By: Kashay Sanders
Dr. Ajailiu Niumai, currently Associate Professor at Hyderabad Central University, is from the Liangmai Naga Tribe, located in Manipur, North East India. The oldest of eight siblings, Dr. Niumai is the first woman in her tribe to receive her Ph.D in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. While in Delhi, she worked for both T.V Today Network and Partnership-In-Mission (NGO). In October 2000, she joined as Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology, Hyderabad Central University. Her research interest includes gender, NGOs and Development, Indian Diaspora Philanthropy and Trafficking of women. In 2009, she joined as Joint faculty in the Centre for Women’s Studies and promoted as Associate Professor in the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion & Inclusive Policy (CSSEIP), Hyderabad Central University, where she now conducts interdisciplinary research on the philanthropy practices of the Indian diaspora and women trafficking patterns in North East India.
What’s your family like? Does what you study and what you are passionate about come from them?
Professor Niumai: Yes! Definitely! My mom and dad have been running an orphanage home for children even to this day, and they are both passionate about social work. They work mostly among my tribal community and also other marginalized communities in the area. My father was always for the empowerment of women. People would say to my father, “Ugh, you have six girls and you’re sending them to Delhi to study?” and my dad would respond, “Well, I stand for women’s empowerment and my girls should be empowered through education.” I now serve as a consultant for my dad! Those men who told my father “Why are you educating your daughter?” are now applauding him and saying “Well done. Thumbs up!”
Whenever you go back to the community, do people STILL criticize you or your family?
Professor Niumai: No! Actually, in January 2010, the people from the Liangmai and Zeliangrong tribes had a women’s conference and awarded me for the fact that I am the first Ph.D woman from the community. And it felt so special to have my community recognize me as their woman role model!
Why did you decide to live and work in Hyderabad?
Professor Niumai: I studied and lived in Delhi for 9 years and this NGO , Partnership-In-Mission loved my projects and had me sign for one more year. I was supposed to start that in July 2000, but for some technical reasons, I could not start then. Interestingly, that same July, I received a letter from the University of Hyderabad for an interview for the Assistant Professor post in sociology. Surprisingly, University Grants Commission (UGC) nominated me for it. I didn’t even apply! I always saw myself working in Delhi or in Northeast India, where I come from. South India was never in my dreams. But when they called me for the interview, I came down in August and by September they mailed me a letter saying please come and join immediately! So, in the year 2000, I came here and joined.
You work under the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusion Policy—what does exactly does this mean to you and your studies?
Professor Niumai: I taught post-graduate students in the Department of sociology for nine years. In 2009, I was appointed as an Associate Professor in the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion & Inclusive Policy. I find that this center is fantastic for me. This center focuses on the processes of social exclusion and also focuses on formulating policies, which will be in line with the inclusive growth of the 12th Five Year Plan of the government of India. I myself come from Northeast India, which is an excluded region and I belong to the small Liangmai Naga community. I am delighted that the School Board has approved my optional course on “State and Civil Society in the Northeast” and it’s the only course on this region in Hyderabad Central University!
Let’s talk a bit more specifically about your areas of study! So one thing you focus on is philanthropy and the Indian Diaspora. Where does your interest in that come from?
Professor Niumai: Indian Diaspora and philanthropy is about Indians who lived/live abroad and are doing charitable work either in India or in their host country. I took to this topic after attending Parvasi Bharati Divas, where the Indian government invites many NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) and PIOs (people of Indian Origin) back to India and it spans for a few days. It is a HUGE conference, in which all the rich and powerful Indians who are settled abroad come back to India. In the year 2006, the conference was held here in Hyderabad. We have a center for Indian diaspora here and I was made to serve as the reporter for the conference. What amazed me was that there were millionaires who wanted to invest in India. Their feeling of patriotism they expressed intrigued me. They already make so much money abroad, and now, while they are so powerful in the US or Canada, they want to come back to their country and pour capital here. I began to question: why do they want to invest and engage in philanthropy?
Now let’s talk about your recent interest in Trafficking. What ultimately sparked your interest?
Professor Niumai: In 2008, in the month of June, I was in Imphal (capital of Manipur) airport with my younger brother, and a lady called me out as I entered inside the airport, “Ajai! Ajai!! I know you, I know your mom and your dad. I knew you when you were a small child.” She told me to look after her sister inside the airport. Her sister was going to Calcutta and then to Singapore. A travel agent called and said the woman would be given 20,000 to work as a housemaid in Singapore. They gave her a passport, visa and flight ticket. My brother and I wondered, “Was it for trafficking? Was it for the flesh trade?” For a housemaid, how can they secure a passport and visa, and promise Rs. 20,000 a month?
That is how I began to take interest. When I went to the Northeast in the same year, I came to know that there are hundreds of women from the Northeast from poor families who have been deceived by travel agents. And they are working in beauty parlors, massage parlors, brothels, everywhere. Women from Northeast India are easily sold to Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand because they have Mongoloid features. I am trying to look at why the girls are pushed from my region— because of poverty and conflict, because they don’t have means of livelihood and then they are pulled to the metro cities because it offers them at least a job.
As a professor, what do you think is academia’s role in empowering women and girl?
Professor Niumai: Today, we don’t have to sit in an ivory tower and talk only of theories. We have to have interface between academia and practitioner. My goal is to have a network with the practitioner. In terms of educating and reaching out to the community, as an academic, I feel that it is my job to reach out to those grassroots workers and link up with them. I cannot afford to leave my chair here and spend all of my time on community work, but sharing stories and sharing our views and ideas matters a lot.
What do you think it means to be a Women of Action?
Professor Niumai: A Woman of Action is one who does not confine herself to one corner of comfort. She moves out of her comfort zone and then relates to the people around her, and gets connected to those excluded, marginalized groups. Reaching out, outside of the academic world, to those communities—that is a woman of action. She is donating, contributing, and spreading awareness, involved in advocacy. I think I am definitely doing all this!