04/28/2023, 21.07
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Indians in Africa: from the Hakki Pikki in Sudan to investments to catch up with China

by Alessandra De Poli

India’s Operation Kaveri seeks to bring home thousands of Indians stranded in Khartoum after Sudan’s descent into chaos. Many belong to a tribe that occupies a market niche, selling herbal remedies abroad. In recent years, Indian investments have also grown in the continent, linked to India by historic trade routes and a shared colonial past.

Milan (AsiaNews) – Earlier this week, India launched Operation Kaveri to evacuate Indian citizens stranded in Sudan after the outbreak of hostilities between General Abdel Fattah Burhan, head of the army, and General Mohammed Dagalo, commander of the RSF paramilitary group.

Evacuation began with a first group of 500 people moved to the city of Port Sudan. Since then, some have already landed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and are expected to fly to Bengaluru shortly.

Before the outbreak of violence in the African country, some 4,000 Indians lived in Sudan, including a few hundred Hakki Pikki, a tribal group that hails from Karnataka, a state in southern India.

Many of them lived in Khartoum, but a majority resided in the city of Al-Fashir, the capital of northern Darfur, about 1,000 km from the capital, and had moved to Africa to sell their herbal remedies, much sought after, especially in Sudan’s rural areas where doctors are rare.

Thanks to their pleas on social media, in which they described the brutality of the armed clashes, the Indian government set in motion evacuation plans.

When a leading member of the Congress Party, India’s main opposition party, tweeted a request for their safe return home, External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar reacted angrily. “Simply appalled at your tweet! There are lives at stake; don’t do politics,” he wrote in a counter-tweet.

Karnataka goes to the poll next month. According to the 2011 census, about 12,000 Hakki Pikki live in the state, but their oral history traces their origins to north-western India.

A nomadic and endogamous group, they used to travel across the country to catch birds (in Karnataka’s main language, Kannada, their name means "bird catchers”), an activity that they had to give up in the 1970s when the Indian government banned the practice.

Marginalised at home since the days of British Raj, during which they were designated "criminal tribes"; today almost all have a passport for travelling to South America or Southeast Asia to sell their natural products, offered as a cure for a variety of ailments, from abdominal pain to hair loss.

Their travels can take a few weeks or several months. Some have said that they can earn up 2,000 to 3,000 rupees (US24 to US$ 26) a day before going home, often to fill more orders that arrive from other countries.

With a similar colonial background, South Asia and Africa have bolstered bilateral trade in recent years. In 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed Uganda's parliament, outlining what are now known as the "Kampala Principles," a set of guidelines governing India's involvement in Africa, aimed at promoting economic growth and addressing common problems such as terrorism and climate change.

Africa’s trade with India has grown nearly 35 per cent every year between 2005 and 2015, while 99 per cent of all African investment in India comes from Mauritius, a small island nation in the Indian Ocean where over 60 per cent of the population is of Indian origin.

In the past few years, the island has displaced Singapore as the largest destination of Indian investments, which is trying to catch up with China’s, and now stands at around US$ 74 billion.

According to External Affairs Minister Jaishankar, bilateral trade between India and Africa “reached US$ 89.5 billion in 2021-2022 compared with US$ 56 billion the previous year,” mainly in  pharmaceuticals and refined petroleum products.

China is still by far the continent's main economic partner thanks to bilateral trade that in 2021 amounted to US$ 254 billion, but India can count on three million overseas Indians, more than a third in South Africa, another 880,000 in Mauritius, followed by the French possession of Reunion (220,000),  Kenya (100,000), Tanzania (100,000) and Uganda (90,000).

The Indian presence in Africa goes back a while, always associated with business. Already in the 12th century, Arab cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi reported finding remains of Indian settlements in Mozambique probably dating back to the first millennium AD.

In the 19th century, at least 32,000 Indians were contracted to work in English colonies (often to build railways), but once the contract was over at least 7,000 decided to stay on, becoming “dukawallas”, i.e. artisans, traders, clerks, and lower-level officials in the colonial administration.

By the end of World War II, the number of Indians in Southeast Africa reached 320,000, leading the authorities in some African colonies to restrict foreign immigration. By then, Indians controlled 80 to 90 per cent of commercial trade in Kenya and Uganda.

In Uganda, almost all cotton ginneries were run by Indians (called "Wahindi" in Swahili), and by the 1970s, they represented 2 per cent of the population. But in 1972 they were expelled and their assets "Africanised”.

Only a decade later were they allowed to come back and many are now running again thriving businesses.


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