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Vincent Schilling
Indian Country Today

This is a familiar history: Students in cramped living quarters, cut off from their families and forced to learn another religion and language.

Some two million children are being educated in residential schools around the world. And India — which has the highest numbers of Indigenous people in the world — also has more Indigenous children in these schools than anywhere else.

The Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences is located in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, educates more than 30,000 children from the region of Odisha, home to 62 Indigenous tribes.

The school’s founder Achyuta Samanta is an outspoken voice regarding his school and often speaks publicly and posts on social media about the institution and its accolades, including successful graduates, champion athletes, and award-winning scholars.

Achyuta Samanta Twitter profile screen capture

But critics, including the Adivasi — the collective term for the Indigenous community in India — oppose the factory-style schools.

Several current and former Adivasi students told Indian Country Today — under a strict request their interviews remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation to these students and families — that they are living in incarceration-type situations with poorly made and undercooked meals, are forced to learn a religion that is not their own, cannot have contact with families and cannot speak their languages.

A recent live stream by Survival International examined the factory schools and drew comparisons between the factory schools in Indian and the residential or boarding schools in the United States and Canada.

“I am absolutely horrified to learn that when Survival International reached out to learn that this is happening yet again in India,” said Christine McCleave, Turtle Mountain Ojibwe, from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. “We need to learn from our past. We need to speak the truth about humanity and how we treat each other in order to be better going forward.”

Chief Robert Joseph, Gwawaenuk First Nation, from Reconciliation Canada said: “It goes without saying that none of us find any redeeming grace at all in those residential schools. Sometimes government and sometimes church representatives argue that it's all well-intentioned, but when you ruin the lives of generations and generations of little children, it is difficult to find any grace in that.”

This photo from about 1900 shows pupils at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. The school helped shape policies for Indian boarding schools in the United States and Canada. (Photo courtesy of the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center)

One parallel is the idea that the students should be grateful for this education. Something that Indigenous leaders from the Americas reject.

“There have been so many generations taught and drummed into them that they don't have anything to teach their own children, that they've internalized this idea that they are ‘primitive.’ And there's this sense that they — are told — that they should be grateful for this kind of schooling. It's really exciting to see a real sea of change happening in India with people saying, ‘we are going to control our own education,” said Jo Woodman, a representative at Survival International.

Survival International is a non-profit organization that was formed in 1969 and actively advocates for the rights of Indigenous peoples across the globe.

Survival International has a plethora of content that speaks out against India's factory schools, most notably the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences, and the evidence includes videos, written reports, and even a video clip where the founder of the school refers to the people of the Adivasi tribes as “monkeys.”

Factory schools in India are a growing trend. There are thousands of residential schools for Adivasi children. The schools are both privately and governmentally-run. One reason for that is that the factory school system is profitable. India’s Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced in his 2018 Union Budget Speech that at least 50 percent of the tribal population will attend a factory school by 2020.

One reason for the schools, Adivasi critics say, is funding from resource extraction companies. One example is the Dantewada Education city, a factory school sponsored by the National Mineral Development Corporation.

“Just as an extraction company comes and takes our land — which connects us with our culture, our community, our language — it is the same thing that happens to our education. This extraction takes out everything that is Adivasi.” said one of the Indigenous critics.

A letter from Adivasi elders

A letter from elders to Indian Country Today calls the factory schools “cultural genocide in tribal India.”

Gladson Dungdung, Felix Padel, Malvika Gupta, and Rajaraman Sundaresan say the schools work against Adivasi students and their families. 

They say many of these schools remove Adivasi culture. Some schools are more severe than others.

“It is common for children to be assigned Hindu names and have their hair cut short on enrollment, (they are) forbidden to wear traditional ornaments or speak their language ... This has propagated a Hinduisation of tribal culture: Sanskrit is often taught, while ancient tribal languages find no place in the curriculum, even though Article 350A of India’s Constitution asserts every child’s right for mother-tongue education.”

They call the methods, “linguistic genocide and miseducation.”

They also note that options for Adivasi students and their families are becoming increasingly limited because the formerly government-run ‘day schools’ are being closed in large numbers due to defunding. While those schools were substandard, at least the students remained in their homes with families.

