Unfolding the Reality of Racism in India

“In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”

– Angela Y. Davis

By Dhara Tandon

Racism is a theory that one race is superior than the other based on the physical attributes, caste, creed, ethnicity or origin. A person is being racist when he displays the emotions of hatred, prejudice, biasness and intolerance against another person solely due to his skin color, language, place of origin or any attribute which he might have gained biologically. We live in a country where racism is deeply rooted, we live in a society where the people are highly obsessed with one’s skin tone. Indians have varied degrees of skin complexion and they are categorized as fair, dusky, dark etc. Indians believe that fair-skinned people are of a much more worth and value than those who are dark-skinned. The fair is considered the intellectual and gets the respect, dignity and the social status while the dark are left behind struggling for their rights and status. We face color hatred and prejudice and somehow still choose to remain silent about it.

Our country has a history of being ruled by the whites, i.e., the Portuguese, the Dutch and the French traders, the Mughals, the British. They were relatively fairer than the rest of the Indian population. This succession by the white people left behind the desperate desire of looking fair. Indians felt that only the light skin people can attain power, dignity and respect as they were the master race. The racial prejudice in our country has taken the form of colorism. This is how the stereotypical mindsets of the Indians work. Due to color discrimination, the brown and black people face problems all over the world. It brings down their morale, enthusiasm and self-efficiency to a great extent. They do not receive the right amount of appreciation, instead they face constant hatred and are subjected to brutality. Many times, they are are denied access to educational institutions, workplace or employment services, social services etc. There is no system which would act as a protection shield against the brutal and the inhumane bullying.

According to the World Values Survey, India is the second most racist country in the world, where people from within and outside the country are treated differently, based on both skin color and country of origin. African people are especially affected by racism in India, denied living accommodations and even attacked and killed. The biasness and generalizations are very obvious. Just recently, there were news reports that some African students who were studying in India were beaten up by drunk Indians. Unfortunately, the issue of racism is compounded by the media’s obsession with the fairer skin.

The North- South Divide

After the invasion, one should just assume that nature had taken its course in human evolution. The fair-skinned invaders proclaimed to be superior to their dark-skinned counterparts. This historically proven racism is the backbone of many Indian people that we are still unaware of.

When people talk about India, they generally use Bollywood as a reference. The white leading man romancing the white girl and they break out in to a song and dance in the middle of the road, the leading man fights a cliche white villain and the movie is over. This theme is universal in Bollywood and almost to the point of incessant repetition. When, people think about travelling in India, they think about all the places they have seen these actors sing and dance and wish to visit only those places. Bollywood is essentially just a big tourism advertisement for the northern region of India. This one-sided characterization of a country with a huge cultural divide is one of the reasons why the south hates the north and vice versa. The north always believes itself to be the only representative of India.

The south on the other hand is richer and more educated. It is more diverse and accepting of different ethnicities. There is less violence against women and female infanticide. In fact, Kerala has more female population and is number 1 in literacy rate, Human Development Index and per capita income.

Movies, TV series, news anchors and every billboard are biased against the Dravidians. There are even advertisements for skin creams that will help people get fairer skin. One of the advertisements even shows how the girl picks a white-skinned boy over a dark-skinned best friend and the guy retorting, “Switch to a cream which will make you fairer!” Here in India, there is a structural nature in racism. In a society where marriages are arranged, a dark-skinned groom or bride will always be at the bottom of the list. And so when it comes to cinema, the South Indian movies are never chosen for an International accolade because the Indian film control board is in the North. All the while, it is the South Indian movies that get all the critical national awards.

Racism against North Eastern people in India

Have you ever felt discriminated in your own country? Your own people calling you by names and making you feel unwanted as if you don’t belong to the community. There are thousands of incidents that Northeast Indians can narrate and yet we mock them on their appearance. Northeast India is mostly unexplored and underestimated, a beauty of high hills, cascading waterfalls and distant wildlife. Northeast includes of eight states – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura. Due to China influence, the food and culture is similar, clearly making these places more exotic. The people are warm-hearted and welcoming but the main issue is the racism of Northeast people in their own country.

