Recently, the executive committee of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES), which is organising the World Anthropology Congress 2023 in India, decided to withdraw its collaboration with the Odisha-based Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS).

The university, which is based in Bhubaneswar and focuses on educating Odisha’s indigenous or tribal population, was supposed to provide logistical support, including a venue, to the high-profile conference. The Sambalpur and Utkal universities are the other conference partners.

Disservice to Anthropology

Reportedly, the decision of the executive committee is a product of “mounting national and international pressure” from academic, activists and civil society networks who accused KISS of being a “factory school” that takes funding from big mining corporates, like Adani and Nalco. Who are these academics, intellectuals and activists? What is their caste, class location and professional base?

They are both subjective and objective outsiders to the predicaments of indigenous and working people. The decision to drop KISS as the venue of the conference is not only short-sighted, but also incisively reactionary. The justifications behind such a decision looks dubious and lacks progressive vision.

The decision is a disservice to the progressive character of Anthropology as a discipline and emancipatory knowledge traditions within it. It denies accessibilities to knowledge, infrastructure and available opportunities to learn to the very indigenous people it claims to serve. Moreover, this decision gives more space to Hindutva right wing forces in India to Hinduise indigenous communities without any restrictions.

The international conference would have been a great opportunity for the 30,000 indigenous students and their teachers at KISS to learn the limits of factory schools, dangers of privatisation and Hinduisation from critical researchers and anthropologists across the globe. It would have been a great opportunity to expose the economic logic of Hinduisation as a cultural and political project of the Hindutva fascists and their crony capitalists. It was an opportunity lost for both the participating anthropologists, students and staff members of the KISS, Utkal, Sambalpur and other universities in Odisha.

Most importantly, the Indian Anthropological Association (IAA), the main co-host of the conference in the country, has lost an opportunity for progressive intervention within the limited available opportunities within India today.

Promoting liberal spaces

There is no doubt that most of the private universities, residential schools and colleges are today function like sausages factories. These institutions treat their living and non-living infrastructures like profitable and portable car parks. The curricula is designed to serve the market forces undermining the intellectual integrity, secular and scientific knowledge traditions, and sanctity of the educational institutions. Privatisation is a bane for working classes in general, and indigenous and rural poor in particular.

Factory schools are the products of marketisation of education. The privatisation and marketisation of education are not sustainable, as they destroy every foundation of education, training and knowledge. The Indian private educational institutions are bastions of the dominant Brahmanical Hindu hierarchical social order based on caste, class, gender, and living space. The marginalisation of poor is written within the rotten structures of private educational institutions.

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Both private and public educational institutions in India are facing four threats today – fear of authoritarian government, funding crunch, Hinduisation, and loss of academic independence under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in New Delhi. 

In Odisha, the conditions of schools, colleges and universities are pathetic. The lack of academic infrastructure is visible from the collapsing boundary walls to dust-filled book shelves in the libraries. The hostels, classrooms, conference halls, laboratories and lavatories mark the failures of the state and governments in funding quality education.

The situation is more deplorable in the tribal areas of the state. There is no educational institution in Odisha that has world class facilities and funds to organise and manage large international conferences, like the World Anthropology Congress 2023. The neoliberal economic and educational policies destroyed public education and paved the path for the growth of privatisation of education in India. KISS university is not an isolated example. It is a product of this exact same system.

But, it is a fact that KISS university provides free accommodation, food, uniforms and every other education facility for indigenous students from Grade 1 to post-graduation. The university has even produced and facilitated shining sport stars and Olympiads among indigenous students. What would be the future of these students without KISS?   

There is no doubt that within Odisha, only KISS University and the Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology (KIIT) have the academic and material infrastructure to organise and accommodate international conferences. It is, thus, naïve to oppose it in the name of factory schools, corporate funding and Hinduisation.

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Every state and government funded school in Odisha celebrates Hindu religious festivals. Even the state and government funded schools in tribal areas of Odisha celebrate different Hindu religious festivals. There is a serious distinction between celebration of Hindu religious festivals in schools and Hinduisation of indigenous communities. The first one is a slow poison of Hindu socialisation, while the second is cultural and economic genocide of indigenous communities by right-wing forces like the BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which helps the mining corporations exploit natural resources in the tribal areas of Odisha.

Within this, there is still some progressive space within the KISS university. Progressive anthropologists and their organisations must engage with it to expand emancipatory ideals. The search for puritanism is a dangerous game in emancipatory politics, which helps right wing, reactionary religious and market forces. 

Neotraditionalist anthropological museums and neoliberal Hindutva laboratories are unnecessary evils. These forces cannot protect indigenous culture and their economic future. The indigenous communities only can sustain their culture, social and cultural identities better by accessing modern health and educational facilities provided by the state and government.

The indigenous communities can write their own political and economic narratives by getting exposed to the power structures that exploit them in their everyday life. They do not need guidance from the salary-seeking social servants from the republic of People Like Us (PLU). Scientific and secular education is crucial for resistance to neoliberal Hindutva and all its infrastructures. Liberals, progressives and secular people and intellectuals, therefore, must use every little opportunity to expand emancipatory ideals for marginalised communities in particular, and people in general.

If the progressives do not engage with the limited liberal spaces available today, they will be captured by religious reactionaries, like Hindutva forces. 

Challenging colonial knowledge

Anthropologists (the objective and subjective outsiders) have made enormous strides to recover their discipline from the lineages of its colonial past and neotraditional present for a progressive future. Anthropology has played a major role in shoddy shaping of knowledge in binary terms. European knowledge systems are regarded as ‘philosophy’ and ‘science’, whereas knowledge from outside Europe is branded as ‘ethnography.’

The colonial legacies of such dubious distinctions continue to percolate down to local levels and destroy pluriversal foundations of indigenous knowledge in different parts of the world. Anthropological knowledge has helped conceptualise and categorise people as ‘native’, ‘foreigner’, ‘original inhabitants’ and ‘immigrants. Such categorisations are not only socially sterile, but also intellectually bankrupt. They give breathing space to the right-wing politics to thrive.  

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Anthropology, as a discipline, continues to evolve and separate itself from such ruling class seraglios to enhance the emancipatory power of people and their knowledge systems. It is only possible via progressive engagements and not by disengagement with the existing environment. Freedom of indigenous people and their sustainable future depends on progressive engagement with all available spaces.

It is within this context that the IUAES executive committee and IAA must rethink their decision to drop KISS from their list of co-hosts in India. Let Anthropology grow beyond its narrow silos to reclaim its radical promises for people, and guide us in a progressive and emancipatory path free from reactionary forces in society, culture, religion, politics and economy.

There is no ideal option here. Be with the liberal devil to defeat the neoliberal Hindutva fascists. 

Views expressed are the author’s own.

Featured image: Students at KISS University | KISS Facebook page