‘KISS of death’ for Adivasi culture: Academics protest venue of global meet

“Schools like KISS disinherit Adivasi children from their histories and describe Adivasi ways of life as ‘backward’ and ‘primitive’,” says a statement released by activists and academics

Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (Photo courtesy- Twitter) (File Photo)
Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (Photo courtesy- Twitter) (File Photo)
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Rosamma Thomas

Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences in Bhubaneshwar, which goes by the colourful acronym KISS, is set to host the 19th Congress of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES) in 2023. Academics and activists, however, are aghast that a “factory school” that makes tribal children ashamed of their families should play host to a prestigious international gathering of academics.

On its website, KISS advertises that it is a free, residential facility that provides education to the “poorest of the poor indigenous children” from kindergarten to post-graduate level. There are about 27,000 students on the rolls, and a magazine produced by Vedanta Aluminium states that the institute is now the largest such facility in Asia, from its modest beginnings in 1993.

In August 2017, KISS was recognized as a tribal university, the “first exclusive tribal university in the world”. UN bodies, the Australian Embassy and British Council are listed as collaborators. KISS draws its tribal student community from Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Mizoram, Assam and other states. On its website, the institution is described as an “anthropological laboratory”.

Many Indian anthropologists and sociologists, however, are not pleased with the experiments at this laboratory. “Schools like KISS disinherit Adivasi children from their histories and describe Adivasi ways of life as ‘backward’ and ‘primitive’,”a statement released by activists and academics said. Children are not allowed to visit their families often, and this educational model makes kids ashamed of their parents and background, the academics and activists state, petitioning the IUAES to reconsider its choice of venue for the next meeting.

Shame alienates the students from their communities and makes it hard to return and work in their rural homes, the academics say. Children are encouraged to speak and read Odia and not their mother tongues; Adivasi festivals are not celebrated and instead children observe Saraswati Puja or Ganesh Puja, putting them under the influence of high caste Hindu practices. Christian children are forbidden from their traditional prayers, and some of them have stolen out of the campus to pray at homes of people in the area, the statement notes.

Children as young as six years of age, in Class 1, are removed from their parents and suffer mental trauma on this count, the statement notes. The children are dressed in their traditional clothes only for occasions when they are expected to showcase their tribal identity, for school functions or to welcome guests. Otherwise, they are in uniform and cannot even wear their hair in the way are accustomed to.

The petition states that KISS has accepted funding from extractive and mining corporates like Adani and Nalco. It has also partnered with Vedanta, whose plans to mine bauxite through open cast mines in the Niyamgiri hills of Odisha, held sacred by the Dongria Kondh tribals, had to be aborted after the local community turned down the proposal.

“It is an established fact that mining and extractive industries have been historically oppressing and exploiting Adivasi communities by illegally grabbing their habitats for profiteering. When KISS partners with such companies, it enables an atmosphere of learning that teaches adivasichildren to support the mining and industrial economy that feeds off their lives and lands,” the statement said. Dodhi Pusika, a senior adivasileader of the Dongria Kondh community, said, “Children are being taught in these schools to get them to sell our land and mountain…they will become useless and will become brokers for mining industries.”

IUAES is a prestigious global meeting of anthropologists and ethnologists from across the world, convened every five years. Over 10,000 delegates are expected to attend the event in 2023, from 150 countries. The last IUAES meeting was held in Brazil in 2018, where over 2000 votes were cast in favour of KISS as the next venue at the next meeting, while less than 90 votes went in favour of the other option considered, Croatia.

Utkal and Sambalpur Universities, government institutions in Odisha of much older vintage as universities, will be co-hosting the event with KISS. The activists and academics have urged the government universities and IUAES to sever their ties with KISS, given that it is a “giant machine for indoctrination”. Similar schools for indigenous communities in Canada, Australia and Norway in the 20th century led to disastrous outcomes leaving trails of scandal and abuse and claims of compensation, the petitioners write.

Interestingly, the Wikipedia page on the founder of KISS, Achyuta Samanta, states that he holds an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Daffodil International University, a private university in Bangladesh. He has also set up 25 “spiritual centres and shrines”, and is said to be in the process of starting a museum of tribal culture. He worked, previously, as a laboratory assistant at a college in Utkal University. He has also combined his interest in science with the arts, and has served as president of “World Congress of Poets”. In 2019, Prime Minister Modi had addressed this poets’ congress.

Prof Krishna Kumar, former head of the National Council for Education Research and Training, said he would be writing a letter to the chairperson of the IUAES explaining why the venue ought to be changed. Over 250 academics and activists have now signed the online petition seeking that IUAES sever ties with KISS.

Prof Virginius Xaxa who taught Sociology at the Delhi School of Economics expressed concern that the international academic conference was scheduled to be held at KISS. Arpita Roy, a researcher who specializes in the sociology of Science, explained that such a large gathering of academics from around the world at this venue would “reinforce the view of anthropology as a handmaiden to indigenous exploitation”.

KISS spokesperson Shradhanjali Nayak wrote over email: “Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS), Bhubaneswar was awarded to host the 19th IUAES World Congress - 2023 through a global bidding process at the last IUAES World Congress held in Brazil in 2018. We are not aware of any objections from any quarter relating to the venue of the 19th IUAES World Congress 2023.As KISS is the venue for the 19th IUAES World Congress 2023, we are gearing up to host the event.”

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