“Flagship schools are funded by the very mining companies expropriating tribal lands — a pattern of ‘extraction education.’ Additionally, “An MOU (Memo of Understanding) with Vedanta [Resources] (a mining and resource extraction company) promises 20,000 rupees per year for every Dongria Kondh child sent” to the factory school.

They cited how the National Mineral Development Corporation has the ‘Education City’ school in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, “where its iron-ore mines invade tribal forests.”

They quote Lado Sikoka, a Dongria leader of his community’s successful opposition to bauxite mining on their Niyamgiri hills, “Schools like KISS are entirely a conspiracy by the government and private companies, to take away our children and to de-link them from our forest, culture and language.”

“Evidence suggests that these schools harm a huge number of individual children. According to confidential reports we have received from officials in the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, hundreds have died in residential schools across India during recent years. Sexual abuse has been repeatedly reported from tribal boarding schools in Odisha, Chhattisgarh, and elsewhere … Problems of physical and psychological abuse (corporal punishment and cultural racism) are even more widespread,” they wrote.

They specifically called out KISS. The Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences “sees itself as an anthropological laboratory, even though it can also be seen as a ‘factory school,’ disconnecting tribal children from their communities and traditions.”

School complains of  "slanderous labeling by Survival International"

The Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences defended its educational programs as working to improve the lives of Adivasi children. 

Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences Founder Dr. Achyuta Samanta - Facebook image

The school sent a 14-page document addressing the issues raised by critics.

The school’s Chief Executive Officer Prashanta Routray wrote:

“I would like to thank you for reaching out to us personally instead of blindly believing in the slanderous ‘Factory School’ campaign by Survival International … I am attaching a note on our detailed response to Survival International that debunks and rebutes (sic) all their false claims. This will be helpful to dissipate your doubts regarding the generalisation they are making…”

“The management, students, and entire community of Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS), Bhubaneswar, India is deeply anguished and angered by the slanderous labeling by Survival International of our institution as an Indian example in the “Factory School Campaign” of Survival International. This campaign falsely refers to KISS as a residential school strips the tribal children of their identity. Contrary to all allegations, KISS sustains and enhances the ethnic identity of our students seamless with their Indian nation-hood.”

“None of the clauses of the very definition of Factory Schools by Survival International is present or carried out at KISS. We strongly condemn the use of terminology like “Chicken Farm” and “Prisoners” for our students. We hereby refute and consider all the accusations by Survival International as a ‘shoddy-research’ and based on fallacious distant observation.”

The fourteen-page statement cited Survival International as “arrogant and ill-informed” and offered a series of rebuttals to the claims of Survival International, calling them “lies.”

“We request you not to generalise the thoughts of a small gang of motivated people who claim a monopoly of knowledge and authority to speak for the Indigenous people of India (without any field formation or credible track record of working the areas where we work) and who assume that any school large residential educational facility for indigenous people of India automatically resemble those that existed in the early 20th century in the US and Canada. We have no quarrel with the view that considerable abuse and cultural annihilation occurred in these schools.”

“However, it is totally baseless to infer (sans any facts) that KISS resembles these schools.

We request you to kindly withdraw the unwarranted aspersions about our intent, funding, and ways of working. We are always open to dialogue based on mutual respect and love for India and Odisha and look forward to constructive engagement in the future.”

A video released by the school calls the institution "a slice of heaven."

Students and parents speak out

A former Adivasi graduate student and current eighth-grade Adivasi students at the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences tell a different story.

In a Zoom interview with Indian Country Today, students and parents complained about undercooked and tasteless food, forced Hindu religious practices (whether they practice their Adivasi beliefs or Christianity), physical and verbal abuse, and extremely limited contact with families.

The former student said he attended the school because there wasn’t the money to pay for another school.

“Most Adivasi feel they cannot get a good education or do not have money,” the former student said. “They are attracted to the school because they feel it is giving them a free education. That is why I went to pursue my master's degree before I went to the school. I used to feel I was free and independent and could do things of my own free will, but when I got there, the first feeling I felt was ‘I have lost my Independence.’”

Though he was older, he was not allowed to leave the school, he said, “It was like living in a cage.”

