India's first exclusively tribal university: Social change through education
Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences. Source: Facebook

India gained its first tribal university this week when the federal Human Resource Development Ministry granted university status to Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS).

Students and faculty were overjoyed that they’re now a part of the first tribal university – not just in India, but the world.

The institute claims to be the world’s largest tribal school, providing education to over 27,000 students, from kindergarten right up to postgraduate university courses. It is the first of its kind to provide free and residential schooling exclusively for tribal students, most of whom hail from the surrounding hinterland of Odisha and its neighbouring eastern Indian states.

The school prides itself on helping implement social change among some of the poorest communities in the region and actively works towards achieving the United Nation’s sustainable development goal aimed at providing inclusive and equitable quality education for all, with a special focus on indigenous communities.

Indian tribal education institutes are driving social change among children who are often deprived of basic education and who grow up in regions fraught with conflict, as is the case in Odisha – a state caught in the middle of India’s radical Marxist political movement.

The communist movement in India started in the 1920s as an anticolonial struggle when the country was still ruled by Britain. But the seeds of the first radical Marxist movement were sown in Odisha’s neighbouring state, Andhra Pradesh, shortly after India gained independence in 1947.

Armed uprisings in West Bengal in the 60s inspired other revolutionaries across the region and gave birth to the Maoist and Naxalism rebels.

Fighting for land rights, often against government mining contracts, 80 to 90 percent of the rebels reportedly come from local tribes and are deeply embedded in the tribal villages.

The rebel groups are banned in India and a counterinsurgency from the government aimed at quashing the movement has resulted in more than 20,000 deaths – mostly civilians – since 1980.

This has left many indigenous groups caught in the middle of a conflict-zone.

A report from Save the Children found the condition of children, the status of their education and child protection issues in the conflict-ridden states have been overshadowed by the discourse on conflict and conflict resolution.

“Children in these areas face huge challenges with presence of armed police forces as well as the Maoists,” said Save the Children CEO Thomas Chandy. “Many schools demolished by the Maoists have not been reconstructed, while several schools still remain occupied by para military forces hampering the normal functioning of schools.”

“Many schools demolished by the Maoists have not been reconstructed, while several schools still remain occupied by paramilitary forces hampering the normal functioning of schools.”

Tribal schools, like KISS, work with communities to make education accessible and convince tribal parents that school is the best option for their children.

“Tribal people don’t like sending their children to schools,” coordinator of Tribal Welfare Society, Mugesan told The Times of India.

“We tried hard explaining the future benefits and after prolonged efforts, they started sending their wards to school.”

And their efforts appear to be working with tribal education institutes like KISS ballooning from a meagre 125 students back in 1992 to a whopping 25,000 today.

The UN Under-Secretary-General Erik Solheim visited the school earlier in the month to express his support of the tribal education movement, calling the institute’s founder Dr. Achyuta Samanta a “hero”.

The latest recognition as a fully-fledged university will prove another feather in the cap of this world’s-first institute and pave the way for more tribal children to explore their academic potential and enter mainstream society with the skills needed to succeed.