Tribal students speak: a perspective of students from north-east India

 Tribal Students in Tertiary Education:

A Representation of the Views of Students from North-East India


Indigenous people constitute 4 to 6 per cent of the world’s population.  They are considered among the most ‘backward’ by modern day development standards, though their cultures are rich, and their people carry the wisdom of the ages in their heads (besides which they have been traditionally practicing sustainable livelihoods that the so-called progressive world, populating an over-stressed planet, is only now beginning to take cognisance of).

Spread across more than 70 countries, in different continents, the indigenous peoples of the world share a history of subordination and exclusion.  Many have been displaced from their traditional homes[1] – often in remote and inaccessible recesses in the forests and hills – in the name of conservation or development. This, together with relentless ‘naturalization’ by the state, or the actors’  own perceptions of change and progress as inevitable or desirable have, in several places, wiped out the cultures of the ‘first peoples,’ or Adivasi[2], as they are called in most of India. However, the indigenous groups in north-east India appear, in many ways, to elude the commonsensical notions about tribal people. An NCAER-HDI survey of 1994, for instance, which is discussed later in the paper, indicates that in terms of enrolment and completion of education [6-14 age group], the children of the north-east Indian tribes performed much better than the Adivasi children in the rest of India.

Indigenous/ tribal people constitute about 40% on an average of north-east India’s population, many times the average Adivasi population of India, which stood at around 8% at the time of the 2001 Census.  (Table 1 shows the state-wise percentage of tribal population in the north-east).  However, despite the large presence of tribal people, most of the north eastern states reported above average literacy levels in 2001 (See Table 1).  The tribal groups in all states of the north east were ahead of their counterparts in the rest of the country.  Whereas the all India average literacy rate for Adivasi people was 47.1%, the comparative rates for the tribal people of the north east ranged from 49.62 in Arunachal Pradesh to 89.34 in Mizoram[3].  Except for the rate of tribal male literacy in Arunachal Pradesh, which was below the all India average for tribal males, all the states in north east India were above the average rates, when it came to both male and female literacy rates among the tribal groups.

Table 1: Population and literacy rates (general and tribal) in the states of north-east India[4]

This paper draws on the experiences of tribal students from north eastern India, who are pursuing their higher education in Bangalore city in south India, in an attempt to try to identify some reasons for the unusually high educational development indicators registered by the tribal groups from the region.  This study also attempts to represent the experiences of north-east Indian tribal students in a city 1000-2000 kilometres from their homes: the problems they face in an environment so far-removed, and, in all probability, very different from their homes; and, the possibilities that excite them in the new learning – both cultural and formal/ instructional.

North-east India, for the purposes of this paper, consists of Sikkim as well as the seven contiguous states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura – often called the ‘seven sisters (See Fig.1).’

Fig. 1: Map showing Sikkim and the seven north-east Indian states, and the percentage of their tribal populations (Source: Ministry of Tribal Welfare, Government of India)


As this paper had the immediate, limited purpose of meeting certain course objectives, it drew upon a small sample.  However, care was taken to make the sample representative by drawing on the experience of people with different backgrounds and to make the initial survey potentially upgradable into a more comprehensive study.

Thirteen students participated in the focus group discussions, which were conducted at three different venues, on three different days, over the period of a month. The common features of the sampled population are that all the students are from north-east India, all have completed their secondary education from non government schools, and all, except one, belong to indigenous groups of the region, and all of them have chosen to pursue higher education in Bangalore, south India, 1000-2000 km away from their homes[5].   There was one student from the ‘Other Backward Classes (OBC)’ category and one ‘senior student,’ who had done his higher education in Bangalore two decades ago and is now back as a pastor as well as an ‘owner[6].’

The students represented three north-east Indian states: Nagaland, Manipur and Sikkim, and at least six different tribes: Ao Naga, Chakesang, Kyong Naga, Sangtam, Sema Naga, and Zeliangrong[7].   The students represented speakers from five dialects/ languages: Ao, Kezha, Phom-Phom,  Rongmei, and Sangtam.  The ‘OBC’ respondent spoke Nepali.  Nagamese was used as a link language, mainly by students from Nagaland.  Nepali was also used as a link language.

There were students from four city colleges, pursuing nine different courses: Master’s level students were specializing in Botany, Economics, Geography, Geology, Law, Literature, and Social Work, and undergraduate students were pursuing Commerce or Science.

Data was gathered through observations at the ‘hostel’ sites and through detailed focus group discussions.  A loosely structured questionnaire was used to both steer the discussion and to ensure that there was a common thread guiding the groups, as they were conducted at different venues, at different times of the month.  The first part of the unstructured questionnaire was designed to gain insights into the students’ early educational experiences, and their social and cultural backgrounds.  The latter part of the discussion pertained to their higher educational experience, including the experience of studying in a place thousands of kilometres from their homes. As this paper’s mandate was to consider all the students interviewed as having already attained certain educational standards by virtue of their having enrolled in tertiary educational institutions, no attempt was made to quantify their educational achievement in terms of marks or ranks obtained[8].

Though meeting the students in their colleges would have been a natural and convenient option, a deliberate decision was made to meet the students in their places of residence. The choice of venue was intended to provide the opportunity of meeting students from different colleges in a single place, and also allow for personal observation of the ambience of the hostels where the students were staying.  This provided crucial inputs about the interaction among students from different tribes and backgrounds, as well as the attitude of the owners.


There are more than 600 tribal communities in India.  Across the communities, the mother tongues number more than 200 in all, 75% of which are exclusive to the tribal people (Mohanty et al, 2009).   Yet, according to NCERT’s Sixth All India Education Survey statistics, of the forty-one languages used for pedagogical purposes in Indian schools, only thirteen are tribal languages and of these, only four are used as medium of instruction – the rest are used periodically for teaching purposes.  Significantly, except Nicobari, all the thirteen tribal languages used in schools are those spoken in north-east Indian states (Mohanty et al, 2009).