Even though he was nearly an adult, he says the teachers treated him with extreme disrespect. He said he also marveled at the massive amount of 27,000 students waiting for food. Food that he said was terribly undercooked, and completely lacking in any sort of diversity.

“Indigenous children have very rich and diverse diets. They catch crabs from the river and have access to a lot of different foods that they eat. In this school, there is just one kind of food. Tasteless chicken and a type of ground-up fish mixed into a gruel of sorts. The food is so unpalatable kids jump the gate of the boundary wall of the school and use any money they might be able to get for food. But small children can't do this.

He says the food is so bad, and the rice is so undercooked, he has watched many times as much as 80 percent of the students complain of stomach pain, digestive problems, and terrible discomfort.

“The children are forced to eat the food that they have been served. If you leave food or throw away food, you are scolded by the teachers. They walk around the dining space, observing you out of fear a lot of the children just eat what is served to them. One time I had boiled vegetables and rice I went to throw it away and a teacher said I had to apologize for throwing it away. At first, he refused, but he wasn’t allowed to eat again until he apologized. Children are kept in hunger deliberately. You have no other option. I eat because I'm hungry and I just swallow what is on my plate,” he said.

“Many of the parents bring fruits or berries from the village for the children to eat. One of them are dates called Kusum, a bittersweet berry which the children love. The parents are not allowed inside the school and just greet their children at the gate. The teachers just throw away the food and say it is poisonous.”

The student said Hinduism is forced on the students.

“Adivasi celebrate different spiritual beliefs. My tribe, we are nature worshipers. But the administration of the school forces us to go to Hindu temples, pray and light lamps and play drums. There is an annual festival where we pull a chariot and despite our unwillingness, we are forced to study and believe in this Hindu mythology and the deity of education and knowledge. This is harming our society and destroying our culture. In the KISS school, we have mass prayers in an alien language. How will our Gods understand an alien language?”

According to the student and other Adivasi people they give spiritual significance to such things as sacred stones, trees, termite hills, which embody the spirits of their ancestors or powers of the deities. “But they force us to worship idols made of stone or cement,” said the student.

The student also claims abuses of young children and cited an incident regarding the attempted rape of a teen girl and another incident where another teenage girl was locked into a bathroom and left behind over summer vacation and died. “This institution has so much power they can brush things like this under the rug quite easily,” the former student said.

The school also makes money off the children. Students are placed in Industrial workshops for 2 hours a day, 5 days a week where they make toilet brushes, paintings, soap bars, or incense sticks, which the school sells. The students (and not all of them are paid for this work) who do get money earn a monthly amount of about 1,500 rupees which equates to about $20, or an approximate $0.50 an hour.

The children do most of the janitorial work. “The children also clean the toilets, floors, beds, classrooms and more on a rotating basis.”

But overall, the former student said, it’s the loss of language and culture and the shift to a forced religion is the most painful.

“Every Adivasi child must be able to learn his own language but the language lab as they call it where the younger children are supposed to be taught their own language is only a big show. It is only there to impress other outside visitors. It is a sham. It is just a show of learning languages.”

Two siblings, who are both Adivasi and are in the eighth grade, reported similar disrespect.

“They say they are not allowed to keep anything, nothing personal, no food. And if they bring fruit from the village and a teacher sees it, they will throw it away. They are not allowed to keep anything that reminds them of their family or their personal lives in the village. They're not allowed to write letters, nor make phone calls. They can only meet with their parents about every 4 to 6 months,” the students said.

The father of the two students then came forward during the interview on Zoom. He told the translator he was angry with the situation.

He said when the Adivasi families threatened to pull their children from the factory schools, the government-funded schools in their regions were shut down. He said the school has political power because the founder is also a member of his region’s parliament.

It’s a difficult situation he said, because he wants his children to get an education. “Government schools are supposed to be free, but you have to pay for books, clothing, supplies, and more. So KISS becomes a better option,” he said. “The government is supposed to pay for everything but they don't.”

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Vincent Schilling, Akwesasne Mohawk, is associate editor at Indian Country Today. He enjoys creating media, technology, computers, comics, and movies. He is a film critic and writes the #NativeNerd column. Twitter @VinceSchilling. TikTok @VinceSchilling. Email: vschilling@indiancountrytoday.com.

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