Two researchers argue that India’s large-scale tribal boarding schools revive features of 19th- and 20th-century boarding schools in North America and elsewhere that sought to strip Indigenous peoples of their families, languages, and cultural identities.
The Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS) in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India, is the world’s largest boarding school. KISS is a private school that some people within India’s government promote as the new model of tribal education. The student body totals 27,000 pupils from kindergarten to postgraduate, all from tribal communities. (India’s Indigenous population is over 100 million; 62 tribes are officially recognized in Odisha alone.) KISS’ website claims the school and its associated university are the world’s largest “anthropological laboratory.”
In 2016, the anthropologist Christine Finnan wrote in SAPIENS how KISS sees itself as an institution that offers hope. This is also how KISS presents itself, emphasizing an aim of turning many students into “change agents for the indigenous … community.”
The intentions of KISS in offering free education to tribal children are laudable, as are Finnan’s in highlighting hope. Her conclusions in a more recent article are that, given the right conditions, a “total institution” such as KISS can be a “castle of hope,” a phrase the school uses for itself. But unless the realities of dispossession, cultural racism (prejudices and unequal practices based on cultural differences between groups), and structural violence that tribal children and their families face on a daily basis across India are articulated and confronted, how can hope be real?
In contradiction to Finnan’s assessment “that the school is unlike the boarding schools for Indigenous children that are part of the painful legacies of North America and Australia,” we argue that KISS does share deep similarities with those now-defunct and discredited residential schools. KISS embodies the same basic ideology of “civilizing” through education.
The Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission—for all its shortcomings—concluded in 2015 that the residential schooling system in Canada amounted to “cultural genocide.” Might such a conclusion also apply to what is happening in India?