Many studies have commented on the alienation faced by tribal children in their initial years at school because of the language hurdle, which they have to cross in addition to the decontextualised content.  An American Indian student in a teacher’s training school in the USA was, perhaps, speaking for indigenous people across the world, when she said: “My tribe is for education … but sometimes it doesn’t make sense … (Brayboy and Maughan, 2009. p.16).”  Says another American Indian student, also a participant in the Indigenous Teachers Preparation Program: “I grew up on the reservation.  When I was five, my parents decided that I should go to the boarding school for Indians because they thought I could get a good education there.  It was like a military school where the teachers were strict and hit us if we spoke our tribal language … That school could have helped me understand what I know today: My language is a good language and I should know it; … I want to be a teacher so that my students can see that being smart and Indian can go hand-in-hand (Brayboy and Maughan, 2009. p.6).”

The schooling experience of children from tribal communities in India has also been widely documented, with scholars pointing out that selection and representation of knowledge in school textbooks is far from egalitarian and children from the skill-based caste backgrounds and tribal children, whose families are still socio-economically backward, grapple with what essentially is familiar fare only for children from the higher classes (Kumar, 1985).  As Vasavi (2003) cautions, it is important not to forget that for those who drop out of the school system, there are few avenues available: either in the new economy or in their traditional systems. As she says, it is often forgotten that decline of traditional livelihoods and the loss of customary and collective knowledge forms also compound the need to access a modern education, despite their poverty and despite the lack of easy access to infrastructure such as institutions (schools and libraries), roads and transport. Scholars, the world over, concur with the Indian scholars: Drawing on Bourdieu, Mehan says, “Schools and other symbolic institutions contribute to the reproduction of inequality by devising a curriculum that rewards the ‘cultural capital’ of the dominant classes and systematically devalues that of the lower classes (Mehan, 2000. P. 511).”

Dominant streams of Western thought, or the ‘majority world,’ as Dasen and Akkari define it, which has spawned most of the institutionalised basic public schooling models today (Dasen and Akkari, 2008), believes that, as a rule, more knowledge is always better.  Even those who grant that we cannot know everything want to settle for the ‘limited knowledge’ only grudgingly.  “The implicit supposition is: Even the knowledge we cannot have, we ought to (Burkhart, 2004, p.18).”  But most indigenous knowledge systems do not stress out individuals in a race for knowledge; “more knowledge is not always better; in fact, the belief is that we have as much knowledge as we should at a particular point of time (Ibid).”  There is a dichotomy between ‘belief’ and ‘truth,’ that indigenous knowledge systems easily assimilate which Western philosophical traditions, with their moorings in knowledge as justified true belief, find it difficult to appreciate. For instance, as Waters (2004. p. xvii) explains in her Introduction to ‘American Indian Thought: Philosophical Essays,’  when an American Indian is confronted about his belief that the earth rests on the back of a turtle with the question, “But what holds the turtle?” the American Indian would probably shrug: “Oh, there must be turtles all the way down.” A mind schooled in Western ways of thought would find it difficult to dismiss the question so easily.

‘Knowledge’ for the indigenous people is that which is ‘lived,’ which helps one carry on one’s functions in the world.  Abstractions, beliefs and faith are something else.  The former needs to be understood, and hence, by implication, questioned; the latter just needs to be absorbed without question. “Western thought holds knowledge to be an end in itself, and mistakes propositional information for knowledge … [there appears] to be a fundamental confusion about knowing and collecting information (Waters, p.xviii).”  Indigenous knowledge systems suffer from no such confusion, because their epistemologies teach them that just as water finds its way around a rock, so too individuals can find their way in life; knowing is in the performance of the song, not in the notes.  One can sing without knowing to read or interpret the notes; one can also know the notes, but not how to sing (Ibid).          As the focus group discussions with the tribal students from north eastern India suggest, one of the reasons for their educational progress is, possibly, their capacity to “sing the song” and “read the notations” as well.  As S5 said, in the context of the educational progress of the Naga people, “You have to let go and reach out.  You can’t keep hanging on to one thing and at the same time try to reach out to another.  I’m very proud of my Ao tribe, I’m also very proud that they took early steps to give up the Hindu religion and embrace Christianity. This made us familiar with the English language. Our familiarity with English is an asset.”  S5 also desires an autonomous Naga region, which would include all the Nagas, “now artificially separated by lines drawn by the Indian government, separating us into different states.”  S5 easily straddles various identities: Ao, Naga, ardent Christian, Indian citizen[9], and Naga revolutionary, speaking with felicity the languages that each identity demands.  This kind of flexibility seems to be a common trait among the students from the north east Indian tribes, helping them bridge the various divides that confront them: between the languages spoken at home and the school languages; the cultural chasm between their homes and the city they have chosen to study in[10]; and an educational experience that is more demanding and advanced than in their states, even as it is more wholesome and satisfying to them.


Focus Group Discussion 1

 S10 and I walked from her college to the hostel.  It was not a place I could have found myself.  Though the distance was short, the route was devious, turning in and out of several bylanes with closely packed houses and petty shops. There was a ceaseless flow of people and traffic – all small vehicles – on the roads.  S10 told me how the food they ate in their homes was very different from “what we eat here.”  “We never mix things, the way they do here. Rice mixed with something or the other, for instance …”

The hostel is a two storey house with no compound. But it had a spacious and cheerful hall, well-sized enough to accommodate a television in one corner with a three-seater in front of it, and a few chairs randomly placed.  The room also comfortably accommodated a round table with a few chairs, and a sofa against the rear wall of the room, which could seat three or four.  On one side of the hall was a staircase leading to the students’ rooms, and on the other was a door leading to an open passage, apparently a cooking area, as many mixed aromas emanated from there.  A small room that looked like a bathroom [the door was closed], was also attached to the hall.  S10 explained my visit and sought permission from a young woman – apparently the owner – who was in the hall, watching television.  A few other students in the hostel were then invited for the group discussion.

