Failing the Grade


01 August 2021

Last August, the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences announced that it was withdrawing a plan to hold the next World Anthropology Congress, scheduled for 2023, at the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences in Bhubaneshwar (KISS).

This came after many tribal and non-tribal researchers, teachers, university students and activists working on tribal rights voiced strong reservations about the IUAES’s choice of venue, and the organisation’s executive committee noted in announcing the decision that it had acted in “deference to the many anthropologists from within India and across the globe who have expressed their opinion on the matter.” The IUAES, in collaboration with the Indian Anthropological Association, has since shifted the venue to Delhi.

A contingent of Indian anthropologists and anthropological associations—including the Indian Anthropological Society and others, claiming to represent more than two thousand anthropologists—came out in opposition to the decision and issued a joint statement asking that KISS be reinstated as the host. The IUAES has not budged, but a faction of the dissenters now proposes to run a parallel congress at KISS anyway. The institute has hosted many national and international conferences and seminars in the past, but the reasons to resist its hosting of the World Anthropology Congress are plain to see. The stubborn insistence on holding a conference at KISS exposes a wilful and unfortunate blindness to these reasons among a sizeable section of Indian anthropologists.

Anthropology in India and the world over has traditionally been associated with the study of tribes, whom the discipline initially defined in terms of their supposed savageness. Anthropology has tried hard to move beyond this. Since the 1940s, it has gradually shifted away from the study of tribes to that of peasant societies. In India, however, the study of tribes continues to be the dominant concern, and the old conception of tribes still lingers among many practitioners. Like the discipline of anthropology, KISS too has made tribes and their education its exclusive concern. Founded as a tribal residential school in 1993 and run by a foundation, it now proudly claims to be the “world’s largest residential education institution for tribal children.” By its own numbers, the institute now houses 27,125 children at its Bhubaneshwar campus, which includes a school and a college, and has 20,000 children enrolled at satellite centres in ten so-called “tribal” districts of Odisha. Tribal children are provided free education up to the tenth standard, which can extend to the postgraduate level as well, and this is combined with vocational education in different trades from the sixth to the tenth standard. KISS’s stated mission is “to break the vicious cycle of poverty and social isolation” of its students, which in practice it sees as involving their removal from their families and communities, in the belief that everyone can “live and develop with dignity” and “become an active and contributing member of our society.” The objection to KISS owes to the disconcerting agenda it stands for and promotes—an agenda rooted in a conception of tribal people shared and reinforced by outdated ideas of anthropology—and the impact of the underlying notions on tribal children.

Tribes in India have for long been described and treated as savages. To run an educational institution today with a civilising mission based on this implicit premise is deeply disturbing—a throwback to the goals and methods of the colonial state and Christian missionaries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. KISS has called tribes primitive and backward in several of its magazines and annual reports. One of the organisation’s promotional videos states that “they fill up their stomach with forest products and cover their bodies with leaves of plants”—a blatantly false picture of the current lives of the tribes KISS is trying to serve.

Tribes in India are not at the stage they were at in the colonial period or the early post-Independence era, even though they continue to suffer poverty and marginalisation. Despite all odds, a fairly well-educated class has emerged and grown within tribal communities. Tribal people have for far too long been silent spectators unable to defend themselves, but this emergent class, especially, is no longer prepared to tolerate false conceptions of tribal life or warped agendas for their future. This is reflective of a worldwide trend, as reflected in the adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the United Nations in 2007. The document affirms that “indigenous peoples are equal to all other peoples” and recognises “the right of all peoples to be different, to consider themselves different, and to be respected as such.” KISS’s foundational principles are antithetical to this conception.

The idea that tribal people are uncivilised, and that KISS is civilising them, has been continuously driven into the minds of its students by the institute’s teachers and staff, as well as its founder, Achyuta Samanta, a philanthropist and current member of parliament from the Biju Janata Dal. When KISS students are asked what contribution the institution has made to their lives, the typical answer is that it has civilised them. Their self-esteem as tribal people is undermined tremendously, and the damage can linger for life. Children are led to believe that they have no future without KISS and its founder, and that they should therefore be forever grateful to both. In its everyday habits, the place communicates to them a low sense of individual self-worth—when dignitaries visit KISS, for instance, students are compelled to stand en masse for hours to welcome them. During the last parliamentary election, children were used to canvas for Samanta in the constituency he contested, where tribal people form a significant part of the population.

Reflecting its prejudiced view of tribes, KISS does not make adequate room in its teaching and administrative staff for capable tribal people. This is true even at the lowest levels, except for a few individuals—particularly language teachers in the elementary classes. The ideology of KISS is evidently not to create an egalitarian, inclusive and just society, but rather to reinforce within the institution the paternal and hierarchical structures prevalent in society today.

Access to schools is a crucial factor in this context. A high share of the tribal population in Odisha, like elsewhere, lives in remote forested or hilly areas where accessing schools poses major difficulties. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, compels state governments to maintain a primary school within one kilometre of any habitation, and an upper-primary school within three kilometres. The Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan specifies that there must be a secondary school within five kilometres of any habitation. These stipulations are routinely ignored, and the growth of KISS residential schools has only made things worse. The systematic enrolment of tribal children in them has fuelled declining enrolment in village schools, and government officials often use this as a pretext to close them down. In Odisha, 475 primary and 13 upper-primary schools were closed down in 2019–20 alone. The state planned to shut 6,340 schools with fewer than twenty students and 5,177 schools with fewer than forty students in 2020. More and more, tribal children are being forced to enter KISS for lack of choice.