With Coronavirus clinging to our daily lives, we tend to develop loathness towards Republic of China for gifting this deadly virus to the whole world. We must be wise enough to be able to distinguish between Chinese native and Northeastern but we ironically don’t. It is provoking attacks on Northeast people, both verbal and violent.

North East people have been a subtle target for the people for several reasons in India. Sadly, racism with the north easterns is something that people don’t talk about much. Recently, north east people have been in the eyes of some as a potential distributor of coronavirus because of their look alike with the Chinese people.

Various incidents that happened with the north east people during the coronavirus pandemic :

  1. In the country capital Delhi, a man spat on a north eastern woman in the Vijaya Nagar area saying out, “Chinese corona virus coming”. Later the man was booked under the section 509 of Indian Penal Code which criminalizes any act insulting a woman’s modesty.
  2. Another incident that happened in Delhi was when a woman was hit by water balloons and was called corona virus by two men on a bike near the north campus of the Delhi University.
  3. A woman who lives in Pune was insulted by a shopper in a reliance store in Pune, when a lady passed by the shopper, she covered her face and when she was asked why is she doing so, she said that the woman might be carrying corona virus.

North Eastern people often have to face racist comments such as chowkidar, momo, chinky, chinese etc. While these outbursts are blatant representations of skewed power relations, they are part of a larger, more permanent structure, which has existed for much longer. The disregard for their plight, the northeastern community faces is reflected in the kinds of state policies, the lack of redressal mechanisms or even Institutional acknowledgment of their particular struggles.

Let us learn what happened with Nido Taniam, a 20 year old from Arunachal Pradesh, son of Nido Pavitra who’s a congress legislature. He went to Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi on January 14th and was looking for an address. The shopkeepers mocked him for his physical features and hair. This led to a fight with the shopkeepers and ultimately he was pushed to deathbed due to severe lung and head injury. This incident fired up the protest against racism leaded by different political leaders and activist. The sad killing of Nido was a heinous crime which was an outcome of pure racial prejudice. The police had charged the accused under section 302 of the IPC, however the CBI dropped the murder charges and framed charges under the SC/ST Atrocities Act, 1989. Later the court dropped the charges of SC/ST act saying that there was no establishment of the motive of “racial slur”. This incident moved the north east Indians in a very aggressive and agitated way. They demanded equal recognition and appreciation for the north east states.

There is more than one India

India is a country which portrays a unique combination of people having various cultures, religions, tribes and traditions. The variety in the language, culture, originality, religion brings in the existence of ethnicity. The basic definition of ethnicity refers to the cultural and the sociological factors such as the language, religion, tradition and the place of origin. It basically means the background of the place of the origin and it’s specific cultures and traditions which are taken up by the people. It is not something that a person attains biologically or genetically. Facial and genetic attributes do not come under the category of ethnicity. If a person is questioned as to reveal his identity, it may push him to categorize his identification on the basis of the place he was born and brought up, the language and culture taken up by him. The four main ethnic groups of India are as follows :

  • Indo-Aryans which mainly comprises of Punjabi, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kashmiri, Konkan, Marathi, Nepali, Sindhi, Urdu, Assamese.
  • Dravidians which mainly comprises of Kannada, Tamil, Tulu, Telegu, Malayali.
  • Sino Tibetan which comprises of Manipuri and Bodo.
  • Austroasiatic which comprises of Santhali.

