The question is not whether India is racist; the question is to what extent India is racist. Biases of a racial kind have always been a feature of our public life. Sometimes they were brushed aside as clowning, like Sardarji jokes; North Indian derision for "Madrassis" was dismissed by southerners as another instance of the northerners' ignorance. Sometimes it went out of control, like Shiv Sena's violence against South Indians first and now against Biharis. But the most injurious manifestation of Indian racism is against fellow citizens from north-east and against Africans. This will grievously harm India, by encouraging secessionist thoughts in north-eastern India and by making India a hated name in economically burgeoning Africa.
It's all very well to say that there is racism in all countries. But most other countries do something about it. The fight against Apartheid in South Africa is now part of the history of political heroism. In America the northern half went to war against the southern half over the issue of slavery. Subsequently "Negroes" themselves elevated the struggle to an art form, with the "Black is Beautiful" movement on one side and, on the other, with a national hero like Cassius Clay leaving discrimination-promoting Christianity to become Mohammed Ali.
The problem with racism in India is that the system does nothing to counter it. In fact it promotes it for foolish electoral gains and by sheer incompetence. Partition left the north-eastern states separated from India except for an umbilical chord-like corridor. The physical isolation demanded special attention, but governments from Jawaharlal Nehru's days failed to understand the implications of geography. Migration from West Bengal and Bangladesh, allowed by the authorities for vote-bank politics, turned the locals in Tripura into a minority; Assamese-speakers in Assam who were, naturally, the overwhelming majority in their state became simply the largest group. Small wonder that there are 26 active armed groups in the north-east. In five states armed separatist movements are active.
Never showing any interest in addressing the region's problems, the Centre merely doled out money, accounting for a quarter to more than half of the GDP of each state. This turned the local governments into clients of the Centre and prevented any meaningful economic progress. Result: Thousands of local people, English-educated and modernistic and capable, went to other parts of India looking for employment. In Maharashtra, Karnataka, Punjab and above all in Delhi, they became easy prey to racist Indians.
The beating to death of Nido was in broad daylight. The shopkeepers who teased him and then attacked him were identified. But the police took no action for days. Then came the twist that there was no conclusive proof that Nido died of the beating. Time for another movie: "No one killed Nido". This was typical of Delhi and Delhi police. In 2005 Delhi University announced a dress code for women students from the north-east avowedly to help them avoid sexual harassment. When BRICS nations held a summit in Delhi last year, the police harassed Assamese, Manipuris, Mizos, Meghalayans et al in buses, roads and houses until they produced documents to prove their citizenship status; they were mistaken for Tibetan refugees.
Delhi is a cruel place. As novelist Rana Dasgupta says in his acclaimed new biography of the city, Capital: A Portrait of 21st Century Delhi, if there is an earthquake in Delhi or if the water supply stops, people will not help but slaughter one another. A writer's resort to picturesqueness? Not if we see things in the perspective of recurring attacks on innocents, of negative stereotyping of non-Hindi speakers, of the way successive governments have competed to make north-easterners feel alienated from "mainland India".
Unlike earlier atrocities, the killing of Nido has shocked the whole nation, "mainlanders" included. But the politicians merely make predictable noises about action. Perhaps they should note that Nido was from Himachal Pradesh, a state that China claims. A sensible India would do everything possible to make Himachal Pradeshis feel happy and proud about being Indian. Targetting them is tantamount to helping China's aggressive designs. Which is stupid.