When the Venue of a Conference becomes more important than the Subject

Interpretation of a Fact Sheet on the World Congress of Anthropology 2023

Abhijit Guha

Why this fact sheet?
We all know the proverb ‘Fact is stranger than fiction.’ The Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen once made a very interesting comment, and I quote him below.

The frustrating thing about India”, I was told by one of my teachers, the great Cambridge economist Joan Robinson, “is that whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true.” 1

Neither Joan Robinson nor his student Amartya Sen did apply their hypothesis to the English proverb with which I started. Fiction sometime can be stranger than facts. Who else than anthropologists know this better? Being humans we study ourselves and while studying others we often forget to look at our own words and deeds. Yes, words and deeds! Anthropologists know how human beings say one thing and do just the opposite and then justify (of course with symbols) what we have done and that is how fictions are created and become facts. With this understanding, when I looked at the whole controversy around holding or not holding the World Congress of Anthropology at KISS, I found stranger fictions, which often betrayed the facts. Thus, the venue of the Congress became more important than the factuality of the discipline, opinion of the few masqueraded as many, the same individual abstaining from voting indulged in wanton verbose and took a committed position on a particular side while writing letters and memoranda. Since everything will become history just on the next day, it is important to record what happened in history. The fact sheet, therefore, seemed to me like writing ethnography of the present for looking at ourselves, here in this case, anthropologists in India, the country about which the argumentative Indian got frustrated.

In the following section I have narrated the events around the World Congress 2023 in a chronological fashion along with the views and opinions of the various actors and stakeholders, which finally led to a crisis situation. My presence in this narrative was like an interlocutor who not only participated in the dialogues but also tried to understand the events from an ethnographic standpoint with the aim of writing an interpretative account of the crisis.               

Fact sheet or the ethnography of the World Congress of Anthropology 2023

  • International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES) decided to hold its 19th World Congress of Anthropology 2023 during 15-19 January 2023 in India in collaboration with (i)Indian Anthropological Association, (ii)Sambalpur University, (iii)Utkal University and (iv)Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS), Bhubaneswar, Odisha. The decision was taken in the 18th World Congress of Anthropology held during 16-20 July 2018 at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC) in Florianópolis, Brazil.2
  • The IUAES further decided that the role of KISS in organizing the World Congress of Anthropology 2023 would be to provide infrastructure, logistics and other necessary resources, while the remaining three institutions would be responsible for the academic and anthropological dimensions.3
  • On 29 July 2020 Professor Vijay S. Sahay, Emeritus Professor at the Department of Anthropology, Ranchi University, India wrote an open letter to Professor Junji Koizumi President, IUAES in which Professor Sahay drew the attention of the President of the Union on the “protest raised by certain vested interest groups, that are chiefly non-anthropologists” against the holding of the World Congress of Anthropology 2023 at the KISS in Bhubaneswar. Professor Sahay urged upon the President IUAES to hold the aforesaid World Congress at KISS.4
  • On 2 August 2020 Professor Deepak Kumar Behera, the Vice-Chancellor and  former Professor of Anthropology, Sambalpur University  wrote a letter to the President IUAES in which he sought to know whether the President had received any letter of protest from Indian anthropologists regarding the holding of the World Congress of Anthropology 2023 at KISS or not? Professor Behera categorically mentioned in his letter that if IUAES withdraws its collaboration with KISS, then it should be known that the other three collaborators have “neither the infrastructure nor the resources to organize the event”. 5
  • On 6 August 2020 Professor Deepak Kumar Behera wrote a letter to the Chairman and Member Secretary of the Indian National Confederation and Academy of Anthropologists(INCAA)6 informing them that the “IUAES Executive   is seriously contemplating to dissociate itself from KISS in order to avoid controversies. No Indian anthropological organization is ready to shoulder up such a huge responsibility especially during the pandemic COVID-19”. Professor Behera requested the Chairman and Member Secretary of INCAA to appeal to the President IUAES for giving “a month long time to INCAA for suggesting “some long drawn solutions to this issue.”7
  • On 11 August 2020 Professor Subho Roy, Member Secretary of INCAA issued an email letter to the Life Members of INCAA attaching the two aforementioned letters of Professor Deepak Kumar Behera dated 6August 2020 and 2 August 2020 and inform him their “considered view clearly” and “especially with regard to the venue of the 2023 Congress” after going through the letters of Professor Behera “on or before 18.08.2020.”8
  • On 16 August 2020 the President and the Secretary-General of IUAES jointly sent a letter to Professor Deepak Kumar Behera in which they stated: “… there is mounting national and international controversy regarding the involvement of KISS” and “….the IUAES Executive Committee deliberated and decided to withdraw its collaboration with KISS regarding the organization of the 2023 World Anthropology Congress.”  The President and the Secretary-General of IUAES finally requested Professor Behera: “The IUAES, together with the remaining three Indian congress organizers – the Indian Anthropological Association, Utkal University and Sambalpur University – request your continued support and help for a successful World Anthropology Congress in 2023 in India.”9
  • On 17 August 2020 Professor Abhijit Guha, Life Member INCAA(author of this article) wanted to know by an email from the Secretary-General of IUAES  “whether the three Indian members of the IUAES Executive  Committee namely, (i) Professor Subhadra Channa, Senior Vice-President,(ii) Professor Sumita Chaudhuri, Vice-President and (iii)Professor Soumendra Mohan Patnaik, Vice-President(ex-officio) have agreed to  the decision of the Executive Committee of IUAES to withdraw its  collaboration with KISS regarding the organization of 2023 World Anthropology Congress or not”?10
  • On 18 August 2020 Professor Noel Salazar Secretary-General of IUAES in his email to Professor Abhijit Guha wrote: “The official letter states clearly that the decision was taken by the IUAES Executive Committee. Ex officio member Prof. Soumendra M. Patnaik recused himself because of a conflict of interest.”11   In an email communication to Professor Abhijit Guha on 27 August 2020 Professor Kaushik Bose succinctly pointed out the following.