The World sees India as this one big country with uniformity in culture and ideology. What they fail to realize is that from region to region, there is no similarity. Very often race and ethnicity are confused with each other and are considered the same. But in reality, there exists distinctive features between the both. Race is broadly defined as the facial features like the skin color, shape of lips, eyes or nose or any other feature which is inherited genetically or biologically. On the other hand, ethnicity has a sociological aspect, it distinguishes a group from the other based on their linguistic, culture and traditional aspects. A person can either accept or deny to conform to it’s own ethnic group. But a person cannot deny its own race because it is something that he owns biologically. Both race and ethnicity are used to categorize people and distinguish them from the others. These two draw a fine line between supremacy and inferiority, acting as a barrier to equality that should be given to the people of all races and ethnic groups.

Factors promoting colorism

The social media and the advertising agency contribute to a great extent in favoring the notion of colorism. It is well known that the people would prefer a lighter skin tone than a deeper one and they would try their level best to reduce the tone of their skin color using any artificial means. People tend to follow the social media, their role models and hence in a despair to look fair. There are numerous cosmetic brands and skin lightening brands which came up as a solution to their consumer’s needs. In 1975, the “Fair and Lovely” cream was launched by Hindustan Unilever. This brand added a lot to the theory of colorism. It had become an indispensable requirement in the life of young girls. In the advertisement, it was depicted that the father of the girl was disappointed due to her dark skin color and he wished upon if he had a son. Then the mother gives the famous cream to the girl which would lighten up her skin tone. Thus, eventually the girl underwent the transition from dark to fair. This finally made her father proud and she was successful in life. It gained immense response as it was a skin lightening cream. Similarly, in 2005, the ‘Fair and Handsome” cream was launched by Emami (as if it was not enough for only women to think that fair skin is the only way to be), whose brand ambassador was Shah Rukh Khan.

This clearly shows how an advertising agency can brainwash the minds of the people. It denoted that the deep complexion is not acceptable by the society and how the dark people prove to be a disappointment. Only the fair people could achieve success and lead a happy life. Such fairness cream commercials promote the concept that how fairness is the only means to gain dignity, honor and respect. Such products created an obstacle in the society by differentiating people on their skin color. There is no actual appreciation of the natural beauty and color anymore. It lead to the formation of biasness on the preference of skin color and tone. In 2014, the Advertising Standard Council of India, laid down guidelines that there should be no advertisements which demonstrates negative conventions on skin color or depict deeper skin tone people unsuccessful in life as colorism like this really brings down the level of self-esteem and confidence in life of the people which in turn creates a confined status.

Recently, during the pandemic, another issue that came to highlight is the George Floyd incident and the Anti-race movement. George Floyd was a 45 year old African-American man and a well known football player. On May 25th, 2020, Minneapolis police officers arrested George Floyd after a convenience store employee called 911 and told the police that Mr. Floyd had bought cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. Seventeen minutes after the first squad car arrived at the scene, Mr. Floyd was unconscious and pinned beneath three police officers, showing no signs of life. By combining videos from bystanders and security cameras, reviewing official documents and consulting experts, The News York Times reconstructed in detail the minutes leading to Mr. Floyd’s death. The video and pictures shows officers taking a series of actions that violated the policies of the Minneapolis Police Department and turned fatal, leaving Mr. Floyd unable to breathe, even as he and onlookers called out for help. Floyd’s identity as a black man exposed him to a gantlet of injustices that derailed, diminished and ultimately destroyed him. This is how systematic racism shaped Floyd’s life and hobbled his ambition and also underscores how systematic racism has calcified within many of America’s institution creating sharply disparate outcomes in housing, education, the economy, law enforcement and health care.

This incident yet again started the “Black lives matter” protests and it gained momentum, not only in United States but the whole world. People as well as many governments across different countries, came forth against the prevalence of racial discrimination worldwide. In India, people took to social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter to show their support. People all over the country were posting pictures and videos with (hashtag) #Blacklivesmatter. However, the irony here to notice is that how people, just because of the social pressure became a part of the protest and showered their support for George Floyd. Whereas on the other hand, the same pre-set of color and racial discrimination are deeply embedded in their society, yet they never speak about it. Following the anti-race protests, many brands decided to change the name of their skin lightening products, for instance, “Fair and Lovely” was changed to “Glow and lovely” (what a joke). But that alone is not going to solve the problem. Kavitha Emmanuel, the woman behind “Dark is Beautiful” campaign told The Week that “changing names is not enough to undo the damage, done in the past 45 years”. She proposes for the discontinuation of such products so that more and more women, irrespective of color, can get empowered.

