Failing the Grade

How KISS and Indian anthropology degrade tribal people

KISS assembled over 26,000 students in November 2019 to set a Guinness World Record for the most people brushing their teeth together. The idea that tribal people are uncivilised, and that KISS is civilising them, is driven into the minds of students at the institution. Niha Masih / The Washington Post / Getty Images
31 July, 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. 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.