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Mainstream, VOL LX No 15, New Delhi, April 2, 2022

On Inclusion, Diversity and Racism in India | Ajailiu Niumai

Friday 1 April 2022


by Ajailiu Niumai *


Firstly, I would like to draw my personal experiences to highlight diversity and inclusion. To me, making the personal a part of our larger professional, academic and activists lives is logical and relevant for bridging the gap between ‘us’ (people of North East India) versus ‘them’ (the mainstream Indian people). Let me share that I migrated to Hyderabad to work since October 2000 onwards. My husband is Telegu and he is a Missile Scientist in DRDO. My late father-in-law Group Captain Samuel Venkata Rao hails from Andhra Pradesh and served in the Indian Airforce (Government of India awarded him the prestigious Vayu Sena Medal for airlifting food relief in the 1960s when Mizoram suffered from severe famine) whereas my mother-in-law, former Vice Principal of Kendriya Vidyalaya School hails from Cuttack, Odisha. I lived in a multicultural family that reflects a mini ‘unity in diversity.’

Secondly, I would like to mention that the emergence of the ideology of inclusion is of recent origin. The discourse on inclusion is incomplete without examining some exclusion characteristics as both are prevalent everywhere and exist simultaneously. But how it operates and varies depends upon the nature of the society. The question arises how social inclusion and exclusion phenomenon influence social cohesion? The problem in the Indian social system began with the tussle between insiders and outsiders. In other words, the traditional perceptions of “we” versus “they” is a reality in the Indian psyche, as in “we” are moral and “they” are immoral. Using the idea of the German Sociologist Emile Durkheim, the notion of ‘we’ signifies ‘sacred’ and ‘they’ represent ‘profane’. Naturally, the mainstream Indian society is viewed with the lenses of purity and piousness and therefore, a traditional Indian woman is seen to have virtuous attributes while the others who are seen in the ‘modern’ or ‘western’ dress are not traditional and would not be having such qualities.

Although India celebrated its 75th Independence Day in 2021, some are insiders and outsiders within our country. It is observed that people in North East region, especially children in schools, would sing “Indian National Anthem” with a zeal and a feeling of patriotism, but things change when they migrate to metropolitan cities for higher education and jobs. Most of them would declare that they feel more ‘Indian’ when they live in their region but feel excluded when they step out of the region.

The racial approach towards the people of North East India stems from ignorance and the North East Indian distinct cultures are seen as a threat to the culture of mainland people, which has led to the othering of people from the North East region. As a result, many racial incidents have led to violence, and the victims are the North East people - be it individuals or communities. What is significant is that racial issues affect everybody in India and among the Indian diaspora overseas, albeit in different degrees. During the 1st wave and 2nd wave of COVID – 19, around 40,000 Indian diaspora software engineers with H1B visas lost their jobs in the United States (US). And, thousands of Indian diasporas protested against racism meted out to them by the then Trump government and some Caucasians. As a result, families were divided since Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) with Indian passports were made to return to India in 2020, but children who were born and brought up in the US were prohibited from accompanying their parents to India since they were US citizens. I remember reading a heartbreaking story of a single mother who was compelled to leave her infant child in the US and return to India since her baby is a US citizen. Suppose we reflect the trajectory of racism in India, it is not only the Mongoloid people who encounter racial discrimination, but the Dravidians from South India also face racism in North India. The issue of exclusion and hyphenated identities are also rampant within caste endogamous and hierarchical mainstream Indian society. For instance, during the 1960s and 70s, the South Indians were labeled as ‘Madrasi’ in North India. There was a conflict between the people of the Hindi-speaking belt and Dravidians in South India over the issue of recognizing Hindi as a National language. Perhaps, the emergence of Shri. P.V. Narasimha Rao from Andhra Pradesh as Prime Minister of India in 1991 to 1996 and Shri. Deve Gowda from Karnataka as Prime Minister of India in 1996 to 1997 revealed that South Indians couldn’t be categorized as ‘Madrasi.’ Thus, people in North India realized that the South Indians are not a homogenous category. India overcomes such a problem and this issue is settled. Perhaps more attention can raise rigorous sensitization on diverse cultures and racial groups in our nation and learn to respect each other. Then, the concept of unity in diversity will bear fruit.

Finally, the new trend among the people of North East India, particularly the tribes, is moving from equality to class-based hierarchy, which once was an egalitarian society. In the process, social dynamics changed with individual identity against socio-cultural identity. We recognized ourselves as part of some group, and identity was about a group rather than an individual. We have groups, not individuals, since Indians are always a part of some group, and their identity has been considered as some group, not as an individual. Therefore, the movement from equality to hierarchy occurs where the tension of group identity and individual identity exists in the conflict. Considering this background, we need to recognize the ‘persistence of a plural society and ‘multicultural society.’

Way forward

When we talk about inclusion and diversity, it does not mean giving few scholarships and government welfare schemes to the excluded people, but going beyond and deep into the very nature of the society. It has to be done by living and imbibing the culture of the excluded people to make them included in mainstream society. The difference between the Aryan, Dravidian and Mongoloid racial groups cannot be wished away – it cannot be changed. But, the mainstream Indians and people in North East region need to accept each other and celebrate their differences by upholding the spirit of multiculturalism and ‘unity in diversity.’

* (Author: Ajailiu Niumai, Professor of Sociology & Head, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion & Inclusive Policy, University of Hyderabad. Email: ajainiumai[at]

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