Reasons which may have caused a deep rooted xenophobia in the minds of the Indian populace :

Racism as an ego-defence mechanism

After two hundred years of colonial domination and being labelled as barbarians, the Indian identity faced a major setback. The belief that India needed saving from itself and the initiation of an entire ‘civilizing mission’ for the populace reiterated a sense of Indian inferiority time and again. Some regressive Indian cultural practices were questioned at a global level, and many were changed. The attempt to get the Indians to emulate the Western ways of living infuriated the Indians, while making them question their own identity time and again. Post Independence, in order to counter the existing mindset, a strong patriotic identity was forged. This identity led to an exaltation of Indian culture and practices, and portrayed these to be superior to British or Western tradition.

Does our racism stem out of a larger attempt at protection and promotion of the Indian Identity? A subservience can still be traced to British and Western structures. The common notion of beauty is attached to fair and light skin, which is evident in the search of brides/grooms who are fair skinned. The endorsement of a plethora of fairness products substantiate this. The persecution of Africans and black skinned people from Uganda and Nigeria in the past can be attributed to the deep seated contempt towards dark skin.

Racism due to the perception of an ‘out-group’

It can be noticed that countries which are racially more tolerant are usually melting pots of different nationalities settling down for work and living here. Most of these nations are also very individual centric, wherein people are self-absorbed and individual identity is placed above group identity.

In India, however, post colonial rule hasn’t been much of an influx of different nationalities settling down for work and living here. Therefore, when one encounters foreigners, they are immediately viewed as an outsider and beyond the Indian social fabric. This xenophobia leads to hostility and alienation as they don’t fit in Indian standard norms and societal framework.

Racism as an act of retaliation

There have been many noted cases of visible racism against Indians around the world. These are evident in reports of crimes against Indian students in Australia, UK, politicians and business corporations discriminating against Indian brown skin, and in America, where Indian-Americans are constantly shunned. Also, Indian stereotypes are used to taint the image of the country time and again, and questions such as “Do people in India go to school on cows”? and “How can you speak in English”? are asked very often, demeaning and infuriating the Indian masses.

Racism due to competition

With the coming in of so many foreign firms, Indians are often reminded of their managerial positions in the workplace. In most scenarios, Indians form the labour workforce for International business ventures, even if they reach corporate set-ups, they often hit a glass ceiling and find individuals of western nationalities superseding them, or above them, in the corporate ladder. This constant competition for jobs and financial comparison leads to an unhealthy relationship or mental perception towards foreigners. This makes them an out-group and subjects of Indian indignation.

Racism due to diversity in identity

Racism in India is also visible amongst Indian communities. Due to large regional diversity, we find communities pitted up against each other ideologically, or for resources. There have been many cases of North Indian discriminating against those from the South, the mainland population isolating the North Easterns and a multitude of regional clashes. In a scenario where the country is so fragmented within itself, a foreigner seems even more alien, and a common enemy of all.

Racism due to a lack of imbibing virtues of tolerance

Children, and even adults, aren’t been taught tolerance or the beauty of harmonious living. Since this is left as a grey area, people live on with persisting mindsets. They are given no stimulus to change the way they think and the importance of International help and support doesn’t trickle down to masses.

Furthermore, the Government hasn’t put in place strong deterrence in instances of violence towards a particular community or racial abuse against foreigners who come to the country. A clear no tolerance policy towards racial intolerance must be put forth by the Government, and the message should be loud and clear.

