Racial discrimination in the ancient India

Sai Manoj Reddy, Student of Law, VIT Law School, Chennai

History (Ancient India)

The least challenged racism remains that of Indian Caste system. Indo-Aryans started the Caste system in India after they conquered it, to preserve their racial purity in India. Now the Caste system is a part of Hinduism. The Hindu religious name for the Caste system is Verna, which literally means color system. Darker-skinned people, Dravidians, who were defeated by Aryans, became outcaste or Untouchables of the Verna system.

The following list gives a broad idea of what untouchability means:

  • Denial or restriction of access to public facilities, such as well, schools, roads, post offices, and courts.
  • Denial or restriction of access to temples where their presence might pollute the deity as well as the higher caste worshippers, and from rest houses, tanks, and shrines connected to temples. Untouchables… are forbidden to learn the Vedas (the earliest and most sacred books of orthodox Hinduism).
  • Exclusion from any honourable, and most profitable, employment and relegation to dirty or menial occupations.
  • Denial of access to services such as those provided by barbers, laundrymen, restaurants, shops, and theatres or requiring the use of separate utensils and facilities within such places.
  • Restrictions on style of life, especially in the use of goods indicating comfort or luxury. Riding on horseback, use of bicycles, umbrellas, footwear, the wearing of gold and silver ornaments, the use of palanquins to carry bridegrooms.
  • Restrictions on movement. Untouchables might not be allowed on roads and streets within prescribed distance of the houses or persons of higher castes.

According to the Indian census of 1980, there were 200 million “Untouchables” of the lowest Castes. These 200 to 300 Castes are subjected to very inhuman treatment based on practices advocated in the Hindu religious manual Manu Smriti. The life, property and honor of Untouchables still remain threatened by the higher Castes.

Pollution and purification are key concepts in the Caste system. They are based on Hindu beliefs that each Caste group can maintain its status by restricting contact with the “polluting” effects of the lower Castes and by regulating its contact with objects thought to be inherently impure. Caste members customarily marry only members of their own Caste.

There are about 3,000 Castes and more than 25,000 sub-Castes in India, some with only several hundred members and others with millions. The tragedy is that with the rise of Hindu religious nationalism nowadays, the Caste system is regaining its power, shaken a bit by modernization. Most wealth and power is by and large in the hands of the top three percent of Castes in India.”

History (during British rule)

The centralised administration of the British Government and modern methods of rapid communication like the railways fostered a sense of Indian unity. Some of the evils of British rule to the contemporary Indians appeared as a blessing in disguise in the long run. One such evil was the naked racial arrogance of the British. Racial discrimination among Indians which was unmistakably present in the Cornwallis code at the end of the 18th century rapidly crystallised in the 19th century.

 Racial doctrines openly preached the predestined superiority of the whites and the permanent subjugation of the non-whites like Indians to the white supremacy. As a result not only did the British enjoy numerous exemptions and privileges but also they were so far brutalised as to insult, assault and even murder Indians with impunity.

This naturally moved self-respecting Indians to challenge the odious alien rule. Secondly, in 1826, a Jury act was passed which introduced religious discrimination in the law courts. Under it Hindus and Muslims could be tried by European or Indian Christians, but no Christians whether European or Indian, could be tried by Hindu or Muslim jurors.

Present trend of racial discrimination in India

As we have seen what racism is in the past, now in India racism is still there in the present days. There is discrimination against north-eastern Indians and even Africans who are residing in India. Even we have discrimination regarding caste and religion in the past which was less now. Some of the best examples are what we see in our daily life, in the same Hindu committee people are divided into various types based on their occupation mostly. That is fine if it is just division but the concept behind this division is based on the occupation the dignity of people depends in this division. There are still a lot of areas where the people were discriminated based on castes.

Incidents on the people of North eastern states

 As many as 54 per cent people from the northeast feel that discrimination is a reality in the national capital while 74 per cent felt that Delhi is the “most unsafe” place in terms of ethnic discrimination, a survey report has revealed. The survey, which was conducted to understand the perception regarding discrimination against people from Northeast India residing in Delhi and NCR, also said that only four per cent of the victims of discrimination reported the matter to the police.”54 per cent persons feel that discrimination is a reality.

The highest number of 67 per cent respondents said that they were victims of ethnic/racial discrimination followed by only four per cent saying that they faced gender related discrimination while three per cent said they were discriminated on basis of their religion,” said the report which was released today by NHRC Chairperson Justice K G Balakrishnan. However, there was a silver lining in the report for the national capital as 47 per cent respondents were hopeful that the city can be free from discrimination in the future.

The survey was carried out by Reach Out Foundation with the help of Policy Research during which 1000 respondents were interviewed in 30 different locations in Delhi and NCR. “The situation in Delhi regarding racial/ethnic discrimination is most worrying at least for the Northeast people. 74 per cent respondents said that Delhi is the most unsafe place in terms of ethnic discrimination. Only 8 per cent felt that it is the least worrying place regarding ethnic discrimination while 18 per cent did not express their opinion about it,” the report revealed.

Speaking at the event, Balakrishnan said that the report will throw light at the various aspects and help us to find solution and the administrators, police should study this report and they should frame their policies…our economic reforms should be moulded in such a way that this discrimination should end.” “Policies should be made in such a way that those who are not getting life opportunities, should be provided life opportunities. This should be the policy of the state, then only discrimination will end,” Balakrishnan said.

According to the report, majority of respondents said discrimination is experienced either at a restaurant or sporting or public places (27 per cent). These locations were followed by 24 per cent at the educational institutions and 23 per cent during buying or renting of house. 13 per cent of them said that they faced discrimination at their workplace and seven per cent people informed that even police did not treat them equally.

