Schools offer Indians way out of poverty, lessons in religious bias
Gonasika, India — 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.
Subash Chauhan, 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 pogroms.
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 worst violence.
Paramdara Pillay, 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 Indian politics.
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 communities.
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 its blood.
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.”