Laws implemented for Racial Discrimination

Constitutional provisions identified under the Constitution of India :

  • Article 14 says that no person should be deprived of equality within the territory of India.
  • Article 15 (1) says that there should be no discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.
  • Article 16 ensures the citizens equal opportunities of employment to both men and women.
  • Article 17 abolishes the practice of “Untouchability” and any person who practices untouchability shall be punishable under the law.
  • Article 21 protects the citizens from deprivation of life and personal liberty.
  • Article 51 (A) (e) signifies the duty of every citizen to the feeling of harmony and brotherhood among all the citizens of India and abandon the practices which are derogatory to the dignity of women.

Other Legislations and Acts

Anti Discrimination and Equality Bill, 2016

The bill signifies that there be no discrimination against the people belonging to the weaker and poorer sections of the society on the grounds of caste, creed, religion, sex, color, place of originality etc. The bill guarantees protection to the weaker sections like the scheduled caste and the scheduled tribes, who are always exposed to irrational abuse and violence for mundane reasons. It provides measures for redressal and provisions for compensation and exemplary awards.

The Caste Disabilities Removal Act, 1850

This particular law was passed in the British India under the rule of East India Company in 1850. This law gave people the freedom to convert from one religion to another with all the equal rights. The conversion of the religion would not take away their rights, especially inheritance. This law gave a clear view that a person will not be denied his right of inheritance to the parental property, even after he undergoes a conversion of religion.

The Prevention of Atrocities Act (Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes), 1989

The law was passed on September 9th, 1989. This law protects the SC’s and ST’s from the discrimination and exploitation. It provides protection to the weaker sections from atrocities, abuse, brutality and ruthless violence. It lists around 22 offences which would come under the category of discrimination like denial of access to drinking water, safe hygienic conditions, access to hospitals, education, edible food, entry in to temples etc. Section 14 of SC/ST Act provides for the speedy trial courts so that the members of OBC and other tribal communities get speedy justice and do not remain defenseless. There is no provision for an anticipatory bail for offence committed under the act as per the new Section 18(a).


I would like to conclude this article by saying that yes, racial prejudice does exist in our country. India being such a complex and diverse nation, is bound to have some differences between the people, be it facial features, skin color, language, caste, or the religion. But these mere differences do not serve as a ground for discrimination. India is widely known for having varied cultures, traditions, ethics, religions, languages, communities etc. On one hand, we say that we are proud of living in a country so beautiful and diverse that it embraces people belonging to different cultures and traditions and on the other hand, we go freely discriminating and spreading racial prejudice against the people just because they belong to a different community or ethnic group. How ironical is that. Our Indian society has a pre-determined assumption that skin tone preferences have to exist no matter what. They are reluctant in accepting that being dark is beautiful and that the dark is entitled to the same amount of dignity and respect that a fair would receive. Person with a lighter skin tone will always be preferred over a person with a deeper skin tone. This leads to the elimination of opportunities for the black people in every field, be it education or employment. They are a constant subject to hate crime due to their skin color, which makes them feel unsafe and threatened in their very own country. Its high time that the spread of racial prejudice and hatred against the blacks should be stopped, stricter law should be implemented and enforced.

Derogatory comments, racial slurs, racial insults, racist killings etc. should cease to exist. We should embrace and appreciate the people for who they are and not on the basis of how they look. Skin color or caste do not define the character of the person, passing judgmental comments on their skin color and looks does nothing good, but makes them feel isolated and alienated from everyone else.

While it is quite impossible to eradicate racial discrimination completely, but we can at least try to reduce it to the minimum, and for that, we need to spread awareness among people about this sensitive issue. So, as both victims and perpetrators of racism, it is high time that we recognize this. We have to move beyond our β€œclosed community” mindset and be more accepting of outsiders. This superiority complex that we have for the region we are born in needs to go. There’s a lot to do but for starters, accepting the problem would be a concrete first step in eradicating it completely. 

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