Except S 11, who has been in the hostel for five years, all the others have come to Bangalore only since about two years, and only to do their Masters degrees. All the students had studied up to the tenth standard in schools located in or near their home towns in north east India, returning to their homes every evening.  Two of them had left home after the tenth standard, in order to study from Vishakhapatnam and Delhi, respectively.  All of them studied in private schools or schools run by Christian missionaries. S13 studied in a school founded by the student’s own uncle.  The schools the students studied in were affiliated to the respective state boards or the Central Board of Secondary Education or the Indian School Certificate Examination Board.

All of them linked their fond memories of school to friends rather than teachers.  [They did not profess any particular attachment to their schools, even when asked specifically].  None of them had particularly fond memories of their teachers who were seen as rigid, strict and very disciplinarian.  All of them talk only in their mother tongues among themselves, never in English.  [But this is changing now, said S13, as more young children may be heard talking in English at home].  But in school, only English was allowed.  Anyone found not speaking in English was fined, or otherwise punished: “beatings” and “made to wear a monkey mask” were mentioned.  However, the students gleefully said that they broke into their native tongues the moment the teachers were out of earshot.

The quality of teaching was not uniform. “Some were good teachers and others average, but they were always present unlike as in government schools where the teachers would invariably be absent,” chorused a few students.  Extra curricular activities were organized and Teacher’s Day, Founder’s Day and Children’s Day were among the functions celebrated at school.

Though all of them found it difficult, initially, to bridge the language gap, they were sure that they would want to be educated only in English.  Some of them had to go to tuition classes, apparently taken by the school teachers themselves, for all subjects, but mostly for Physics, Chemistry, and especially Maths (emphasis theirs).

None of them paused to consider whether they should pursue a higher education. The decision was natural, and made without any coercion from parents or others. But there was some compulsion regarding the choice of subjects. After the twelfth standard, S13, who ultimately wished to pursue a Masters degree in Social Work, had to fight both parents; the mother would have preferred S13 to study medicine, while the father insisted on a degree in Commerce, followed by an MBA.  This led to family upsets, but S13’s wishes prevailed.  The student is happy now, but would have preferred to continue studying in Delhi where she did her twelfth standard.

The change from their home towns to a city down south was made easier by the presence of a number of people from their region offering PG facilities, which helped them live with people like their own selves.  The role of the church and the tribal associations, which are cultural organizations that arrange periodical get-togethers, were also lauded.  S10 mentioned that the Naga Association had its ‘silver jubilee’ celebrations a week or so ago.

S 11 who is from Sikkim, and who is the only student in the sample who does not belong to any tribe and who is also the only non-Christian in the group,  also feels at ease in the hostel that provides accommodation only to students from north east India. “They all look like me, so I did not think they were different,” S11 said of her experience. “We are not so free with the others, but here, among ourselves, we really feel like we are all one,” said S 10.

The students, all of whom had continued to study in their home towns after the tenth standard – some right into graduation, mentioned that they initially found it difficult to cope with the curriculum in Bangalore colleges as the foundation laid in high school was “very poor.”  They also found it very challenging, initially, to follow the heavily accented speech of the teachers[11].  They also felt inadequate and not so confident when it came to making class presentations, initially.  The one thing they would like to take back to their region, “perhaps I’ll give a talk on it,” said S13, “is the way to teach better – the way they do it in Bangalore.”

The one thing they would prefer to have been different here in Bangalore is the attitude of the people.  They resent that they get “stared at,” despite attempts to not draw attention by conforming to the general dressing style of the youngsters here.

S 10 came to see me off.  We walked a short distance from the hostel, hailing every empty autorickshaw that we saw.  The driver of every vehicle demanded an astronomical sum – none was willing to be paid as per the fare meter.  Since I was not willing to succumb to their demands, we had to let many autos pass.  S10 had already spent ten minutes on the road with me and she was convinced we would not be able to find a reasonable driver even if we were on the road all evening. She was talking from her experience in Bangalore.  But I had lived in Bangalore longer, and my experience had been different. So I insisted on waiting for a reasonable driver, though I found it puzzling why so many of the auto drivers had suddenly become ‘unreasonable.’ After ten more minutes of futility, I had to prevail on S 10 to return to the hostel, which the student did, reluctantly.  A few minutes later, I hailed another auto.  This time I was alone.  The driver made no demands and simply switched on the fare meter.   S 11’s comment about the physical likeness of the co-students in the hostel, and hence the tendency to feel comfortable with them, took on greater meaning.  The classic Mongloid features of students from north-eastern India, their naturally sophisticated carriage and dressing habits makes them appear distinct in the south Indian milieu.  Without going into the moral issues of the question, I understood the drivers’ unjustified demands as arising from their perception that these students are ‘foreigners,’ who could afford to pay more.

Focus Group Discussion 2

S 6 came and picked me up from the end of the road to the hostel, which was in a narrow sheltered avenue, just a few metres from a main road.  The hostel building, which was two or three stories high, had an unusual façade, and a compound, but was fairly decrepit.  The rooms the students were staying in had been rented by the owner from another person who owns the building and who is also staying on the premises.  S6 guided me through a precarious staircase that went up and down and roundabout, on the way to their hostel rooms. The steep staircase, half of it in stone, a portion of it in cement and some of it in metal, looked in need of a good makeover.

