India's tribal schools
Teaching promotes bigotry, fanaticism, rights groups say
By Jehangir Pocha, Globe Correspondent, 3/7/2004 original
GONASIKA, India -- The students in this remote tribal school
gathered under a billowing saffron banner to sing a timeless
ode to Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge. To the pupils
and their parents, most of whom are tribals, or Indian aboriginal
people, the school is a ray of hope in an otherwise grim future
of desperate poverty.
"My family sent me here because they couldn't afford me," said
Dyneswar Juang, a 7th-grader. "Here I get everything for
free, and I have a future."
But human rights organizations in the eastern state of Orissa,
which has the lowest per capita income in India, say the students
are unwitting players in a political experiment driven by ancient
Indian hatreds and partly funded by donors from the United States.
They say the schools, run by India's foremost Hindu nationalist
organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, are indoctrinating
students with a militant version of "Hindutva" (literally,
Hinduness): hatred of Muslims and Christians and a desire to
turn India into a Hindu state, using violence if necessary.
The National Council for Educational Research and Training in
New Delhi, the government body that evaluates teaching materials,
said the schools' curriculum is "designed to promote bigotry
and religious fanaticism" and has asked state governments
to prevent the publishing and use of RSS textbooks.
Yet the RSS and its allies, collectively called the Sangh Parivar,
say they have enrolled more than 5 million students in about
30,000 Hindu religious schools across India.
"These . . . are like a Trojan horse," said Sudarshan
Das, president of a nongovernmental organization's umbrella group
in Orissa. Das says the real aim of the schools is to co-opt
tribals who have traditionally been wary of the RSS into embracing
the Hindutva ideology and supporting the RSS's political offshoot,
the Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP rules India through a coalition,
and with elections due in two months the party is looking to
expand its voter base.
Subash Chauhan, the Orissa state secretary of the Bajrang Dal,
a Sangh Parivar organization that runs many of the schools, denies
that they are political tools.
"We are a social organization," he said. "Our
schools are meant to promote Hindu culture and uplift poor Hindus."
Still, Vidya Bharati, the Sangh Parivar's largest operator of
the schools, says on its website that they aim to "develop
a national system of education which will mold a new generation
of youths fully saturated with the feelings of Hindutva."
Fundamentalist religious organizations have long used schools
to groom adherents. Muslim madrassas, or Koranic schools, abound
in India and, as in other parts of the world, have been fertile
recruiting grounds for extremists in Kashmir and elsewhere. The
Sangh Parivar also accuses Christian evangelists of using the
schools they operate in India to lure Hindus into Christianity.
But what makes the Sangh Parivar's schools so insidious to critics
is that almost none of the students enrolled in them are Hindus,
said Major A. Somnath, of the Dalit Solidarity People's Party.
"Because they need our votes, they are trying to make us
Hindus," Somnath said, referring to tribals as well as Dalits
-- "untouchables" at the bottom of India's caste system. "It's
a kind of social engineering which has very dangerous effects."
Tension over the schools reflects an age-old social schism that
continues to haunt Indian politics.
About 2,000 years ago, Indian society organized people into
a hierarchy of castes based on their "ritual purity." Brahmans
(priests) came out on top, followed by Kshatriyas (warriors),
Vaisyas (traders), and Sudras (peasants). Tribals and some nontribal
groups, who now call themselves Dalits, were considered too impure
to belong to any caste.
Excluded from mainstream Hindu life, tribals and Dalits developed
their own systems of worship. Tribals follow animist beliefs,
praying to trees and stones; Dalits pray to supernatural forces
and earth goddesses.
The Sangh Parivar says tribals and Dalits are simply "waylaid
Hindus." With the caste system banned since 1950, Sangh
Parivar theologians say tribals and Dalits must be brought back
into the same fold that once rejected them.
"People should realize all Indian faiths -- tribal, Dalit,
Sikh, Buddhist, or Jain -- are all just branches of Hinduism," Chauhan
said. "We are only leading [tribals] back to their original
Tribals and Dalits make up about 35 percent of India's population.
Traditionally, they have joined India's Muslims, who account
for 12 percent of the population, in voting against the BJP.
Winning more tribal and Dalit votes will be essential for the
BJP if it wants to form a majority government, analysts say.
But Chauhan denied that the Sangh Parivar is "converting" tribals
for political purposes.
"It is foreign forces, Christians and Muslims, who are
converting Hindus," he said from his spartan office in Bhubaneswar,
Orissa's state capital. "If Hindus do not unite, we will
soon become a minority in our own country."
Although census figures do not support this argument, the Sangh
Parivar has been successful using it to rally Hindus, including
many living abroad. Vijay Prashad, director of International
Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, says that Indians living
in the United States have given at least $6 million to fund the
Hindu schools across the country via a network of charitable
fronts and illegal money transfers.
Hardly any of this money is used for genuine development work,
Prashad said. A visit to Gonasika supports that assertion.
Cracked mud huts and malnourished residents indicate that the
village is not on anyone's development map. There are almost
no signs of modern life, except for an official notice tacked
up in a community grain-storage center telling people how to
update their voter records.
"Yes, we are Hindus," Lahuri Juang, the village's
tribal priest, declared matter-of-factly. However, minutes later
he performed a ritual sacrifice that involves beheading a chicken
and anointing his forehead with its blood -- a distinctly un-Hindu
Willy D'Costa, national secretary of the Indian Social Action
Forum, a human rights group in the western state of Gujarat,
says tribals are "too innocent, too needy" to see what
is happening to them. D'Costa says the worst threat the tribals
face is that the Sangh Parivar is using them as shock troops
in its violent anti-Muslim and anti-Christian pogroms.
Evidence of this emerged during the Hindu-Muslim riots that
rocked Gujarat, a BJP stronghold, in March 2002. Several independent
investigators reported that tribals from areas where the Sangh
Parivar operated schools had perpetrated some of the worst violence
The Hindu right "does not want any rival religion in India," said
Somnath, the Dalit activist, shaking his head. "They tried
to destroy Buddhism all those years ago, now they are doing it