, this incident is doomed to die a natural death. No doubt, the arrested men and the suspended policemen will soon return to status quo. The media will move on and find another event to earn TRPs.

There is a saying that the two things that unite all Indians are racism and dowry. The Bengaluru attack will prove half of that statement correct.

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