vengeance: Schools offer Indians way out of poverty, lessons in
By Jehangir Pocha, San Fransisco Chronicle, April 16, 2004 original
-- The students singing a timeless Hindu hymn in this remote tribal
village have no idea that they are pawns in a political experiment
driven by ancient Indian hatreds and funded by donated U.S. dollars.
To pupils and parents,
most of whom are "tribals," or
aboriginal peoples, the school is a ray of hope in a life of desperate
poverty. "My family sent me here because they couldn't afford
me," said Dyneswar Juang, a seventh-grader. "Here I get
everything for free. I have a future."
But human rights organizations in the eastern state of Orissa
say the school and others like it are political tools in the hands
of India's foremost Hindu nationalist organization, the Rashtriya
Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
In the past several
years, the RSS and its allies, collectively called the Sangh
Parivar, have built a network of more than 30,000
Hindu religious schools, called shishu mandirs or "temples
of learning." Most are located in remote tribal regions where
government schools are few. Using the promise of free education
and housing, the shishu mandirs have enrolled more than 5 million
impoverished youths, including many orphans.
In class, students
are "subtly indoctrinated into the RSS
Hindutva ideology," said Sudarshan Das, president of Agami
Orissa, an umbrella organization of nongovernmental organizations
working with tribal peoples.
Hindutva, or "Hinduness" is
a nationalist ideology that asserts history, science, politics,
economics and other subjects
should be viewed from a Hindu perspective. Hindutva proponents
say Islam and Christianity have divided India and caused its decline
from its glorious past. With India facing Islamic separatists in
Kashmir and aggressive proselytizing by evangelical Christians,
the RSS believes their sovereignty and identity are under a renewed
threat and Hindus should turn secular India into a Hindu state.
the Orissa state secretary of a group that runs hundreds of shishu
mandirs, concedes the schools' goal is to "make
sure the Hindutva mood is created in Orissa."
In a recent report,
Teesta Setalvad, a civil rights activist, chronicled how the
shishu mandirs promote anti-Islamic and anti-Christian
sentiment while lionizing the RSS. Students spend hours studying
Hindu religion and culture and their history textbooks recount
how "Muslim invaders killed our (Hindu) forefathers like flies."
Willy D'Costa, national secretary of the Indian Social Action
Forum, an organization associated with Christian groups, says the
Sangh Parivar also is leveraging the devotional fervor of the students
and using them as shock troops in violent anti-Muslim and anti-Christian
They point to the Hindu-Muslim riots that rocked the western state
of Gujarat in March 2002. Witnesses and human rights groups reported
that tribal areas where the RSS was most active experienced the
a teacher at Juang's school, says his colleagues in Gujarat were "forced
to send their students to fight or else they would have lost
their jobs and funding for their schools."
Significantly, a sizable chunk of funding comes from Indians living
in the United States, says Vijay Prashad, director of International
Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and a founder of
FOIL, an umbrella organization of Indian leftists.
"At least $6 million has been officially raised in the U.S
and sent to these schools (by) U.S. branches of Sangh Parivar organizations," said
Prashad, who along with several scholars and activists co-authored
a report on such funding for South Asia Citizen's Watch, a human
rights group based in France. "Often the funds are raised
through charitable fronts, (and) donors have no idea where their
money is going."
In India, fundamentalist religious organizations have long used
foreign- funded schools to groom adherents. Saudi-funded Muslim
madrassas are fertile recruiting grounds for extremists in Kashmir
and elsewhere. And the Sangh Parivar accuses Western-funded Christian
evangelists of using schools to lure vulnerable groups into Christianity.
But what makes the Sangh Parivar's schools different is the fact
that nearly all of the enrolled students are not Hindus, according
to Maj. 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 and Dalits (untouchables)
at the bottom of India's caste system. "It's a kind of social
engineering that has very dangerous effects."
The debate reflects an age-old social schism that has long haunted
About 2,000 years
ago, Indian society organized people into a hierarchy of castes
based on "ritual purity.'' Brahmins (priests)
were followed by Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaisyas (traders), and
Sudras (peasants). Tribals and some non-tribal groups, who now
call themselves Dalits, were considered too impure to belong to
any caste and became untouchables.
Excluded from mainstream Hindu life, the untouchables developed
their own system of worship. Tribals typically follow animist beliefs,
praying to trees and stones while Dalits pray to supernatural forces
and Earth goddesses.
Since tribal religions have no religious texts or grand places
of worship, they are often ignored by other faiths. The Sangh Parivar
insists that tribals and Dalits - as well as Sikhs, Buddhists and
Jains -- are simply waylaid Hindus.
"This is not conversion but assimilation," said Ajay
Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management
in New Delhi." And despite the theological arguments, he says
the goal is completely political.
Tribals and Dalits make up about 35 percent of India's 1 billion
inhabitants. Traditionally, they have joined India's Muslims, who
represent just 12 percent of the population, in voting against
the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist party. With
new elections on Tuesday, pollsters say the BJP needs tribal and
Dalit votes. Das says the shishu mandirs convert tribal students
to Hinduism by teaching them to worship Hindu deities, and break
tribal affinities with Muslims and Christians by demonizing both
Chauhan says the assimilation of tribals into Hinduism is less
socially disruptive than their conversion into a foreign religion
like Christianity. He says Christian groups have made India a prime
target for their proselytizing and that about 2,000 tribals have
been converted in recent months.
"If Hindus do not unite, we will soon become a minority in
our own country," said Chauhan. Though census figures do not
support his argument -- India's Hindu population has held steady
for decades at about 82 percent -- the Sangh Parivar has been effective
at using it to rally tribals.
"Yes, we are Hindus," said
Lahuri Juang, Gonasika's tribal priest, who minutes later performed
an animist sacrifice
that involved beheading a chicken and anointing his forehead with
All around Juang, the cracked mud huts and bloated bellies indicated
that his village is not on anyone's development map. There is almost
no sign of modern life anywhere -- except for an official notice
advising residents how to update their voting records on a wall
in the community warehouse filled with grain.
With elections looming, Das worries that the kind of violence
that rocked Gujarat could break out here. In the past year, according
to local police, several churches have been torched in the state
and at least 30 Hindu- Christian clashes have occurred. Local police,
human rights groups and opposition parties have accused Sangh Parivar
of complicity in the violence.
"The Hindu right does not want any rival religion in India," said
Maj. Somnath, the Dalit activist. "They tried to destroy Buddhism
all those years ago, now they are doing it to us."