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India's tribal schools are questioned

Teaching promotes bigotry, fanaticism, rights groups say

By Jehangir Pocha, Globe Correspondent, 3/7/2004

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 faith."

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 act.

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 against Muslims.

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 to us."

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