Racism: The Indian Perspective

A brief overview of the deep-rooted notions of xenophobia & racism in Indian social psychology.

Racism: The Indian Perspective
Racism: The Indian Perspective

Racism can be defined as the discrimination, prejudice and antagonism that certain groups of people are subjected to based on their race or ethnicity. The discrimination is due to the belief that certain groups of people belonging to a particular race or ethnicity, are superior in comparison to other groups. Racism is present in the society in least developed, developing and even developed nations. India also has a history of racism and different varieties of the same that continue to exist in the society till date.


Racism, in Indian perspective, is not a new notion. It has been present in the society in various forms since ages. In India, discrimination based on difference in caste, color, race and ethnicity is wide spread. The major groups that are subjected to such discrimination are the dark skinned people, the Africans who live in India or have come for their studies, the people of north east India and the Nepalese people. Though the Constitution ensures fundamental right of equality for all the citizens but racism in the society is a major challenge that acts as a hindrance. India needs to focus on eradication of racism from the society which is a crucial need in order to ensure equality in the society.

India was under the colonial rule for about 200 years. The Britishers were loyal only to their mother country and all their actions were directed towards benefit and development of their own country. In order to establish a strong base for governing India, so as to fulfil their goals, the Britishers had put in place a distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’. This differentiation was in order to indicate the supremacy of the white over the Indians or the so called dark-skinned people who were treated as inferiors. The Britishers propagated and enforced the idea that Indians were dirty, backward and inferior people who needed guidance and rulers above them for development and in order to fulfil this need the Britishers had come to govern India (‘The white man’s burden’). This distinction on the basis of physical features was built around the conception of different races to which the Britishers and the Indians belonged to. And due to the distinct variation in the physical features that was easily noticeable and the relative permanent nature of physical variations compared to cultural difference, the idea of differentiation based on difference in skin colour was implanted in the Indian society. This strategy used by the British for dominating their colonial subjects, spread deep and wide and it has shaped the present form of racism to a certain extent.

Steps taken by 1st generation Indian leadership against racism

During independence, India had already witnessed racism, the discrimination that it leads to and other adverse effects it has on the society. During independence, the Indian leaders had aimed to establish a society based on values like democracy and equality. In order to ensure that racism or any other form of discrimination does not exist in the society, the leaders had adopted certain steps. In the Constitution of India, the Indian leaders included the principles of equality, anti-discriminatory rights etc. The fundamental rights under article 14 to article 18 available to Indian citizens have explicit mention of equality before law, prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, equality of opportunity in matters of public employment, abolition of untouchability and abolition of titles. These rights were included to eliminate any form of discrimination be it racial or otherwise from the society.

Constitution of India on promoting equality Info 1
Constitution of India on promoting equality

Besides this, the 1st generation leaders including the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru had taken a stand against racism. The congress was in support of people of different races struggling for their equality and freedom. Nehru is his foreign policy approach had made the idea clear in respect to India’s stand against imperialism and the idea of supremacy of a race over other, its stand against racism and other forms of discrimination. The leaders took into account the diversity of India and formulated the Constitution that would hold together the Indian Union and ensure equal rights for all without any discrimination and even the state policies would strive towards elimination of inequalities or divisions that existed in the society. Even before becoming the Prime Minister, Nehru was focussed on elimination of racism. He gave due importance to domestic social changes, ensuring equality and this ideology was also included in India’s foreign policy. Due to his firm stand against racial discrimination Nehru emerged as an authoritative voice and critic of racism.

