India Needs an Intercultural Education

There is a need for an education that can address these epistemic inequalities and cultivate open-mindedness. I see Intercultural Education as a possible solution. Intercultural Education is the response to classroom diversity aiming to go beyond passive coexistence, to achieve a developing and sustainable way of living together in multicultural societies through the creation of an understanding of respect for and a productive dialogue between the different groups.’



Religious and ethnic discrimination and the marginalisation of minorities are rampant in most parts of the world including developed societies.1 Though there was an expectation that such discrimination and marginalisation would disappear as part of the spread of education and enlightenment’, it does not seem to be effectively happening.2 Instead, economic integration, globalisation and migration – all processes which bring together people physically from different parts of the world – seem to have to aggravated discrimination and a general suspicion of the other’.3

There are other related tendencies. Sizeable sections of people believe in the superiority of their culture, beliefs and practices, blame others for not having similar features or use their own standards for evaluating other cultures.4 This is based on an essentialist reading of one’s own culture and practices.5 It manifests in different forms. There could be violent attempts to impose one’s own culture and beliefs on others.6 There could be the ridicule of the practices of others and a de-legitimisation of the genuine demand from different groups for fairer treatment by the state and society.7

The persistence of these discriminations could be partly due to a lack of knowledge of others.8 It could be due to the fear of the unknown.9 Despite the spread of education and information explosion, knowledge of others’ (in terms of religion, caste, race, ethnicity, region, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) does not seem to have improved drastically in society. Hence, there is an underlying problem in the domain of knowledge which leads to the persistence of different kinds of discrimination that we have noted earlier.

When there is not enough knowledge of others’, there could be an imposition of the knowledge of the dominant group.10 The dominance of the knowledge, culture and practices of the powerful could be disempowering to certain sections and inimical to the liberation of all sections of society.11 The discrimination of women based on the beliefs and practices of the powerful is a typical case in this context.12 There were cases where less powerful social groups treated their women less unequally, but this was seen as imperfect’ in the dominant culture.13 There were less powerful groups which used forests in a less harmful way, but these were neglected in the dominant culture.14 Hence, social inequality due to the epistemological dominance15 of the powerful may have negative impacts on the emergence of a knowledge system that can facilitate a just, equitable and sustainable world for all.

The belief in the superiority or inferiority of one’s cultural practices and knowledge need not be a product of epistemological processes alone. Instead, aspects which are outside the domain of knowledge may condition these beliefs. It could be a manifestation of the power in society.16 Hence, the knowledge of the ruling class or economic elites could be valued highly. Context-specific inequalities in power may reflect in the differential valuation of culture and knowledge and these may have persisted due to path dependence. Or there can be what is called cognitive path dependence.17

The belief in the superiority of one’s own culture and practices could be due to the lack of what can be called open-mindedness.18 The business-as-usual education may not inculcate such open-mindedness, and it may require specific efforts.19 However, there could be other factors which breed or sustain a closed mindset. The closeness of mind could be comforting in certain situations due to the fear of the unknown.20 It could be related to personal preferences, identity and political choices.21 It may be compatible with the way human beings think and act. It has been noted that people think instinctively (without much deliberation), socially (by following their peers), and with the help of mental models of reality and some of these models are not grounded in actual reality.22 All these pose serious barriers to the development of open-mindedness through education. The persistence of a closed mindset could be harmful to all and not only to those who carry it. There are educated people in the world (including developed societies) who think that there is nothing called climate change.23 Their beliefs and actions are harmful not only to themselves but to the world as a whole.

There is a need for an education that can address these epistemic inequalities and cultivate open-mindedness. I see Intercultural Education as a possible solution. Intercultural Education is the response to classroom diversity aiming to go beyond passive coexistence, to achieve a developing and sustainable way of living together in multicultural societies through the creation of an understanding of respect for and a productive dialogue between the different groups.24 There have been advocacies for and actual practices of intercultural education in Europe, and North and South America. These are the regions where western cultures interacted with indigenous or non-western cultures and the latter got suppressed or marginalised. This long-period suppression or marginalisation by what can be called European cultures has led to the demand for intercultural education.

However, there are other countries, mainly in Asia, which have gone through different trajectories. These countries like India, China or those in the south- and South-East Asia have internal divides. There are dominant cultures and dominated ones. However, all these may claim indigenous status. Moreover, the domination of one knowledge system over others may have occurred through different political processes. Though colonialism by Western European powers is a fact of reality and this has had an impact on the power relationship between different knowledge systems in certain countries, it could not have a dominant influence in certain other countries (say, China). Moreover, the presence of western powers declined or disappeared when these countries acquired independence.