Over the course of almost three decades of working with tribal children, KISS has had ample opportunity to create a pioneering curriculum for them, one that not only accommodates their languages, cultures, histories and traditions but also embraces innovative pedagogical ideas. Instead, KISS has continued with the kind of curriculum common across the country, developed to fulfil the sub-national aspirations of the dominant linguistic communities that have driven the creation of many of India’s states. Such aspirations grew side by side with Indian nationalism under colonial rule but became most pronounced after Independence. There were similar articulations among many tribes or groups of tribes, but their demands were hardly given any consideration. Rather, they were fragmented, divided between various newly created states, as these states vied with each other for the lands the tribes inhabited and the rich natural and mineral resources that came with them. Educational curricula were developed around the language, culture, traditions, histories and values of each state’s dominant sub-national community, and tribal people had no alternative but to accept a kind of education that was alien to them.

Such a system of education has meant poor enrolment, non-attendance, educational stagnation and high dropout rates among tribal schoolchildren. It has also led to the extinction of many tribal languages and left many more on the verge of disappearing. The multitude of tribal languages in Odisha, which is home to 62 distinct tribal communities, are broadly grouped into 38 languages, 19 of which are nearly extinct.

KISS, as a residential institution, is especially complicit in the decline of tribal languages. It takes children away from their families, villages and communities, which are essential to transmitting and sustaining languages. KISS seems to have adopted mother tongue-based education at elementary levels, but this is meant for the smooth transition from children’s mother tongues to the state language—in this case, Odia. Given the number of students at KISS, it is contributing to cultural genocide on a massive scale. And KISS does not stop at language. It also advances a process of Hinduisation—that is, of detaching students from the beliefs and practices of their traditional religion, in favour of Hindu ones. The KISS campus includes a Jagannath temple, and students are encouraged to visit it, pray to the deity and participate in temple rituals.

KISS also plays a role in dispossessing tribal people of their lands and established livelihoods. It has a record of collaboration with numerous corporations that have driven tribes from their homes, often with brutal violence, to clear the way for the exploitation of resources. In other words, KISS is working with the very agents that have caused much of tribal people’s impoverishment and plight even as it claims to be pursuing these same people’s welfare.

In 2012, KISS partnered with Vedanta to enrol children from villages near one of the corporation’s sites of operation, with the stated goal of “mainstreaming of Tribals.” As part of this, KISS signed indemnity agreements with the parents of each child, consenting to their study at the institution. Vedanta, in turn, agreed to sponsor a hundred children until they complete the tenth standard, at the rate of Rs 20,000 per child per year. Similar agreements have been signed with the Tata Group, which has faced protests from tribal people opposing its operations in Odisha. Tribal activists continue to mark the anniversary of the killing of at least a dozen tribal people in Kalinganagar in 2006, when police fired upon protests against the setting up of a Tata Steel plant in the town. Further, KISS has partnered with the Adani Group, India’s largest private thermal-power producer, to open a branch of the institute, called KISS-Adani, in the town of Baripada.

The mass displacement of tribal people in India began soon after Independence and became intricately connected with the country’s pursuit of economic development. The impoverishment, malnutrition and even starvation of tribal communities dates back to this period. Earlier, such phenomena were rare. Odisha has a large number of public-sector undertakings engaged in building dams, running irrigation and power projects, and extracting mineral resources, not to mention corporate-run projects doing the same. Since economic liberalisation, the government of Odisha has been vigorously promoting mining in the state as a way to attract private capital, and offering a range of subsidies and concessions to corporate investors. These projects contribute to the development of Odisha and its dominant population, but not to the development of the tribes whose lands most of them depend on. The number of people living below the poverty line in Odisha increased from roughly 71 percent in the early 1990s to over 75 percent by 2005. Yet, the founder of the KISS talks of “transforming tribes from tax consumers to taxpayers.”

It is unfortunate that the anthropologists and anthropological associations involved in first selecting a venue for the 2023 conference either did not care to discover these facts or chose to turn a blind eye to them. Even more unfortunate is that even the controversy over the venue, which made such facts unavoidable, has failed to stir the minds and hearts of anthropologists in India at large, but for a few. This confirms, once again, the disappointing state of the discipline in the country and its continued historical hangover. Having grown in under the shadow of colonialism, anthropology still fosters among its practitioners a lack of empathy, a cold detachment from their subjects, reminiscent of that bygone era.

The problem manifests itself in many ways. Indian anthropologists have for long decades focussed the overwhelming share of their attention on the study of tribal communities. By comparison, other marginalised social groups such as Dalits and women only attracted comparable academic attention much later in the post-Independence years. Yet the Dalit and women’s agendas are today far more prominent in national debate and discourse, while concern for India’s tribes is conspicuous by its absence. For anthropologists, it seems the tribal people they work with are mere subjects of study, little more than sources of data and information. Their pain, suffering and humiliation, their imaginations and aspirations, the dispossession of their lands and wealth and cultures, do not matter much. The anthropologists rallying to reinstate KISS as the host of the World Anthropology Congress only show how little they value the people they study.

courtesy Caravan

VIRGINIUS XAXA is a former professor of sociology at the Delhi School of Economics and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati.