Two Swedish economists recently set out to examine the correlation between economic freedom and prevalence of racism across the globe. They knew how they would gauge economic freedom, but they needed to find a way to measure a country's level of racial tolerance.

So they turned to something called World Values Survey, which has been measuring global attitudes and opinions for decades. Among the dozens of questions that World Values asked respondents in more than 80 countries, one was to identify kinds of people they would not want as neighbours.

Some respondents, picking from a list, chose "people of a different race." The more frequently that people in a given country say they don't want neighbours from other races, the economists reasoned, the less racially tolerant you could call that society.

In only two of 81 surveyed countries, more than 40 per cent of respondents said they would not want a neighbour of a different race. They were Jordanians (51.4%) and Indians (43.5%). Surprisingly, only 6.5 per cent of Pakistanis objected to a neighbour of a different race, which would suggest they are more racially tolerant than even the Germans or the Dutch. Given the plight of social and religious minorities in that country, we know that the reality is quite different.

So it's entirely possible that Indians and Jordanians were more honest about their feelings while respondents in other countries just lied. Like most social science metrics, the World Values Survey lacked the wherewithal to measure honesty and, therefore, the survey results could be far from perfect.

Yet, the fact remains that we're among the least racially tolerant people in the world. Racism appears to be ingrained in our psyche as is evident from the caste violence and honour killings, especially in the dust-laden cowbelts in Hindi heartlands.

Indians in general and North Indians in particular are hypersensitive to skin colour. Fairer the skin, the higher the presumed social status and societal acceptance. Even the caste system was originally based on skin colour ( varna in Sanskrit).

Ask the students from African countries studying in North India and they will recount stories of racial hostility they encounter on a daily basis. So deep-rooted is the prejudice against dark skin in the North that some illiterate landlords there are reluctant to take 'blackies' as tenants. To them, anyone from the south of the Vindhyas is a 'Madrasi', a pejorative used for dark-skinned South Indians.

So one is inclined to believe that had the World Values Survey focused more on the southern or eastern parts of the country, the result could have been significantly different. The whole of India is not so racially intolerant as has been made out in the survey.

As for the research by the Swedish economists, they found no correlation between economic freedom and racism.

Tailpiece

I had a friend -- let's call him Ramalingam -- a struggling young writer and journalist, who could never pay his rent on time. One day his North Indian landlord gave him an ultimatum: either pay up or vacate the place.

"Guptaji," Ramalingam pleaded. "In a few years from now, people will point to this house and say that the great writer Ramalingam once stayed here!"

"Why a few years?" barked Guptaji. "If you don't clear the dues today, people will say that tomorrow!"

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