The varieties of racism in terms of discrimination and social exclusion in India

In India different forms of discrimination existed much before the coming of Britishers. The Indian society was divided along the lines of caste, creed, religion etc. In the Vedas also division in the society can be seen in the forms of “varna” system which demarcated the society based on colour, race, tribe etc in 4 categories (Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras). People belonging to different castes had been placed at different levels in the society and the people belonging to the upper castes like the Brahmins and Kshatriyas held the people of lower castes in low esteem. People belonging to different castes were eligible to indulge in only those professions that were reserved for their caste group. Hence the people who did the job of cleaning of sewers, cobblers, labourers, workers etc were treated sub ordinate to upper caste people who could indulge in professions like practising warfare, becoming priests in temples, teaching etc. This different allocation of profession based on the varna system also gave rise to other forms of discrimination like untouchability based on the notion of purity and impurity (people who were involved in disposing of dead bodies, cleaning of sewers etc were considered impure).

Rig Veda: X mandala: Purush-Sukta Info 2
Rig Veda: X mandala: Purush-Sukta

The society was divided along the lines of religion and cultural practises as well with people from each religion considering them to be superior compared to the other religions. After the invasion of the Aryans, in India differentiation in the terms of colour also started to take birth. The Dravidians or the people from the south were considered to be dark skinned while the northerners or the Aryans were supposed to be fair skinned. The discrimination based on differences in physical features other than colour like shape of eyes, shape of nose etc was not wide spread in the society. But in the recent times the society has been divided along these lines also. From the time of British rule, colour has emerged as one of the major criteria for discrimination. In the recent times apart from discrimination based on physical features, deep rooted superstitions and prejudice also play an active role in the society. For example- The judgement of Supreme Court in 2005, that went in favour of a bylaw of a Parsi housing society prohibiting the sale of property to non-parsis on the grounds that such action was intrinsic to parsi fundamental rights to associate with each other, also appears to have overlooked the equality as mentioned under article 15 thereby making way for discrimination based on ethno-religious grounds. Further, during the ongoing pandemic situation number of cases has been reported where the doctors and health workers involved in fighting the pandemic have been subjected to discrimination in the fear of spreading the corona virus. Also a case came to the fore where staff members of Air India were urged to vacate their homes as these staff members were involved in evacuation of Indians from different hot zones in the world.

Regionalism and xenophobic nature of Indian society

In India regionalism and xenophobic nature can be seen in numerous cases. As discussed above one of the primary examples of regionalism is the discrimination of people of south India in north India. A general notion is present in the society that south Indians or the non-Aryans are dark in colour whereas the north Indians have fairer skin colour. Due to this idea, the south Indians who have a darker complexion are subjected to derogatory comments. In India the fair skin advertisements are an indicator that people with darker skin colour are not acceptable as normal in the society. Another wide spread example of regionalism is the treatment meted out to the people belonging to North-Eastern India. Even though the North east is a part of India and the residents are as much Indian as other people in different parts of the country, but they are subjected to various types of discrimination. The primary reason for discriminatory behaviour against the north-eastern people is because of their mongoloid facial features. The people from North east also are considered as Nepalese by some and as Chinese by others.

This becomes a cause for treating the north eastern citizens as refugees, Chinese or Nepalese who have encroached upon India. Such bias in the society leads to variety of unlawful and derogatory activities like any person (mainly women) having mongoloid features is taunted with derogatory terms in cities like Delhi etc, they are exploited by the local taxis and charged high rates, and they are viewed as a prey by the anti-social elements and are subjected to barbarity and sexually harassed, they are charged high rents and the north eastern people are considered as aliens to such an extent that cases of murder have also been reported. It has also been seen that students and people of north east residing in different states like Karnataka have been evacuated in the past in order to protect them from racist attacks originating from hate campaign started through SMS. In this backdrop it has been seen that cases of atrocities against these people have been on the rise in India even during the ongoing pandemic. Recently, cases have been reported where north eastern people have been insulted for being the carriers of the corona virus as they as supposed to be Chinese. Even cases have been reported where people from north east were forcibly sent to quarantine centres without any history of foreign travel as they were considered to be foreigners.

