Laws and ideals can't blot out racism. It requires the human touch. The Delhi death of an Arunachal Pradesh youngster is not the first, the last or the most shocking. It is merely the most recent. Political parties have responded with slogans and sympathy. They are not even close.
Racism can play out in far too many ways. There may be general scorn, hidden hate, overt anger, everyday putdowns, avoidance of interaction and even verbal or physical violence. When goaded, this can move fast from individual emotion to mass action.
The common factor is that you don't like people you have negative perception about. This won't go easily. It requires hard and honest work. It needs an ability to soldier on in the face of insult and defeat. Some of these steps might help.
1. Send children on exchange programmes
This has terrific long-term impact. Children and teenagers [aged between 8 and 19] respond with enthusiasm and energy when sent to live for a while with families in other states. Schools normally organise this as part of exchange programmes where parents send children to each other's homes in different communities. They come back full of stories, gifts and experiences. No one that I know who has been in such an exchange programme is racist. Schools could be asked to do this mandatorily.
2. Include different faces in political parties
Mainstream political parties in India do not have anyone from the northeast, for instance, in their lists of spokespersons. Not the BJP, the Congress, the AAP. Politics in India is still driven by underperforming central and northern states. They don't think of the northeast or smaller states. This robs senior politicians of pan-India instincts, which is why Arvind Kejriwal, Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi seem a trifle fake when they sympathise with victims of racism. It is imperative for parties to have mixed teams.
3. Encourage varied work staff
In the last newsroom I helmed, we had people from 20 states if I recall accurately. It was a small team but we had five from the northeast. We had people ascribing to different faiths. We didn't set out to be so but by instinct we had space for everyone. Many workspaces do not. This can insulate people and generate prejudice. Things can go wrong in a jiffy as they did at the Lajpat Nagar market. The buyers at this market come from everywhere but the sellers are predominantly from one community.
4. Inspire mixed living
This is difficult to legislate; it has to come from community leaders. You can go long stretches in metros where life is not inclusive. Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, three of India's biggest cities, have had recent racist episodes; the 2012 Bengaluru tension between Muslims and northeasterners was the biggest in scale. Resident Welfare Associations need to mandate that people from all over India would live in their neighbourhood. This has a spiral effect on school and college admissions, PTA meetings, and so on.
5. Decree heterogeneous police forces
You can barely bump into a Delhi Police constable from Jammu and Kashmir, Bastar, the northeast or even the south of India. There are even lesser chances of finding north Indians in police forces in the south or the east. The police are the first enforcement arm of the state a citizen encounters. This is where you feel the full force of mindsets. Patrol teams must consist of men and women from various faiths and communities. This is easy to legislate and implement.
6. Have great government ads
The last fantastic government ad that filled us with pride was the 1988 Mile Sur Mera Tumhara video on national integration. Twenty-five years later it can still wash away ill-will and make us love India. It ought to be broadcast everyday on public and private television and radio. There's also the superb 1974 Ek Anek Aur Ekta animation short, better known as Ek Chidiya Anek Chidiya. Current private broadcasters seem empty in hearts and minds, which means the I&B ministry must step in again.
7. Galvanise culture festivals
Music, film, theatre, art and food fests are big draws. There are not enough of them in India although there is more activity now. The annual January Bharat Rang Mahotsav in Delhi is a fine example. It works each time. It might help to have a northeast music and food gala in the Lajpat Nagar market right away. Every community has its footprint in the metros but they tend to gather together instead of spreading out.
Racism is not an overnight problem. It won't have an instant solution. But these are a few ways we can help. The media too could chip in with more news on what works between people.