Apparently, the Indian members of the IUAES Executive Committee namely, (i) Professor Subhadra Channa, Senior Vice-President, (ii) Professor Sumita Chaudhuri, Vice-President, did NOT raise any specific objection to the resolution of IUAES.  Thus, it can be concluded that their views were concordant! 12

  • On 19 August 2020 the Member Secretary of INCAA circulated the resolutions of its Governing Council (GC) under the agenda: “Mandate received from the Life Members of INCAA with regard to the venue of the ICAES 2023”. It was resolved by the GC that the “… the decision of the General Body of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES) taken during the XVIII International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (ICAES) held in Brazil in 2018 with regard to the venue of the XIX International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences 2023 (i.e. at KISS, Bhubaneswar, India) be respected.” The GC of INCAA further urged upon the “Executive Committee of the IUAES not to resort to anything superseding the decision of the General Body of IUAES taken in Brazil in 2018”.The decision of the GC was communicated by a strongly worded letter signed by the Chairman and Member Secretary of INCAA to Professor Junji Koizumi President, IUAES. In the aforesaid letter of INCAA it is stated: “My limited knowledge of anthropology has taught me that posing to be neutral and avoiding controversy in the name of uniting anthropologists is no less a political act. Besides, in the name of avoiding a controversy, a new controversy has been created by the Executive of IUAES jeopardizing the hosting of the Congress in India. I sincerely hope that the ICAES 2023 be held in India. But if, by any chance, it is taken out of this country, some of us would be compelled to infer that the Executive Committee of IUAES has a sinister hand in it”.13
  • On 21 August 2020 Professor Abhijit Guha submitted his opinion and suggestion regarding the controversy around the IUAES Congress 2023 in India. In an email letter to the Member Secretary, INCAA Professor Guha stated the following.

 “I have the reason to believe that the current decision of
IUAES was taken through a democratic process in consultation with the elected members from India.

Therefore, in my opinion, the anthropologists in India should now try to unite themselves to hold the World Congress successfully through academic debates by organizing a panel on “Revisiting the Hindu Method of Tribal Absorption and Sanskritization in the present context of Adivasi Education” along with other panels. I do not think that we should now waste our time and energy on whether the current decision of IUAES is right or wrong. That debate can very well be undertaken in the panel suggested above.

A positive and constructive letter may immediately be sent to IUAES from INCAA to collaborate with the international union of anthropologists in holding the Congress successfully in India by honoring the latest decision arrived at by the elected Executive Committee having members from our country.”11

Professor Guha circulated his aforementioned letter to many Life Members of INCAA.

  • On 23 August 2020 Professor Ravindra Jain former Chairman of INCAA and Life Member expressed his complete agreement with the opinion of Professor Abhijit Guha. Professor Jain in his email letter dated 23/08/2020 stated.

“I am writing to convey my complete agreement with the latest letter you wrote to Prof, Subho Roy, Member-Secretary, INCAA.