There were other processes of domination in the cultural sphere and the knowledge systems in these countries. For example, the spread of Vedic Brahmanism (with a possible root in the Aryan invasion) and its caste system had domineering impacts on other cultures in India. Internal expansions of specific empires have had a similar impact on China. If we consider recent history, a socialist country like the Soviet Union imposed a homogenous education in its territory which led to a suppression of the local cultures in central Asia and other parts of the region. Tibet and Xinjiang regions in China are notable examples of the suppression of local cultures due to the homogenisation policies followed by China. On the other hand, India was somewhat indifferent to the internal cultural diversities in its education policies. In effect, this indifference has led to the marginalisation of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and ethnic, regional and certain religious minorities in the process of education. The divisions between these different groups persist, and some of these are widening over time. There are tensions in other countries too. The non-Islamic cultures in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh faced different levels of suppression or marginalisation. Myanmar went through the suppression of ethnic minorities, like the Rohingya population. The tussle between the Buddhist Sinhala and Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka is yet to be completely settled.

Education and cultural divides

Though sections of Indians are doing well in terms of education, around 50 percent of teenagers drop out without completing school education even in 2021.25 Most students who attend school do not learn much as evident from annual surveys on learning achievements.26 The underachievement in education is visible more among certain social groups in India. These include the so-called lower castes, tribal population and religious minorities.27

Indian education has failed to bridge the divides between different sections of the population. Casteism continues to prevail despite all legal measures and advocacies.28 The social distance between the majoritarian Hindus and the minorities (especially Muslims) continues to remain significant29 and is additionally becoming an important cause of intense political battles.30 The tribal population in most parts of the country is marginalised and their social, economic and cultural aspirations are neglected, and these people face greater difficulties as an outcome of the expansion of economic activities.31 There are also regional divides between the North and South or North-East and other parts of the country.32 The understanding of people belonging to one region about another region is limited. Then there is the persistence of severe gender discrimination which is manifested in different forms starting from sex selection at birth to the discriminatory gender norms which enable only less than one-fourth of adult females to take up paid employment.33

Formal education has not been very successful in bridging the divides in a number of other countries in the region. Though casteism is not a major issue, minority religions face suppression and inadequate representation in the contents of education in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The educational divide between Tamils and the Sinhala population in Sri Lanka is striking even after the end of the civil war. There are accusations of inadequate representation of minority cultures in education in China.

Despite having higher levels of education, sections of people continue to have closed mindsets and consider some of their own norms universally valid. There are authoritarian tendencies shown by majoritarian ethnicities or religions in different countries like China, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Minority groups face different levels of suppression in all these and other countries like Myanmar. Gender discrimination which may result in denying good quality education or the opportunity to take up paid employment to girls seems to have wider acceptance in the societies of India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. When this author studied dowry and arranged marriage in India in comparison with the situation in Indonesia,34 he was surprised to know that many Indians saw these practices as somewhat natural’ and inevitable’, despite the absence of such practices in Indonesia. Education does not seem to enable the majority to reflect on these norms critically. Since ninety percent of Indian marriages are intra-caste ones,35 casteism is rampant even among educated and affluent Indians.

All these indicate the need to rethink the kind of education that is available in, and that is required for, these countries. The author takes a view that India, China and other countries in the region can benefit from a truly intercultural education – the one that encourages different people to reflect on their own and others’ cultures. This may enable them to understand the context-specificity of their and others’ everyday practices. This may encourage them to accept the idea of a change which is organic and self-driven in all social groups and communities without glorifying one’s own or ridiculing others’ cultural practices. It can prevent a total rejection or unthinking acceptance of what can be called modernisation. Instead, it may facilitate a reflective engagement with the process of modernisation, its potential for liberation as well as pitfalls. This may enable different cultures to have a horizontal or equitable engagement with each other.

What is intercultural education?

United Nations organisations have played an important role in clarifying the nature of this education and detailing guidelines for this purpose.36 An important aspect of intercultural education that goes beyond conventional good quality education37 is developing an understanding of other people and an appreciation of interdependence – carrying out joint projects and learning to manage conflicts – in a spirit of respect for the values of pluralism, mutual understanding… (and) peace’.38 Such education is expected to instil knowledge, skills and values that sustain cooperation in different societies. Intercultural Education is also expected to inculcate the learning to be’, so as to better develop one’s personality and be able to act with ever greater autonomy, judgement and personal responsibility’.39 This may strengthen a sense of identity and personal meaning for learners and may benefit their cognitive capacity too.