The worrying thing revealed in the report is that only four per cent of the victims of discrimination reported it to the police while, 24 per cent shared their experience with a family member or a friend. 12 per cent did not say anything to anyone. At least 40 per cent people did not respond to the question whether they took any measures in such a scenario or not. “63 per cent of the respondent felt that the main reason for the discrimination against them was their ethnic origin while 64 per cent said that the reason behind discrimination is the lack of understanding and awareness while 20 per cent felt that lack of interaction is the reason,” the report said ((Article in The economic times, December 6, 2014)).

Incidents relating to Africans

Apart from the fact that racism is hateful and ugly, homegrown racists would do well to remember that students like Aiyesimoju, who travel to India for higher education at private universities, pay twice the amount of tuition fee as an Indian student does. “African students in Jalandhar have also resulted in the proliferation of the Paying Guest business here,” says Aman Mittal, deputy director of LPU. Unfortunately, all this hasn’t translated into a pleasant life for Africans here and a few express cynicisms about their Indian experience. “In this country, even Kashmiris, who are from the same nation, are not spared discrimination. Here, I see racism everywhere,” says an African student. Given the recent unsavoury incidents, he is probably right.

Africans studying in Punjab feel that they are definitely discriminated against and that racial hatred and racist stereotypes persist. In the recent past, there have been two incidents of violence involving African students in the state. In both the cases, the Africans involved have alleged discrimination at the hands of the police. In April 2012, Yannick Ntibateganya, a Burundi national who was studying at Jalandhar’s Lovely Professional University (LPU) was brutally beaten by nine locals, most of whom belonged to affluent families.

Investigations into the incident only started two months later, after Yannick’s father Nestor Ntibateganya took up the matter with the chief minister of the state. The murderous attack left Yannick with severe head injuries and he remained in coma for a couple of years before he was airlifted to Burundi in June this year. Yannick succumbed to his injuries a month later. Seven of the accused men were convicted and sentenced to 10 years rigorous imprisonment by a Jalandhar court for attempt to murder.

In another incident that took place in June 2013, the local police booked as many as 21 African students following a brawl with a Jalandhar-based resident. In the FIR, the accused were referred to as ‘kale’ (blacks). A human rights body from the Democratic Republic of Congo has since taken up cudgels against the police for the alleged use of the derogatory word ‘kale’ in an FIR.

“There is a sense of fear among Africans. It has become difficult to even talk freely without the fear that we may become targets of racial discrimination,” a majority of African students told this reporter. “Kale (Blacks) and Negros — this is how students from African countries are referred to” said a student. Racial prejudice is evident in the areas where they live. Contrary to evidence from shopkeepers in these localities, many residents still insist that African students “are a nuisance”.

K Kwasi, 39, has been married for three years but says he won’t start a family till he can return to the US. “I don’t want my kids to face the discrimination I face in India, especially in the metros,” he says. “Everyone here thinks I’m a drug peddler, especially in Mumbai. I cannot drive my car without being stopped by the police and questioned. Even at parties, I am stopped by other guests and asked if I sell drugs.”

In 2013, Wandoh Timothy (44), an Ivory Coast national, was attacked by a mob that kept calling him “Negro” and “African”. Ironically, Timothy holds a Person of Indian Origin (PIO) card because he is married to an Indian. On the recent attack on African students at a Delhi Metro station, Timothy says: “I don’t know why but people’s attitudes towards the so-called ‘outsiders’ has changed a lot in the last few years.”After his attack, Timothy says he has become more wary but bears no grudges. “As a good Christian, I have forgiven the people who attacked me. I have withdrawn my complaint. I think after this gesture, they will never again attack somebody for the colour of their skin,” he says.

CristelleKouassi, 21, from Ghana, however, feels that the city is yet to learn its lessons. “Recently, my friend and I were not allowed to enter a pub. The bouncers told us the place was closed but they allowed others to enter,” she claims. Her friend OsseyanChiakafouRine (19) from Ivory Coast says she is routinely heckled by men who call her “Blacky”. “I am used to men coming up and asking ‘how much?’” she says.

These are only few incidents which are known to all because they were published in the newspapers. But still there are many more incidents going on in India regarding the racial discrimination.

A judgement by madras high court

Our judicial system has a very different view on the racism and its impact on human life. In a recent case, the Madras High Court in Madurai said in a judgment that a man calling his wife ‘dark colour’ cannot be convicted of instigating his wife to commit suicide. According to the Justice M Sathyanarayanan of the High Court’s Madurai Bench, a man criticizing his wife for being dark is not harassment.

Allowing a petition filed by Paramasivam against a lower court order, Justice M Sathyanarayanan of the High Court’s Madurai Bench, had said, “Criticizing the wife for being dark in colour does not amount to harassment or torture, and it cannot be said that the husband instigated the wife to commit suicide.”

After being convicted and sentenced for seven years of imprisonment by a lower court in Tirunelveli District, in Tamil Nadu’s deep south, Paramasivam had then filed an appeal against the conviction and sentence in the High Court. He was also sentenced to three years imprisonment under the Dowry Harassment Act on October 27, 2006.


Problems will be solved only when people start recognizing differences and become tolerant. Recognition is vital for human existence, which otherwise leads to social exclusion of any group/community of people. When the message will be sent to the masses about various unknown differences that already exists in the country, people will start realizing the beauty of a diverse society.

A great initiative to end this disjuncture of knowledge would be by introducing more information about the North Eastern region or the southern region, or any other regions which have been ignored since years, into the curriculum of state education boards and other central educational boards, especially NCERT books. Let us not only confine Indian history to the Mughal’s history.

And the government (both state and center) should be more inclusive while coming up and implementing policies which do not create a sense of hatred and alienation of the people. On a closing note, I remember Mandela’s words “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” and hence, I say, I still have faith in the human race.

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