Understanding Regional Diversity of Indian Students

Understanding regional diversity of Indian students

Location, location, location…

“We are all minorities in India,” writes Shashi Tharoor, a prominent Indian author and undersecretary of the UN. This is hard to comprehend – unless you’ve been to India or begun to grasp the extent of the diversity. Estimates of distinct people groups in India range from 2,500 to more than 4,000 with 2,200 classified as unreached! With 23 official languages and 22,000 dialects, India is really more like a collection of nations and tribes and tongues. Understand also that India in its present form has only been in existence for 60 years yet is the world’s largest democracy. If you add caste and religious divisions the complexity is truly dizzying.

In such a  diverse country, where you are from is essential to your identity. Therefore, we need to grasp some of the diversity of our Indian friends.

Compass Points

To begin to grasp the diversity you can use the compass points as broad regional groupings. The most notable ethnic division in India is between north and south and more than 95% of the population falls within these two ethnic groupings. Other significant divisions are those near Nepal and the northeastern states, which have more Tibetan and Chinese heritage.

South India: The peoples of South India are ethnically Dravidian and considered the original inhabitants of the sub-continent These are located in the four southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhia Pradesh and Karnataka. The common languages spoken in these states are Malayalam, Tamil, Telegu and Kannada, respectively. English is quite common and may be preferred to Hindi (the national language). These areas generally have had more exposure Christian influence than other parts of India. All of these states are well-represented by Indian students in the US. The people of Sri Lanka generally fall in this category but are a majority Buddhist country with tensions between the majority Sinhalese (Buddhist) and the minority Tamil (Hindu) peoples.

Major cities of south India are Chennai (formerly Madras), Bangalore (or Bengaluru) and Hyderabad – the last two being the “Silicon Valleys” of India with thriving multi-national companies. Many south Indian students in the US hail from these cities or have lived and worked there.

North India: The classification of North Indian typically includes most of the other Indian states. These have Indo-Aryan descent and migrated to the subcontinent around 1500 Be. In terms of population, they represent the majority at 75% of the country and have the most densely populated states. Hindi is the most common language spoken in the north and many of the other languages are linguistically related to it While the central part of north India is considered the Hindu heartland, there are significant Muslim populations as well and frequent historic reminders of the Muslim Mogul conquest several centuries ago. (The Taj Mahal is an example of Muslim architecture built by a Mogul king). The national capital New Delhi is located here. Some peoples of Nepal are related to north Indians while some have more Tibetan and Chinese heritage.

Western India: While considered part of north India, familiarity with the western states of Maharashtra and Gujarat is helpful. Maharashtra is home to Mumbai (formerly Bombay), the largest city of India and its financial capitol. It is also the center of the thriving movie industry nicknamed “Bollywood.” So Mumbai is roughly a New York/Los Angeles combination and exerts a significant influence on the culture of India through the media. This area is also well-represented by Indian students in the US. The state of Gujarat with its capital of Amedabad is also an influential financial and business area. Hindi, Marathi and Guajarati are major languages in this area. Religious strife has been noteworthy in this region.

Eastern India: This too is a north Indian area but helpful to distinguish. The state of West Bengal neighbors Bangladesh and shares a common language – Bengali. Calcutta (or Kolkata) is the most notable city in this area – the birthplace of Mother Theresa’s ministry. The adjacent state of Orissa has received widespread publicity for recent persecution of Christians.

Northeast India: Many of the peoples of Northeast India are ethnically related to the Chinese and Tibetan peoples and share those distinct physical features. Some of the original people groups in these areas come from more animistic and tribal backgrounds. The church has seen remarkable growth among some of these people groups.

Second-Generation Indians in the US

There is generally a wide gap between Indian international students and the children of Indian families that were born or predominantly raised in the US. Second generation Indians will generally identify to as “Americans plus.” They are American with an additional Indian identity that is incorporated to varying degrees depending on their family, length of time in the U.S., personal preferences etc. As a result, second-generation Indians and Indian international students do not normally associate with each other.