1. One could see manifestations of such discrimination even during COVID-19, prompting the UN agencies to issue calls to avoid it. https://​en​.unesco​.org/​n​e​w​s​/​g​l​o​b​a​l​-​c​a​l​l​-​a​g​a​i​n​s​t​-​r​acism

2. For a review of related literature, please see: Education for Equitable Development (PART I) — Azim Premji University and Education for Equitable Development (PART II) — Azim Premji University

3. For a summary discussion of these issues, see https://​hbr​.org/​2016​/​11​/​p​e​o​p​l​e​-​a​r​e​-​a​n​g​r​y​-​a​b​o​u​t​-​g​l​o​b​a​l​i​z​a​t​i​o​n​-​h​e​r​e​s​-​w​h​a​t​-​t​o​-​d​o​-​a​b​o​ut-it

4. This is called ethnocentrism. Sumner, W. G. (1906). Folkways: A study of the sociological importance of usages, manners, customs, mores, and morals. Boston: Ginn and Co.; Levine, R. A. (1971). Ethnocentrism: Theories of conflict, ethnic attitudes and group behaviour. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

5. Mahalingam, R. (2007) Essentialism, power, and the representation of social categories: A folk sociology perspective. Human Development 50:300 – 19.

6. Staub, E. (1996b). The cultural-societal roots of violence: The examples of genocidal violence and of contemporary youth violence in the United States. American Psychologist, 51, 117 – 132.

7. This is part of the growing majoritarianism. See Sahoo, Niranjan. 2020. Mounting Majoritarianism and Political Polarization in India.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. https://​carnegieen​dow​ment​.org/​2020​/​08​/​18​/​m​o​u​n​t​i​n​g​-​m​a​j​o​r​i​t​a​r​i​a​n​i​s​m​-and- political-polarization-in-india-pub-82434

8. It is noted that interventions to improve public knowledge can be effective to address mental health issues, and this implies the possible impact of ignorance on the discrimination of people who face issues of mental health. Graham Thornicroft, Diana Rose, Aliya Kassam and Norman Sartorius Stigma: ignorance, prejudice or discrimination? The British Journal of Psychiatry, Volume 190, Issue 3, March 2007, pp. 192193; Similar tendencies can be seen with respect to LGBT communities. https://​www​.the​jakar​ta​post​.com/​n​e​w​s​/​2016​/​03​/​14​/​p​o​o​r​-​k​n​o​w​l​e​d​g​e​-​l​e​a​d​s​-​p​r​o​l​o​n​g​e​d​-​d​i​s​c​r​i​m​i​n​a​t​i​o​n​-​a​g​a​i​n​s​t​-​l​g​b​t​-​p​e​o​p​l​e​.html

9. R.N. Carleton, Into the Unknown: a review and synthesis of contemporary models involving uncertainty, Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 39 (2016), pp. 30 – 43

10. Hence, social inequality leads to discursive inequality, which confirms epistemic inequality, which may again reproduce social inequality. Van Dick, T. A. (2012) Knowledge, Discourse and Domination, John Benjamins Publishing Company.

11. A known example is that of the knowledge of indigenous people which is marginalized but is potentially useful to address certain challenges of humanity as a whole. Comberti, Claudia and Thornton, Thomas and Korodimou, Michaela, Addressing Indigenous Peoples’ Marginalisation at International Climate Negotiations: Adaptation and Resilience at the Margins (November 16, 2016). Comberti, Thornton & Korodimou, (2016), Working paper, ECI, University of Oxford, Available at SSRN: https://​ssrn​.com/​a​b​s​t​r​a​c​t​=​2870412 or http://​dx​.doi​.org/​10​.​2139​/​s​s​r​n​.​2870412

12. A discussion can be seen here: https://www.e‑

13. This is the view of the dominant society on the gender relations among tribal populations in India, Xaxa, V. (2004) Women and Gender in the Study of Tribes in India, Indian Journal of Gender Studies 11(3):345 – 367; Matrilineal societies were also viewed as imperfect’ by patriarchal societies. Matriarchy was seen as the primitive’ form, and then eventually there was a transition to the advanced’ form which is the patriarchy.” Mattison SM, Shenk MK, Thompson ME, Borgerhoff Mulder M, Fortunato L. 2019 The evolution of female-biased kinship in humans and other mammals. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 374: 20190007

14. This was the case with indigenous people in different parts of the world.

15. Cech, Erin A., et al. Epistemological Dominance and Social Inequality: Experiences of Native American Science, Engineering, and Health Students.” Science, Technology, & Human Values, vol. 42, no. 5, 2017, pp. 743 – 774

16. This is connected to the concept of power-knowledge developed by Michale Foucault. Taylor, D. (2011) Introduction: Power, freedom and subjectivity. Ur Taylor, D. (red.) Michel Foucault: Key Concepts (s. 1 – 9). Acumen Publishing Ltd.