The students’ rooms are on either side of a fairly well-lit, narrow passage on either the first floor or the second floor.  (The circuitous staircase, with no landings as such to mark the floors, made it difficult to say on which floor the rooms were).  S6 first took me to the owner’s quarters, of which I got to see a kind of entrance hall that was dark, probably because it was curtained.  This room led into some more rooms.  After spending a few moments near the entrance, while S6 talked to a woman who was standing in the room, I was taken into a fair-sized room opposite, with camp-beds (with two beds, one above the other, there were four beds in all).  There was also a writing table with a chair and a few extra chairs as well.  The room was fairly well ventilated and overlooked a very busy street.

S6 and I engaged in small talk about the heavy traffic and noise pollution in Bangalore that contrasted with her own town back in north east India, while we waited for the other students.  The owner came in first, before the other students did, and asked me a few questions about myself and my work.  He went out after a brief interview.  The other students, who seemed to have been waiting for the owner’s permission, then came in and settled down on the beds in the room.  They gave me the chair so that I could jot down notes comfortably. The students in this group were not as forthcoming as the students who participated in FGD 1.

Most students have been studying in Bangalore for just about a year.  All of them did their schooling in their home towns.  All of them studied in private schools and though three of them studied in the same town, they were in different schools.  Though the schools were all affiliated to the Naga Board, Hindi was compulsory till the 8th standard. [It is significant that this is in contrast to the rules that govern state board schools in places like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, where only the regional language is compulsory in state board schools]. All of them found Hindi the most difficult subject.

Except S9, whose two elder siblings had been studying in colleges in Bangalore, the others were the eldest in their families, and the first to come to study in the south.  S8 wanted to go to Pune to study, but the student’s father preferred Bangalore. She is enrolled in a women’s college as her mother was not in favour of her studying in a co-educational institution.  S8, who was more forthcoming than the others, expressed the view that people here “stare too much” and so she doesn’t feel comfortable to wear shorts or other dresses that they normally wear in their home towns.  “People there don’t stare, and we feel comfortable,” she reiterated.  She also said that people often ask her if she is of Chinese origin or from Nepal, but she doesn’t get upset or annoyed.  She just corrects their wrong impression, she said, but expressed surprise, along with a few other students, that some of the people here are so ignorant of even the names of the states in north-east India.  “When we say Manipur or Nagaland, they ask us where it is?” shrugged one of the students, with some annoyance.

S7, who studied Political Science, History and Economics at the graduation level, changed over to Law for the Master’s degree “simply because I thought I would enjoy it.”  “I’m glad I made the transition,” she said and added that she would like to pursue civil law.

S6 feels that the teaching here is very good and S8 said that the students are also very hardworking.  When I prompted that their perceptions were influenced, perhaps, by the fact that they were studying in some of the best institutions, S6 said that her friends in colleges that are considered second-rung colleges[12] in Bangalore were also of the opinion that the teaching here was generally good, though there were problems with some departments.    S9 mentioned that the teachers in their college were very approachable and helpful.  None of them had found it difficult to bridge the gap between their home environments and their schools; nor had they found it difficult to settle down in a different city, so far from their homes.  Though they could not particularly attribute any reason to this, they felt that they enjoyed the experience of meeting new people and learning new things.  S8 said that she is the only person from north-east India in her class, but she likes making friends with all the students in her class.  Significantly, all the students said that it was their personal decision to study further; most of them also said that it was their own decision to come to south India to study.

The owner of the hostel[13] walked into the room when the discussions with the students were just reaching an end.  It needed little persuasion to get him to agree to an impromptu interview. He had been a student in Bangalore in the 1990s, and studied in a theological school.  He returned to the north-east in 1996, became a pastor for eight years, and came back to Bangalore in 2005.  He is married and has a son, a daughter and another baby on the way[14].   “The children go to study at BC [names an elite convent in Bangalore].  They are often asked if they know Chinese, if they knew martial arts, etc,” he said, but without any apparent resentment.  In fact, he seemed to find it amusing.  His children were also not upset about this, he said.

He is very proud of the work done by the Christian missionaries.  But he is especially proud that the Ao tribe, to which he belongs, took early steps to let go of the Hindu religion to which they had been attached, and embrace Christianity.  This early move has helped them advance much more than many other Naga tribes, he feels.  He also feels that other tribes, in places like Manipur, are unable to match the Nagas in education, because they are not willing to ‘let go’ and ‘reach out.’  “You can’t keep hanging on to one thing and at the same time expect to reach out to another,” he says.  “You have to let go.”  He passionately expressed the belief that it is their God who has led them to “this state of advancement and development” that they have reached.

He feels that their familiarity with English is an asset as they (Nagaland) are the only state with the state language declared as English.  He mentioned that in the 1960s some students had joined the Bangalore University.  As the university did not offer Additional English (AE) as an option, though they were allowed to study privately for the same, the students found it very difficult to cope – they had to buy their own books, arrange for someone to teach them, pay for the tuitions, and so on.  One of the Naga students fought for the right of the students to have AE included as a university subject, and won.  AE was included in the university curriculum from the next year.  This student went on to establish a model township in Nagaland, which S5, apparently, finds a great inspiration.

[Mention of this event somehow steered the discussion away from education.  For the next several minutes S5 held forth on issues that are not of immediate relevance to this paper. However, the gist of what he said is recorded here as I feel it has implications for understanding what Michael Apple calls the ‘deep structure’ of exclusion that is suffered in silence by so many of the indigenous people.]