Another form of regionalism that is seen in India is the discrimination against the people from Bihar in Maharashtra. The people of Bihar are considered as trouble makers in the society and encroachers who need to be pushed back to their own states. This has resulted in conflicts between the two groups. Besides regionalism, xenophobic attitude towards people from countries like Nepal and Africa has also been seen in India. In India, people from Nepal are also subjected to discrimination. Besides being confused as Chinese, a general idea is prevalent in the society that majority of Nepalese people in India must be gatekeepers or must be engaged as waiters in some restaurants primarily Chinese restaurants. They also are subjected to similar discrimination as the people from north east in their day to day life starting from overcharging fares on hiring taxis to weird looks in crowds to being treated as a Chinese encroacher.

Discrimination against the people from Africa

India is a major destination for students from Africa due to high academic standards and low cost of education. Due to these two regions India is a host to significant number of African students. However, Africans are counted among the worst victims of racism in India. Majority of the Africans are called by a term denoting their racial origin, which is akin to a racial slur denoting the darker skin complexion of Africans, irrespective of the country to which they belong (the dirty ‘N’ word). African students are considered to be poor as people have an idea that they come from a very poor and backward nation, a nation of slaves. Besides this, there is a prevalent idea in the society that African students residing in India are usually involved in all kinds of anti-social activities like drug peddling, hooliganism, thefts etc. In 2017, the death of a student due to drug overdose raged a spirit of hatred against his African friends. They were arrested and then left due to lack of evidence however after few days they were brutally assaulted by a group of people. Such cases of violent attacks on African students have been reported in numerous cases. The trend started by the colonial masters during the 18th century of enslaving the dark skinned Africans has left a deep impact on Indian society and vestiges of the inferiority of African people can be easily marked in such cases of atrocities.

The African students have not been accepted in the Indian society. They are refused homes on rent as all are viewed as criminals. Such prejudice has resulted in number of conflicts in the past as well in the present times as can be seen in the 2017 case. Another superstition also is prevalent regarding cannibalism of the Africans. Even before the British propagated the idea of cannibalism of Africans, the pre-colonial Indian society had its own versions of cannibalism of Africans that could be seen in the classical texts and comics. The African people also face discrimination in the hands of government and other institutions. For example- they become the natural suspects in any anti-social cases occurring in areas where they live, the renewal of visa or any other work related to their visa also takes a considerably long time compared to the normal time needed etc. The Africans are called by derogatory names in almost all sectors and even in sports an example of which recently came to the fore when an African cricket player brought the incident of him and few other players (like players from Sri Lanka) being addressed with derogatory names. From emergence of Mahatma Gandhi as a crusader against apartheid in Africa to the support extended by India to Africa in its anti colonial struggle to the growing Indian Diaspora in Africa with simultaneous increase in number of Africans coming and living in India, India and Africa have shared a cordial relationship from past several decades. Despite of this the prejudices, misconceptions and prevalent superstitions have been the reasons why the Africans have been ill treated and have been denied a space in the diverse Indian society with an alarming rise in the intolerance against them.


Discrimination has been present in the Indian society since ages. Besides other forms of discriminations, racism has also been a part of Indian society. The discrimination on basis of skin colour and physical features left a deep impact on India mainly during the colonial era. Though Indians have quite vocally condemned the incidents of racist attack or discrimination when the receiver was an Indian living in foreign nations or visiting foreign nations and even in incidents of racist attacks on dark skinned people of any nationality in foreign nations but in the matter of racism that is wide spread in the India, the society turns a blind eye. The atrocities against the Africans, the discriminatory attitude of Indians towards the fellow north eastern people of India, the discrimination that Nepalese people are subjected to, the general idea that dark skin colour is not acceptable or is bad etc have not been addressed adequately by the society and not even by the government. Equality is a fundamental right for all and it needs to be enforced in true sense, moreover in case of foreigners it is humanity that should take the front seat and racist attitude against them or any person as such be it Indian or be it foreigner must be stopped. Such inhumane and derogatory practises that adversely affect the society need to be addressed in an effective manner for the actual growth and development of the society. The issue of racism needs to be thoroughly uprooted from the Indian society if we wish to be true to India’s credo of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”.



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