I share your view, so forcefully and clearly expressed, that the decision taken by the IUAES to revoke collaboration with KISS as the venue in India of the next World Congress, should be honoured.

You have the liberty to convey the contents of my letter to Professor Roy or whoever else concerned”.14

  • On 24 August 2020 the Member Secretary of INCAA in response to an email dated 21 August 2020 from Professor Abhijit Guha informed him about the statistics of the opinion poll conducted among the Life Members of the association. The figures given by the Member Secretary disclosed the following facts.
  • There are 921 life members of INCAA as on 30 September 2019.
  • Seventy five (75) of the members voted for KISS as the venue and/or the decision of the General Body of IUAES in 2018 regarding the venue.
  • Five (05) of the Life Members voted against and 4 did not give any clear verdict.
  • Around 70 emails bounced back, since some of the members have not informed INCAA of their latest email id.
  • The Chairman and the Member Secretary of INCAA and Professor Deepak K Behera abstained from voting.15

On 24 August 2020 Professor Kaushik Bose of the Department of Anthropology, Vidyasagar University pointed out in his email letter to the Member Secretary: “It seems that less than 10% of Life Members of INCAA voted!  Thus, it seems extremely strange that INCAA took a decision and sent the resolution to IUEAS based on a mandate of less than 10 %”. 16

  • On 26 August 2020 a “JOINT STATEMENT BY INDIAN ANTHROPOLOGISTS AND ANTHROPOLOGY ASSOCIATIONS  TO REINSTATE THE IUAES GENERAL BODY DECISION TO HOLD ICAES 2023 AT KISS, BHUBANESHWAR INDIA” was posted in a What’s App group named “Aspire for Anthropologist”. Names of 113 senior Indian anthropologists (the name of Professor Rajat Kanti Das, President Indian Anthropological Association appeared twice) including the names of Professor Deepak Kumar Behera and Professor Kishore Kumar Basa who abstained from voting in the INCAA opinion poll were found in Annexure I and names of 100 young Indian anthropologists appeared in Annexure II. 

The aforementioned statement addressed to the President, Secretary General and the members of the IUAES Executive Committee literally castigated the IUAES Executive Committee decision which withdrew collaboration with KISS in organizing the World Congress of Anthropology 2023. In the fourth paragraph the signatories stated.
“In a hurry to take a decision, the Executive Committee of IUAES has either ignored or did not bother to consider the views of one of the major stakeholders of the Congress, that is, the Indian anthropologists as individuals or professional anthropological bodies in India, possibly forgetting that it is dealing with a 21st century India and not a colony of 19th century.17 The unilateral decision of the EC is fraught with misdemeanor”.18
Finally, the signatories appealed to the IUAES Executive Committee to revoke its “unfortunate and undemocratic decision to block KISS as the organizer for the ICAES 2023 and allow the Indian anthropologists to organize the Congress the way it had been presented in the Brazil Congress and which was overwhelmingly accepted by the General Body.”19  

I. The foregoing narrative revealed the chronology and succession of events leading to a crisis around the organization of the World Congress 2023 in India. At the same time the narrative also exposed the attitude of the Indian anthropologists towards the discipline as well as in handling a crisis situation. The crisis began with a petition signed by a number of Adivasi activists and some sociologists and social anthropologists who allegedly appealed to the IUAES to withdraw collaboration with KISS in holding the World Congress of Anthropology. One of the allegations of the aforesaid petitioners was KISS used funds from private and public-sector mining and extractive industrial corporations like the Adani Group and NALCO, while also partnering with Vedanta which caused large-scale displacement of the adivasis from their land and homes.20 The other allegation was KISS has delinked Adivasi children from their spiritual identities and connections to land, forests and spirits and thereby helped the corporates to plunder the wealth of nature in the name of development.20 No anthropologist in India have yet come out in the public to question these allegations in their academic forums or media, let alone start a debate on this issue.    

II. From the very beginning, the leaders of the Indian anthropologists viewed the petitioners as belonging to “vested interest groups” and “non-anthropologists” instead of trying to understand the veracity and the content of the allegations raised in the petition, let alone start an academic dialogue with the petitioners as well as IUAES. By one stroke of pen these leaders of Indian anthropology in their open letters and communications categorized the petitioners as a kind of “cultural other” having “vested interest”! No factual explanation was given regarding the reasons behind the “vested interest” of the petitioners.   