S5 was openly resentful of the fact that at India’s Independence, the independent Naga kingdom was subsumed under the Indian nation.  He still refuses to accept India as his country and speaks of India and Nagaland as distinct.  His father was involved with the Naga freedom movement [S5 mentioned the name of the organization just once and it sounded like ‘INI’] and was jailed and killed by the Indian army.  He also recalled other army atrocities: Once, an army personnel was killed by the ‘militants’ [he himself used the term quite frequently, though he is in sympathy with the Naga homeland cause] and all the villagers were made to stand in pouring rain from 7 pm to 9am. S5 was just seven years old then, and remembers being drenched to the skin.  On another occasion, oil was poured from the army helicopters on all the houses in a village and the entire settlement, of about a 1000 houses, was set on fire.

S5 said that though the Naga people don’t have to pay any tax to the Indian government, they have to pay tax to the underground movements[15].  He felt that those who indulged in these kinds of arm twisting were “traitors to the cause.”  He also was against those “who sold out to the Indian government for power and pelf.”  He considered the Indian government’s investments in Nagaland as tactics to divide and rule the people by buying over their loyalties.  He was hopeful, however, of a lasting solution in the form of an autonomous Naga region, which would include all the Nagas now artificially separated by lines drawn by the Indian government, separating them into different states.

By the time S5 came to the end of his speech, all the students, except S6 had left the room.

Focus Group Discussion 3

I reached S1’s hostel in the evening, after college hours, on a Saturday.  Being part of the institute’s campus, it was a well-maintained structure in the midst of a vast, tree-filled garden.  The security person was engaged in some re-potting work, and was in animated discussions with the cook and the cleaners. But he was vigilant.  When I tried to get past him, he asked me to call the person I had come to meet on the mobile phone.  S1 had to come down from their rooms in an adjoining building, and confirm that I had indeed come to meet them, before the security person would let me in.  S1 did not take me up to their rooms.  Instead, with S2, S3 and S4, we walked up to a huge, airy hall, also within the compound [Possibly a dining hall for the college students].  Scores of chairs and tables were arranged in one corner of the hall.  We just pulled up a few chairs and stools and sat in a circle.  Some of the chairs were unusable – their wire netting had worn out.  We did not have to seek anyone’s permission to use the room, or to talk.  The girls seemed quite unrestricted and were friendly and cheerful, but were not very vocal about their views.  Most of their answers were to the point and I found that the only way to carry forward the discussion was simply to ask more questions, and to address the students individually.

All the students had studied in their own towns in north east India till the tenth standard.  None of them had studied in a major city like a state capital, but as their towns had roads, and buses, they did not find it difficult to commute from home to school and back, every day.  All of them had to move to big cities and study from hostels there in order to pursue their higher secondary education.  They found it difficult to leave their homes, and always looked forward to holidays, when they would go back home.  They continued to study in the big cities, but within their home state, till they completed their Bachelor’s degrees.

They had all studied in private schools, either started by the Naga people themselves or by missionaries.  They had a choice of schools, though they did not live in major towns, they said.  The schools often had principals from south India, mainly Kerala.  They also had south Indian teachers for science and math subjects.  All their classes had at least 5% of students from other states.

S3 said that she did not enjoy the school experience much till primary school as she had few friends.  But she later enjoyed the school experience very much.  The others seem to have all had a pleasant experience at school, though they were not really ‘sorry’ as such to leave school.  All their schools had playgrounds, Physical Training (PT) was compulsory, and all of them celebrated Teachers Day and Children’s Day in school.  Parent-Teacher meetings and Parents Day were also important, celebratory occasions in school[16].

It was compulsory in all their schools to talk in English, “though we always burst into Nagamese the moment the teachers turned their heads,” said one of the students.  S3 was the only one who said that her father encouraged them to talk in English at home.  All the others always spoke only in their mother tongues at home.  While all of them had morning assembly, S2 said that in her school, all of them would go to the chapel for their morning prayer.

The students had to study Hindi up to the eighth.  S2 said she neither knew the script nor did she understand the language.  “I just ‘mugged’ it all up and wrote it out,” she giggled.  Her brother, who had also studied in Bangalore, in a missionary college, and is now working in a BPO in Electronic City, convinced her to study further.  She had finished her Bachelor’s degree and wanted to write competitive exams so as to enter some job, but he told her it wasn’t sufficient to just graduate and she had to do a post-graduation too.  He too is studying further, through correspondence.

S4 actually wanted to study biology, but after the entrance exam to get into a degree college, she got a seat “only for geography,” as she put it, at the Government College in Kohima.  But she’s now happy to be doing her Masters degree in Geography.  She said her teachers in the college here took half the classes in Kannada [the regional language], and other students concurred that they also had a similar experience with their teachers. Since they have just come from the north-east region, where Kannada is hardly known, much less spoken, they have been finding it difficult to follow the entire class.  But they have been able to make do with what they glean from the rest of the class. However, the students were all appreciative of the teachers: According to them, a major plus point was that the teachers never played truant.  In fact, S2 said that her teachers sometimes took classes for two hours at a stretch and she was surprised at their stamina.

S1 came to study in Bangalore as her friend’s uncle stays here and some others had recommended the city to her.  A teacher of hers in Nagaland, from Bihar, also supported her in this move.  S2, as already mentioned, came because of her brother’s insistence.  The others mainly attribute their desire to study in Bangalore to their seniors. All of them say that they like the move for the new experience, exploring a new place and meeting new people.  S2, however, is not sure if she would choose to move here again if she had a chance.  She would rather write competitive exams like the public service commission exam and join the civil service.  All of them plan to go back to north east India after their post graduation.  None of them plans to study further.

When they were new to Bangalore, they felt they were in a strange city, a bit scared of such a big city.  Friends helped by showing them around shops and things.  Though asked specifically, none of them said that they got any help from their cultural or religious organizations.

