Public Diplomacy

India and Africa : People-to-People Relations – the Perennial Bond

October 16, 2015

By : Rajiv Bhatia

Peoples of Africa and India represent a third of humankind. They have known each other since ages. 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 for attaining socio-economic development and a just global order

However, their relationship is marked by 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 in many ways. It dates back to prehistoric times; and it has immense potential for expansion in the future.


Historians tell us that the initiative to establish the original connection with Africa stemmed from people of the Indian subcontinent. Curiosity, sense of adventure and a desire to trade and arrange cultural exchanges took courageous Indians to Africa, both through the Indian Ocean route to eastern and southern shores of Africa and across West Asia and the Mediterranean to North Africa. The colonial period witnessed sizeable migration of indentured labour as well as of ‘free’ Indians. In post-colonial times, Indians discovered other parts of the continent too.

Mahatma Gandhi who invented the techniques of the Satyagraha movement on Africa soil, brought his new ‘weapons’ of truth and non-violence and helped India secure her independence. 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 to 46 countries. It is about 12 per cent of the total Indian Diaspora in the world. The largest concentration of Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) is in South Africa, Mauritius, Reunion Islands, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique, but the presence of PIOs and Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) in parts of west and North Africa also is becoming a notable phenomenon.

Migration has not been a one-way street. Africans too came to India and many settled down here. Reference is often made to Siddis who descended from the Bantu tribes of southern Africa. They were brought to the subcontinent by the Portuguese colonizers and Arab merchants. 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 October-November 2014, Indians had the rare privilege to enjoy a special exhibition entitled ‘Africans in India: A Rediscovery.’ This was brought through collaboration between Schomburg Centre of New York and and IGNCA. It demonstrated how ‘Indians and Africans have co-existed since time immemorial.’ At present a large number of Africans live in India as students at various academic institutions and as trainees attending professional programmes in numerous fields. 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 globalization as a given, international tourists are a country’s temporary ambassadors, besides being a source of considerable income. Tourism promotion, both ways, should become a higher priority for the industry and governments. The number of Indian tourists to select African countries - Mauritius, South Africa, 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 mindset. Both sides should realize 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 been rapidly increasing in scope and impact. Indian films, arts, dance, music, literature and crafts have reached in almost all parts of Africa. They continue to gain in popularity. "Canoeists in Cairo”, noted 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 song.”

During my time in South Africa, we succeeded, since 2007, in exposing the host country to an innovative cultural festival, created by Sanjoy Roy. ‘Shared History: An Indian Experience’ has continued to return to South Africa every year, 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 savoured both – the classical music of Pandit Jasraj and the masala movies from Mumbai.

India's crafts, costumes and cuisine have left a deep impact in many African countries. The reverse inflow of African influences should not be ignored. Whenever a good quality 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 have been 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.


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, media is failing to play its due role. Consequently, Indians and Africans 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 New Delhi because doing so is not financially viable. This should be re-studied. 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 organizations from establishing a network of local stringers and part-time correspondents who regularly file stories for their Indian audiences.

The African side may do likewise.

Other Links

Civil society too has a role to play in promoting understanding and friendship at the people’s 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 quantum and reach of such exchanges will be desirable. They will, in turn, encourage governments to pay greater attention to diversifying India-Africa engagement.

Two Suggestions

Informed by the above analysis and one’s own Africa experience, two suggestions are offered for consideration:

  • African diplomatic missions in Delhi may gather together interested friends of Africa to establish a Pan Africa-India Friendship Foundation and collaborate with it in the task to strengthen P-to-P relations.
  • As thought leaders, our Think Tanks have a special responsibility to lead by generating new ideas and pressing for their implementation. Substantial synergy needs to be created by establishing an India-Africa Think Tanks Network (IATTN). Working together, institutions such as ICWA and RIS can set the ball rolling.
The pillar of P-to-P relations can thus be strengthened significantly in the short- to-medium term, provided a mix of imagination, synergy and sustained attention are ensured. Time for action is Now!

Rajiv Bhatia spent over seven years in Africa, serving first as India's high commissioner to Kenya and later to South Africa and Lesotho. As DG, ICWA until recently, he oversaw an extensive research and outreach programme engaging Africa and the Indian Ocean region. The article reflects his personal views.




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