17. RIZZELLO, Salvatore (2004) Knowledge as a Path-Dependent Process”, Journal of Bioeconomics, Vol. 6, Issue 3, pp. 255 – 274

18. For a review of the concept of open-mindedness, refer Bowell, Tracy A. Dr and Kingsbury, Justine Dr, Open Mindedness’ (2016). OSSA Conference Archive. 87. https://​schol​ar​.uwind​sor​.ca/​o​s​s​a​a​r​c​h​i​v​e​/​O​S​S​A​11​/​p​a​p​e​r​s​a​n​d​c​o​m​m​e​n​t​a​r​i​es/87

19. There are such septic efforts like the one evaluated in the paper: Levy, Brett L.M.; Babb-Guerra, Annaly; Owczarek, Wolf; and Batt, Lena M., Can Education Reduce Political Polarization? Fostering Open-Minded Political Engagement during the Legislative Semester (2019). Educational Theory and Practice Faculty Scholarship. 29.

20. For a review of the fear of the unknown, refer to RN Carleton, Into the Unknown: A review and synthesis of contemporary models involving uncertainty, Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 39 (2016), pp. 30 – 43.

21. Johnston, C., Lavine, H., & Federico, C. (2017). Personality and the Foundations of Economic Preferences. In Open versus Closed: Personality, Identity, and the Politics of Redistribution (pp. 1 – 18). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

22. The way human beings think could be different from what is considered rational behaviour. These deviations are discussed in the World Bank (2015), World Development Report, Washington, DC.

23. Beliefs are correlated with both political and religious identity for stem cell research, the Big Bang, and human evolution, and with political identity alone on climate change. Individuals with greater education, science education, and science literacy display more polarized beliefs on these issues. Caitlin Drummond, Baruch Fischhoff, Science knowledge and polarization, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Sep 2017, 114 (36)

24. http://​edu​cul​ture​.info/​i​n​t​e​r​c​u​l​t​u​r​a​l​-​e​d​u​c​a​tion/

25. Santhakumar, V. Gupta, N. and Sripada, R. (2016) Schooling for All in India: Can We Neglect the Demand? Delhi: Oxford University Press

26. These reports are published periodically by ASER Center. www​.aser​centre​.org

27. Santhakumar, V. Gupta, N. and Sripada, R. (2016) Schooling for All in India: Can We Neglect the Demand? Delhi: Oxford University Press

28. Munshi, Kaivan and Mark Rosenzweig. 2009. Why is Mobility in India so Low? Social Insurance, Inequality and Growth, NBER Working Paper No. 14850.


30. This has become sharper since the rise of the Hindu majoritarian party – BJP.

31. Jaysawal, Neelmani and Saha, Sudeshna, Marginalisation of Tribal Communities due to Globalization (July 4, 2014). Indian Journal of Dalit and Tribal Studies, vol. 2(2), 37 – 54 (2014), Available at SSRN: https://​ssrn​.com/​a​b​s​t​r​a​c​t​=​3390699

32. Some of the issues which create a divide between North and South of India are discussed here. https://​www​.clearias​.com/​n​o​r​t​h​-​i​n​d​i​a​-​s​o​u​t​h​-​i​n​d​i​a​-​d​i​vide/ (opened on 24 April 2021); Newspaper articles talk about the discrimination faced by North-east Indians in other parts of the country: For example, see https://​www​.duup​dates​.in/​t​o​p​-​p​r​o​b​l​e​m​s​-​f​a​c​e​d​-​n​o​r​t​h​-​e​a​s​t​e​r​n​-​i​n​d​i​a​n​s​-​d​elhi/)

33. Some of the underlying cultural features of India in this regard are discussed in a comparative perspective in Schooling and Work Participation of Girls — Azim Premji University

34. Schooling and Work Participation of Girls — Azim Premji University

35. https://​epc2010​.prince​ton​.edu/​p​a​p​e​r​s​/​100157


37. Which may include aspects like Learning to Know’ and Learning to Do’.

38. https://​unes​doc​.unesco​.org/​a​r​k​:​/​48223​/​p​f​0000147878; p.21

39. https://​unes​doc​.unesco​.org/​a​r​k​:​/​48223​/​p​f​0000147878; p. 26


V Santhakumar is Professor, Azim Premji University, Bangalore.

Featured image by Alexis Brown on Unsplash