Food is a major item of difference between their place and here.  They have an electric stove and try to cook something they like, though it’s not often or much.

All of them walked me back to the gate after the meeting.  The security person, the cook and the cleaners were still in conversation.


An Enabling Environment

At first, the progressive educational attainment of the students from north east Indian tribal groups appears to challenge commonly held notions based on culturally and economically deterministic reproduction theories. One is reminded of Jay MacLeod’s ethnographic study of ‘the Brothers’ and ‘the Hallway Hangers (Mehan, 2000).’  Though from similarly depressed socio-economic backgrounds, living in identical environments and attending the same school, ‘the Brothers,’ who were predominantly black students, displayed markedly different responses to the schooling experience from ‘the Hallway Hangers’ who were mostly white.  MacLeod identified the factors that caused the difference as emerging from both the attitude of the black students as well as parental pressure to perform.  The black students saw schooling as an opportunity to progress in a society that was no longer oppressive.  The black parents saw their children’s school performance as being important to their careers, which in turn would result in upward socio-economic mobility.  The students, realising that discrimination was a bogey they would do ill to fall back on when racism in the US could be fought with meritocracy, made an all out effort to study hard.  Their families played a supportive role by constantly moving the goalpost and pushing them to perform to greater potential.

Parallels between MacLeod’s ‘Brothers’ and ‘Hallway Hangers,’ and the tribal students from north east India and those from other parts of India suggest themselves: a new religion that promised an end to social discrimination, and education in a language that promised new explorations in modern developments was, probably, a major reason for the tribal communities of the north east to join the schools opened by the missionaries.  Once the seed was planted, it was immaterial whether the schooling was furthered in a missionary school or elsewhere.  Similar is the experience of the backward class people of the Ezahava and Pulaya castes who sought liberation from social prejudices through education, led by Narayana Guru and Ayyankali in 19th century Kerala. However, such progress eluded the exploited tribal communities in other parts of the country, and their children, who found schooling in government schools an alienating and, often, humiliating experience, as they did not have the benefit of an enabling environment.

Structure and Agency

An NCAER-HDI survey of 1994 (Table 2) indicates that the north-east Indian children are far ahead of their tribal counterparts in the rest of India as far as education is concerned. The literacy rate in the 7+ age group in the north-east region is 75.3% whereas the national average for Adivasi people was 29.6% [1991 Census], which rose to 47.1 a decade later.  In terms of enrolment and completion of education [6-14 age group] also, the tribal students of north-east India performed much better than the Adivasi students in the rest of India (Table 2).  Further, as Table 3 and the discussion that follows the table will show, it is apparent that this trend continues through secondary and higher education.

Table 2:  Level of schooling among STs in selected states

Source: NCAER–HDI Survey, 1994.

The computations carried in Table 3 (below) are revealing.  Whereas the percentage of Adivasi population to total population all India is 8.14%, their representation in higher education is only 3.7%, and this despite starting off rather well, with enrolment percentages up to the eighth standard being on par with their representation in the total population.  However, among the north-east Indian states, only Tripura shows such a sharp drop in enrolment between the primary classes and higher education. In most other states in the region, the representation of tribal students at every stage of education, including tertiary education, is fairly on par with their representation in the state’s total population.


Table 3 : Enrolment of Adivasi and total population by educational stages and percentage enrolment of north-east Indian Adivasi at each stage.*

* Computed for this paper using data from ‘Selected Educational Statistics 2004-05,’ Union Human Resource Development Ministry, Department of Higher Education, Statistics Division, New Delhi 2007.

Though structural reasons seem to have played a role in ensuring the high educational attainments of the tribal students of the north-east Indian region, it does not explain why the same structural reasons – specially conceived programmes of the central government , for instance – could not provoke similar reactions from the Adivasi people settled in other parts of the country[17]. I would, therefore, argue that the exceptional agency shown by the tribal people of the north east Indian region has been a major reason for the differential human investments made in education.  By human investments here I mean both collective qualities such as capacity for social change and progressive thinking (conversion to a religion that promised social inclusion[18] and decision to attend school), as well as individual qualities such as initiative and persistence, which could either emerge as a consequence of the upbringing or be acquired through a process of self-development.

The tribal people of north-east India – at least some groups and individuals – decided that their traditional lifestyles would not be compromised by a western, or even Christian, education[19]. This ensured that a large percentage of the present generation of youngsters had the social capital of an already ‘literate’ society to build upon.  This was in contrast to the situation prevailing in the tribal settlements of most of the rest of the country. The agency shown by the tribal groups, was, perhaps, helped by the fact that though the purpose was evangelisation, in which they succeeded to a great extent, the Christian missionaries were sensitive to the needs and aspirations of the local people.  They made an effort to learn the tribal languages and dialects and teach the gospel in the language of the people.  They also learnt quickly from their mistakes.  In the early decades of the 20th century, when the missionaries were active among the Lushei (or Mizo) tribe in the Lushai hills, the British superintendent of this region of north east India criticised their work on certain counts.  He opined that certain excellent tribal customs had been condemned as “heathen” and “useless” without sufficient application of mind.  He was also critical of the “Church elders’ attempts” to displace the tribal chiefs and take over their powers.  He suggested that in the future, missionaries would have to be sent after being sufficiently sensitised and trained to not “destroy or denationalize” a community and its customs (Bhatia, 2010. p.71-72).

A second reason for the unique educational attainments of the tribal groups in the north east could arise from the demographic realities of the region.  In many states of north-east India (Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland), the Adivasi people constitute more than 50% of the state’s population (See Table 3), and in two states (Manipur and Tripura), they constitute more than a third of the population.  The sense of security and power in numbers that, perhaps, results is illustrative of the possibility of channeling assertiveness/ dominant tendencies to productive ends.