III. Press releases and articles were already available in the internet containing information on the petition, which revealed that noted sociologists and social anthropologists like Virginius Xaxa (former Director of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences at Guwahati Campus) and Nandini Sundar (Professor of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics) were among the signatories of the aforesaid petition, which objected to the collaboration of IUAES with KISS.21  The captains of Indian anthropology did not show any interest to start a dialogue with these two eminent social scientists of India who regularly contributed research articles and books in anthropology and sociology and were also members of important governmental committees which looked into the interest of the Adivasis of India.22 The mainstream anthropologists of India have simply ignored these distinguished social scientists of the country just because they held contrary opinion regarding the venue of the forthcoming World Congress of Anthropology in India.

IV. Full-length articles published in peer-reviewed journals based on intensive research by anthropologists and social scientists (e.g. Christine Finnan and Felix Padel) were also available in the public domain.23 No anthropologist of India seemed to be interested in reading these valuable texts and start a  public discourse by taking into account the findings of the independent researchers on KISS and KISS like factory schools24 in India and other parts of the world. A nice contrast is the discourse initiated by an academic Bhabani Sankar Nayak(senior lecturer in Business Strategy, Coventry University, UK), who placed the factory school of KISS in a wider historical and politico-economic context and critiqued the model of factory school, and at the same time also viewed the IUAES World Congress as a kind of opportunity for the anthropologists to use the venue of KISS  for a critical and engaged debate in anthropology.25 The anthropologists of India, on the other hand unlike academics began to organize opinion poll and started speech talks in the manner of the politicians, which sometime even lacked factual precision. Take for example, the ‘Joint Statement’ signed by more than two hundred senior and young anthropologists who blamed the IUAES Executive Committee by saying that the said committee have possibly forgotten that “it is dealing with a 21st century India and not a colony of 19th century.” It seemed to me that the signatories did not look carefully into the nationalities of the IUAES Executive Committee members. Incidentally, the three Asian countries, namely, India, Japan and China constituted 50% (6) of the total number of Executive Committee members of the IUAES (see endnote 17). Furthermore, two of the three Indian members voted in favour of withdrawal of collaboration with KISS and one member abstained from voting on the ground of conflict of interest. While castigating the IUAES, the Indian anthropologists have also alienated themselves from their own elected members as well as members from Japan and China.

V. On the home front too the Indian anthropologists could not perform well. The case of opinion poll by INCAA is a glaring instance, in which a mandate supporting the KISS venue was submitted to IUAES based on the opinion of less than 10 percent of the total Life Members of this largest organization of the Indian anthropologists just within 7 days! Last but not the least the important members of INCAA who were signatories of strongly worded letters and memoranda abstained from voting in the aforesaid opinion poll for the mandate for reasons best known to them. By and large, the Indian anthropologists have failed to generate real academic debate in the public domain around the anthropology and sociology of factory schools and their relationship with the large-scale economic deprivation of the Adivasis caused by mining, deforestation and industrialisation in the context of Hinduaisation of the Adivasis in India. This is a tragic outcome of public anthropology in the country.       

Endnotes & Sources

1. Accessed on 28/08/2020

2. IUAES Newsletter, March 2020, p.4. It was announced: “In 2023 the World Congress is coming up in Bhubaneshwar in Odisha, India, on 15-19th January 2023. Preparations are on and Secretary-General Noel Salazar had paid a visit in February to assess the ongoing activities and infra-structure.

3. IUAES letter dated 17.08.2020 (accessed on 27/08/2020

4.   Open letter dated 29 July 2020 from Professor Vijay S. Sahay received by me through email.

5.   Letter dated 2 August 2020 from Professor Deepak Kumar Behera, to the President IUAES.

6. The Indian National Confederation and Academy of Anthropologists (INCAA) is the apex organization of the profession which owes its emergence to an initiative of the Council of the Indian Anthropological Society in 2001(accessed on 27/08/2020

7. Letter dated 6 August 2020 from Professor Deepak Kumar Behera to the Chairman and Member Secretary of INCAA.

8. Letter dated   11 August 2020 from Professor Subho Roy, Member Secretary of INCAA issued to the Life Members.

9. Letter dated 16 August 2020 from the President and the Secretary-General of IUAES to Professor Deepak Kumar Behera.

10.   Letter dated 17 August 2020 from Professor Abhijit Guha to the Secretary-General of IUAES.

11. Letter dated18 August 2020 from Professor Noel Salazar Secretary-General of IUAES to Professor    Abhijit Guha.

12. Letter dated 27 August 2020 from Professor Kaushik Bose to Professor Abhijit Guha.

13. Letter dated 19 August 2020 from the Member Secretary of INCAA containing resolutions of the Governing Council of INCAA & Letter dated 19 August 2020 from the Chairman & Member Secretary INCAA to the President IUAES.

