NEW DELHI – He was a slight young man, who sported hipster eyeglasses and a wispy moustache. He had dyed his spiky hair blond, but that wasn't the only thing that made college student Nido Tania stand out in the Indian capital.
Tania was from northeastern India, a narrow strip of territory wedged between China and Myanmar, whose people say they face discrimination here for having "Asian" facial features. When Tania, 20, stopped in a dairy to ask for directions Tuesday afternoon, a shopkeeper's taunt about his hair color quickly escalated into a violent altercation in which several men thrashed him with sticks and steel rods, friends say.
He died in his bed the next day, succumbing to severe injuries to the chest and brain, according to preliminary medical results provided to his family.
The incident has sparked fresh outrage in New Delhi, which was already reeling from a spate of high-profile rape cases, and has added to a growing sense of insecurity in a capital that is aiming to be a showcase for India's growing economic might.
Hundreds of protesters rallied Saturday in Lajpat Nagar, the bustling market where the beating took place, calling it a hate crime and demanding that the assailants be prosecuted.
"This happens every day in Delhi. Each and every one of us has experienced discrimination because of our physical features," said Sophy Chamroy, a 22-year-old student from the northeastern state of Manipur.
India's 1.2 billion people comprise a vast tableau of languages and customs but – as with the rape cases – racially motivated assaults seem to occur in New Delhi and other major cities with grim regularity. Many victims from the northeast are young people who have migrated to the capital for school or job opportunities lacking in their poorer home areas.
Last year in New Delhi, three students from Manipur were brutally beaten by neighbors. In a separate case, a 21-year-old beautician from Manipur was found dead in her apartment with severe injuries to her face and toes. Police labeled it a suicide and dropped the case but many suspected she was slain.
So widespread is the discrimination against people from northeastern India that the federal government in 2012 passed a law that punishes the use of a racial slur with up to five years in prison. Still, activists say, authorities rarely enforce such laws and police are as likely to participate in discrimination as intervene to stop it.
"You don't know what is on the minds of people in Delhi, because these incidents keep on recurring," said Geetartha Barua, an official with the state government of Arunachal Pradesh, where Tania lived.
He was in New Delhi on vacation and going to visit an ailing friend in the area near Lajpat Nagar when he walked into the dairy Tuesday afternoon, friends said. According to Barua, the dairy shopkeeper taunted Tania for not knowing his way around, saying, "Are you from China?" and making fun of his hair.
Tania smashed a glass display case in anger, prompting the shopkeeper and several other men from the market to set upon him and a friend. The shopkeepers called the police, who got Tania to pay about $120 for the broken glass but did not take any action against the assailants, Barua said.
Police officers let Tania go, but when he passed the shop a second time the attackers beat him again, said Jotam Toko Tagam, the former president of a New Delhi organization for students from Arunachal Pradesh. When he reached his sister's apartment, where he was staying, he complained of heavy pain and was bleeding badly from his wrist, but he fell asleep early Thursday morning after applying balms across his body, Tagam said.
Around 1 p.m. the next day, friends tried to wake him but found his body cold and limp. Brought to a nearby hospital, he was pronounced dead on arrival, Barua said.
The case sparked a swift outcry across Indian media and websites Friday, with many criticizing the response by the Delhi police. Three men reportedly have been detained for questioning, but Barua said police didn't open a murder investigation until 24 hours after Taniam died, after the incident had begun to make national news.
"We are being forced to go exert pressure on different quarters to get the police to investigate this matter properly, at a time when the situation is very sad," Barua said. "The response from the police side has not been encouraging."
Tania's body was flown home Saturday morning to Arunachal Pradesh, where his father is a lawmaker in the state legislature.