However, it is important to recognise an inherent limitation in these kinds of generalizations about the states of north-east India. Though this study tried to bring together the north-east region by speaking to representatives of different states and tribes, who speak different languages/ dialects, the differences are too many to fit into the scope of a limited study of this nature.  What this study can do is provide pointers to directions for further study in understudied areas such as the following:

  • The north-east region of India has long been considered ‘remote.’ What has been the integrative potential of the movement of such large numbers of students from the north east regions of India to the other regions of the country?  How far has this helped them feel a greater sense of belonging to the nation, and how far has this helped people in other parts of the country learn about the cultures and mores of the north east Indians?
  • How pervasive is the notion of ‘moving out’ to study?  Would strengthening the educational infrastructure in north east India, as suggested by some studies (e.g., Sudhiti Naskar[20]) make a difference to students who are now encultured into this mode of study, which involves learning about new places and people in addition to their formal instruction at college?[21]
  • All the students in the sample studied in non-government schools up to the tenth standard, at least.  Their comments about the availability of a teacher who does not play truant is revealing.  It is an unequivocal indiction of the government school system.  What are the differences in the attitudes to higher education between the students educated in the government and non-government streams in the north-east Indian states?  Are their attainments at the various stages of education comparable?

These are some of the many questions that future studies can take up and research in-depth.

If the foregoing discussion has indicated a rather rosy picture of educational development in north-east India, amends must be made by also referring to literature that talks of the other side.

According to a study carried by a regional newspaper published from Jorhat, Assam, at least 10,000 students migrate annually from the state to study in Bangalore, Delhi and Pune.  The major reason for this is believed to be the poor infrastructure in higher education and the lack of sufficient teachers in the existing colleges[22].  It is also a fact that the distribution of infrastructure is uneven, perhaps indicating a deeper structural malaise: In 2004-05, Assam was reported to have 320 degree colleges, while the number of colleges in all the other north-east Indian states put together, including Sikkim, was less than half that number20. However, it has to be acknowledged that for many decades now, a process of social transformation has been underway in the north east region of India.  The transformation was both an enforced one, which made militants of a people who felt marginalised[23], as well as a voluntary one.  And, educational progress had a major role in the voluntary social transformation that has been taking place since the onset of the 20th century.


Despite being part of the same nation for decades, it is apparent from the focus group discussions that the north-east Indian people do not feel sufficiently integrated with the country, nor have people in the rest of the country made an attempt to cultivate a greater awareness of that remote region.  Things may be changing now, though gradually.  Some of the students spoke of having had teachers from south India in their schools, and a sprinkling of classmates from different regions of India.    They also spoke of south Indian delectables like ‘dosa’ making a foray into their restaurants.  However, they also often speak of ‘India’ and ‘Indians’ as distinct from themselves.  And people in Bangalore too, as apparent from S5’s inputs about the queries to his children by their schoolmates, seem better acquainted with the manifestations of Chinese, ‘Burmese’ and Nepalis than with fellow Indians from the beautiful hills and dales of Sikkim and the Seven Sisters. Moving into the realms of philosophy from education, one could end up asking: How close is close enough and how distant is ‘distant?’ This becomes especially relevant when we talk of oppression and exclusion of the tribal people but fail to appreciate the sub-cultural oppression that has its own political ramifications and finds release in pockets of resistance subscribed to by sub-groups of tribal people. Thus, when we talk of the north-east region as a single entity and try to draw lessons based on their common experience, we unwittingly reproduce the commonsensical notions of the mainstream society that is ignorant of the extreme heterogeneity of the region, and the complex politics at play among the tribal people themselves.  This is as true of educational indicators as of any other socio- economic and cultural factors.



Voices from the field: south India

Voices from the field: west India

Voices from the field: east India



Bhatia, Lakshmi, ‘Education and Society in a Changing Mizoram: The Practice of Pedagogy,’

Transition in Northeastern India series, Krishna, Sumi (ed.), Routledge, New Delhi, UK, 2010.

Brayboy, Jones McKinley Bryan and Maughan, Emma, ‘Indigenous knowledges and the story of the

bean,’ in Harvard Educational Review Vol. 79 (1), Spring 2009.

Burkhart, Yazzie Brian, ‘What Coyote and Thales can teach us: An outline of American Indian

epistemology,’ in Waters, Anne (ed), American Indian Thought, Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Dasen, Pierre R., and Akkari, Abdeljalil (eds.), Educational Theories and Practices from the Majority

World, Sage Publications, India, 2008.

Kumar, Krishna, ‘Educational Experience of Scheduled Castes and Tribes,’ Sociological Perspective in

                Education: A Reader, S Shukla and Krishna Kumar [eds.], Chanakya, 1985.

Mehan, H, ‘Understanding Inequality in Schools: The Contribution of Interpretive Studies,’ in

Sociology of Education: Major Themes – Vol. II, Stephen J. Ball [ed], Routledge-Falmer,

London and New York, 2000.

Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, ‘Selected Educational Statistics            2004-05,’ Statistics Division, Higher Education Department, 2007.

Mohanty, K. Ajit, Mishra, Mahendra Kumar, Reddy, Upender N., Gumidyala, Ramesh ‘Overcoming

the language barrier for tribal children: MLE in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, India,’ in

Mohanty, K. Ajit, Panda Minati, Phillipson Robert and Skutnaab-Kangas, Tobe (eds.,),

Multilingual Education for Social Justice: Globalising the Local, Orient Blackswan, 2009.

National Council for Educational Research and Training, Sixth All India Educational Survey: 2002-03.

NCAER-HDI Survey, 1994.