14. Letter dated 23 August 2023 from Professor Ravindra Jain to Professor Abhijit Guha.

15. Letter dated 24 August 2020 from the Member Secretary of INCAA to Professor Abhijit Guha & Letter dated 21 August 2020 from Professor Abhijit Guha to the Member Secretary of INCAA.

16. Letter dated 24 August 2020 from Professor Kaushik Bose to the Member Secretary of INCAA.

17. In this connection it may be noted that India, Japan and China constituted 50% (6) of the total number of Executive Committee members of the IUAES. USA and Europe has 2 members each and Mexico and South Africa have one member each from their countries (accessed on 28/08/2020

18. Joint Statement by the Indian anthropologists and Anthropology associations dated 26/08/2020.

19. In the final sentence joint statement the signatories stated: “We look forward to your response latest by 5 September, 2020’.

20. Interested readers may see the 2010 report of the four member committee (having one member who is a sociologist and social anthropologist) chaired by Dr.N.C.Saxena, which strongly rejected the mining  lease given by the Odisha government within the forest areas of Nyamgiri hills to  Vedanta Alumina Ltd. Company. This area is inhabited by the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group named Dongaria Kondh( accessed on 01/09/2020).

21. George,G.M. (2020). Adivasis protest awarding of World Congress of Anthropology 2023 to KISS. Forward  Press. 26 July 2020 & A victory for Adivasis: KISS won’t host World Anthropology Congress 2023, says IUAES. Forward Press. 19 August 2020. Nayak, B.S. (2020). A Hindutva gain? KISS, Odisha, dropped from World Anthropology Congress. (2013). Counterview 24 August 2020.  ‘KISS of death for Adivasi culture: Academics protest venue of global meet’. National Herald.13 July 2020(accessed on 29/08/2020 ‘An appeal to IUAES to sever ties with thegiant Factory School, KISS’.Petition accessed on 29/08/2020 X342hslYWvPxA/viewform & ‘Leaders: Notorious ‘Factory School’ To Host World Congress Of Anthropology. Scoop World. 14 July 2020(accessed on 29/08/2020  “Brazen and shameless:” outrage as controversial Indian mining company opens tribal school( on 17/08/2020).

22. Please visit &,%20May-June%202014.pdf accessed on 01/09/2020).

23. Finnan, C.,Sahoo, S., Pramanik, R.(2016).  Living in the present while imagining the future: How school   and its promises shape conceptions of childhood for indigenous tribal students in India. Global Studies of Childhood. DOI: 10.1177/2043610616671070 & Gupta, M. and Padel, F. (2019) Confronting a pedagogy of assimilation: the evolution of large-scale schools for tribal children in India.(Accessed on 29/08/2020

24. ‘Factory schools’ are residential schools which first appeared in North America in the 1600s with the arrival of Christian missionaries. By the late 1800s, it had become government policy to remove children from their families for schooling in Canada, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. In the U.S. and Canada, demand for cheap labor was a driving force behind “civilizing” and “educating” “Indians,” as was “pacifying” them to decrease resistance to colonialization. In India, British colonists also used schooling as a tool to control and “pacify” tribal peoples (accessed on 29/08/2020
KISS is one of the largest residential schools in India for tribal children, which was granted Deemed to be University status by the Ministry of HRD, Govt. of India, in 2017 making it the first university exclusively for tribal students in the world. KISS provides free education, accommodation, food and healthcare to over 30, 000 indigenous students currently studying at its main campus in Bhubaneswar (accessed on 29/08/2020

25. Nayak,B.S.(2020). Factory schools from industrial revolution to the KISS University in 2020. Eurasiareview dated 26 August 2020(accessed on 29/08/2020 


I am greatly indebted to Professor Kaushik Bose, one of the founding Life Members of INCAA and Professor Ravindra Jain, former Chairman and Life Member INCAA for their support and valuable suggestions in writing this article. I also acknowledge Professor Subho Roy Member Secretary of IUAES and Professor Noel Salazar Secretary-General of IUAES for providing me with useful information regarding the opinion poll of INCAA and the decision of the IUAES Executive Committee. I am also grateful to the editorial board of Frontier for reviewing the article before publication. The shortcomings of this article, which still remain however lie with me.

The author taught Anthropology at Vidyasagar University, Medinipur, West Bengal during December 1985-August 2016

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Sep 4, 2020

Abhijit Guha

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