Professor Virginius Xaxa, former head of the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics and co-editor of Handbook of Tribal Politics in India was served legal notice for defamation recently after he wrote about the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS) in Odisha for The Caravan magazine. Xaxa was the head of the committee that submitted a report to the Government of India in 2014 on the status of tribal communities.
Xaxa’s article in The Caravan questioned the whole practice of anthropology in India. “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,” he wrote, in the context of the controversy that arose after KISS was chosen as the venue for the World Anthropology Congress to be held in 2023.
Prominent academics opposed the choice of venue, pointing to the “factory school” nature of the education offered to tribal children. Once the matter was reported in the media, the International Union for Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES), the body that holds this congress, announced that the venue would shift to Delhi.
KISS has been campaigning against this shift of venue, and although the decision to move the conference was conveyed to them, the institute continues to declare that it will host this meeting. In July 2021, IUAES warned its members: “…it (KISS) has not only managed to misinform many colleagues, it has resorted to actions like creating two websites to announce a World Anthropology Congress that is in no way endorsed by WAU or the IUAES.”
KISS has a track record of intimidating those who report adversely about it. Despite this, articles have appeared in the international press. Malvika Gupta and Felix Padel, anthropologists currently based in the UK, received a defamation notice from the alumni association of KISS for an article they penned in November 2020, on anthropology magazine website Sapiens.
Reporters at newspapers filing routine stories find themselves singled out for defamation notices. This reporter found a report she had done for the National Herald newspaper removed from the website, after a notice was served.
On August 5, 2021, the Odisha Information Commission ruled that the institute falls under the purview of the Right to Information Act since it had received financing and funding in the form of land on lease at subsidized and concessional rates. This judgment came after KISS had refused to respond to questions filed seven years ago by Activist Pradip Pradhan.
Pradhan said, “I was studying land allotments and found that several plots were with Kalinga Institute. The Comptroller and Auditor General and the National Green Tribunal have ruled against the institute. The state information commission’s order bringing Kalinga Institute under the purview of the Right to Information was, I would think, a significant order. Yet, except for The Hindu newspaper, a report of this development did not appear in any other media.”
The notices to academics and reporters are all sent not in the name of the institute itself, but by an alumni association of KISS. Reverend Valson Thampu, former principal of St Stephen’s College, Delhi University, said, “It can be argued that any defamation of the alma mater is also defamation of the alumni.” Thampu said corporates in India show just as little tolerance now as the state. While wealthy parties can slap legal notices at no great cost, those left to defend themselves are put to great effort and expense. “When truth is suppressed through the use of such power, the law becomes a weapon of blackmail.”
Rajaraman Sunderesan, a former employee of KISS, currently an activist for tribal rights, said, “It is routine for teachers at the tribal school to scold children by invoking their Adivasi status. A child whose attendance is regular is asked, ‘So you want to be out grazing cattle? What use is schooling to you?’ Sometimes, an unruly child is told: ‘You are an Adivasi. Behave like one!’ It is as if the natural lot of the Adivasi is to be a slave.”
Gupta and Padel in their Sapiens article cite one young person who stayed outside the school system: “If you read, you become a servant of the company. If you don’t read, you stay the master of your land.”
Shraddhanjali Nayak, who serves as public relations officer for the institute, did not respond to a phone call. An email has been sent seeking a response on the numerous notices to the press and academics, and this report will be updated if a response is received.