Vasavi, A. R., ‘Schooling for a New Society: The Social and Political Bases of Education  Deprivation in       India,’ IDS Bulletin, Vol. 34 [1], 2003.

Verma, B Sawalia, Sharma, K Murali, Sharma, K Niraj (eds), ‘Better Quality of Rural Life: North East

Regions, Tribal, Dalit Areas,’ Sarup & Sons, New Delhi, 2008.

Waters, Anne (ed), American Indian Thought, Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

[1] In India, the tribal people constitute about 8% of the population, but 40% of those who have suffered displacement from their traditional villages for the sake of development projects (Verma et al., 2008).

[2] North-eastern India is one of the few regions in the country where tribal people seldom identify themselves with the term Adivasi. Their identity is linked closely to their individual tribe’s name; when they have to use a collective noun, they prefer to call themselves ‘tribals.’  However, one of the students mentioned that separatist movements in the region, which have been active since Independence, use the term ‘Adivasi.’

[3] Mizoram is the state with the highest proportion of tribal people (94.2%).  It is also the second most literate state in the country, after Kerala.   It may also be noted that the all-India average literacy rate for 2001, across all communities, was 65.3%.  As Table 1 shows, the performance of the tribal population in many north-east Indian states was better than this all India rate as well.

[4] Projected population figures from estimates based on the “Report of the Technical Group on Population projections constituted by the National Commission on Population”, and census 2001.  Collated from Selected Educational Statistics 2004-05 published by the Minsitry of HRD, GOI, in 2007.

[5] According to the respondents, Bangalore is one of the choice destinations for higher education among the students from north east India.  Calcutta, Delhi and Pune are the other popular choices.

[6] The students refer to the places where they stay as ‘PG,’ an acronym for Paying Guest Accommodation, which however shall be called ‘hostel’ for the purposes of this paper.  The person who owns the hostel, or has secured it on lease or rent, is referred to as ‘owner’ by most students, and this nomenclature has been retained for the purpose of this paper.

 [7] One respondent has not mentioned the tribe’s name. And, as mentioned elsewhere, one student belonged to the ‘Other Backward Classes’ category, and one respondent was a senior student who had completed studies in Bangalore about a decade ago and is now an ‘owner.’

 [8] A brief intervention may be in order, however, to give an idea of the student performance. At least in one college in Bangalore, tribal students from north-east India constitute about 6% to 10% of the graduate and post-graduate classes.  Their class performance over the last four years has been largely average, though there have been students who have been toppers as well as those who have not made the grade.  However, this is a reflection of the general educational attainment levels of the classes as such, where the results are mixed.

[9] Though he disowns Naga links to the country, he is a law-abiding citizen of India nevertheless.

[10] As we shall see in the focus group discussion summaries presented in this paper, they are required to change the way they dress to ‘accommodate’ the sentiments of the Bangaloreans and also adapt to food that is far from their preferred and regular fare at home.

[11] The problem is compounded by the fact that colleges in Bangalore generally employ teachers from different Indian states, and each state speaks English with a distinctly different accent.

[12] Surprisingly, the public perception of some of these institutions is rather poor.

[13] He is named S5 for the purposes of this paper as he was interviewed in his capacity as a student, though a senior one, and not in his capacity as an owner.

 [14] Some days after the interview I got the message that the couple had a baby girl.  A month or so later I was told that the family had left for their home in north east India.

[15] S10 had also mentioned this, in an informal interaction with the author, outside the discussion.  She said that though the Nagas did not have to pay any tax to the Indian government, the “insurgents” were always asking for money, taxing them for everything, from building a house to many other things.

[16] None of the students mentioned celebrations by the schools of Independence Day or Republic Day or days to celebrate regionally important functions.  These are features that are common to many schools and colleges in Bangalore, irrespective of their affiliations to different boards or religions.

[17] Article 275(1) of the Constitution of India guarantees grants from the Consolidated Fund of India each year for promoting the welfare of the Adivasi people. It was decided during 1997-98 to utilize a part of the funds to set up model residential schools, called Eklavya schools, for tribal children. By providing classes from VI to XII standards, these would supplement the Ashramshalas, which were essentially primary schools for tribal children. In a recent announcement (July 7, 2010), Kantilal Bhuria, the union minister for tribal affairs announced that the Indian government would provide Rs. 12 crore each for setting up of residential schools for tribal children in the plains, and Rs.15 crore for a similar school in the hills. He also announced that the Ministry would relax the norms for land requirement, from 20 acres as mandatory for other states, to 15 acres in the north eastern states.

[18] According to Census 2001 data, Nagaland and Mizoram reported a Christian population of >90%.  Meghalaya and Manipur also had sizeable Christian populations (~70% and 34%, respectively).

 [19]  Bhatia (2010, p. 68, 69) in her ethnographic study, ‘Education and Society in a Changing Mizoram,’ presents the English translation of a letter, dated over a hundred years ago (December 20, 2009), written by a student from the Mara tribe to his teacher. Riato, the student, writes: “..When I first came to school, I knew nothing at all, now I can read and write … when there is a book in the Lakher language for us to read … and by God’s grace and your word we have God’s word in our own language, so that we can understand it, we shall be very pleased.” Also see S5’s inputs, this paper.

[20] Sudhiti Naskar, ‘Higher Education in the NER: Current situation and the initiatives adopted,’ available at

[21] A parallel can be drawn with the Foreign Universities Bill and its potential to stem the outflow of students from India to foreign shores.

[22] Partha Jyothi Borah, ‘Education in the North-east (part 2),’ in Northeast Voice, April 16, 2009.  Available at

[23] As in Nagaland. See FGD 2, where S5 says, unequivocally, that an unwilling Naga kingdom was compelled to coalesce with a dominant mainland, giving rise to a revolutionary movement.

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