Hindu Nationalists Are Enrolling, and Enlisting, India's Poor
MANDOLI, India — Just beyond the bustle of this nation's capital, in a sprawling compound of grassy fields and peepal trees, is a microcosm of some of India's most destitute: children from pockets of poor, indigenous communities scattered far in the hinterlands.
There is the illiterate farmer's son from the hill tribes of Assam in the northeast. There is the teenager with the bright probing eyes from Jharkhand, one of the poorest corners of the country. There is a boy, orphaned since the age of 5, who is housed, fed and schooled here just outside New Delhi, the capital, free of charge.
The nearly 300 boys here at the Sewa Dham school, most of them from what are called the tribal belts of central and northeastern India, hew to a rigorous daily schedule from 5 in the morning until 10 at night. They learn Hindu chants in the ancient language, Sanskrit. They are taught to give up their meat-eating ways and to become vegetarians. They are regaled with tales of brave Hindu warriors and saints and quizzed on the ravages of the Muslim emperor, Babur.
Patriotic to some, frightening to others, this school represents a central project of the increasingly militant and powerful Hindu right in this country. It is substantially bankrolled by Indians in the United States and run by a charity affiliated with the oldest and most prominent of the Hindu nationalist groups, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or the National Voluntary Service, known as the R.S.S.
The Hindu nationalist movement, once banned and reviled for its connections to the man who killed Gandhi, is ascendant once again. Founded in 1925 by men who made no secret of their admiration for German and Italian fascists, the National Voluntary Service is the movement's parent organization.
The Hindu nationalist network's political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party, leads the coalition government in New Delhi. The prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, was once a full-time worker for the voluntary service.
Education is a centerpiece of the Hindu revivalist campaign, which is natural, considering its cause: to build a Hindu nation out of what is officially a secular country with rights accorded to religious minorities.
Its backers praise their efforts as a lift for the society's most downtrodden. But critics describe schools like this one as madrasas of the Hindu right: they pluck the youngest and most impressionable minds and offer a basket of goods to those who otherwise have nothing. While there is no evidence that these schools prepare young boys to take up arms for a holy war, as some madrasas do in Islamic nations, certainly, schools like this one can train foot soldiers for the Hindu nationalist crusade.
"They really look at their work as groundwork that will pay off in centuries," said Christophe Jaffrelot, a Paris University professor whose book "The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India" (Columbia University Press, 1996) is widely regarded as the authoritative study of these groups.
"The R.S.S. is itself an educational movement," he said. "They want to shape and reshape the mind. That's why they want to attract really young people."
The school is part of a network of social service organizations that cater to indigenous people and "dalits," or those on the lowest rungs of the Hindu caste ladder — the very people organizations like the voluntary service has been losing to Christian missionaries for decades. Across remote villages, it dispatches so-called barefoot doctors armed with first-aid kits and drugs to combat dysentery. It sets up orphanages for the abandoned and hostels for children who must travel long distances to go to school.
Vidya Bharati, an educational charity that is a part of the Hindu nationalist family, now runs 20,000 low-cost private schools serving 2.4 million children across the country. The charity's schools have mushroomed recently, with over 1,000 new schools added every year in the last decade.
Perhaps most notably, with a sympathetic government, Hindu nationalist groups have mounted an ambitious effort to revise the national educational curriculum, replacing history textbooks that it finds unsatisfactory with a canon of its own. Citizens' groups have gone to court to block the introduction of the new curriculum, and the matter now rests with the Indian Supreme Court. Courses in astrology and "Vedic mathematics," ostensibly based on the ancient Hindu Vedic texts, are now taught at the university level.
The Hindu nationalists' larger mission is summed up this way in a required textbook for book 12th grade students at Sewa Dham. "Unfortunately, in the religious land of India, there is no provision for religious or cultural education," it reads in Hindi, the medium of instruction at most of these schools. "That is part of the reason behind the current chaos in the nation. Today, revolutionary changes are being talked about in the Indian educational system. Religion, culture and nationalism are to be given prominence."
The schools are run by committed foot soldiers of the voluntary service who bring to their work nothing short of the missionary's zeal. Indeed, it was to fight the Christian missionaries in the tribal belt that Rajinder Singh Negi, an upper-caste Hindu from the northeastern province of Uttaranchal and an energetic, affable teacher at Sewa Dham, chose his vocation. "Teachers control the mind," he said simply.
Portraits of Hindu heroes hang on the walls of the school complex. There is the 18th-century king, Shivaji, revered for having beat back Muslim rulers in Maharashtra. There is Keshav Baliram Hegdewar, the founder of the voluntary service, his picture frequently garlanded with a string of fresh marigolds. There is a panoply of ancient Hindu saints and scholars credited with a host of scientific achievements.
"Which proves," Mr. Negi, pointed out, "that Indian culture was far more advanced than Western culture."
The Hindu right's version of Indian history is far from conventional. It holds that world civilization emerged from India. Aryans were not foreigners from the West, the view widely held by ancient historians, but India's native people. Muslims were invaders who quashed Hindu traditions.
According to a "cultural knowledge" textbook produced by the group's education wing, Lord Ram, the blue-skinned warrior-king of Hindu lore, lived 886,000 years ago, a conclusion based on "ancient texts and astrology." Ram is described as "the source of inspiration for Indian culture." The Hindu golden era, they believe, dates back to the time of the Indus Valley civilization of the third millennium B.C.
But it is not only the ancient past that concerns them. A quiz written for eighth graders tests their knowledge of the continuing campaign to build a Hindu temple in Ayodhya, the mythical birthplace of Ram, where Hindu militants razed a 16th-century mosque in 1992. Students are grilled on everything from the date on which the temple reconstruction movement began to the names of those killed by the police.
The cultural knowledge textbook also includes a pitch to buy Indian goods and avoid foreign products. Indian soap (Neem brand, for instance) is endorsed; foreign soap (Palmolive) is to be boycotted. The same goes for soda, ice cream, milk powder, jeans, cosmetics, biscuits and more.
In addition to such cultural knowledge, the boys are taught the standard Indian curriculum as well as yoga and exercises. Television is restricted, and on a recent afternoon, having just taken exams, dozens of boys huddled around a television set watching a body-building competition. Judging from the grades posted in the principal's office, Sewa Dham's students do well on state exams.
The principal's office also displays a map labeled "worldwide patronage." There are congratulatory missives from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America — the expatriate branch of the World Hindu Council — as well as from the Arya Samaj of Bergen County and the Hindu Society of Ottawa. On one recent day a check for $2,340 arrived from a Hindu temple in the Catskills. Another $3,500 came from Australia.
Donations of this size can go a long way here. The Sewa Dham school has an annual budget of 5.4 million rupees, or $113,000; about half comes from overseas, school officials said. Suresh Joshi, the national coordinator for the education wing of the voluntary service, said that all told, it spent about 50 million rupees, $1.04 million, a year on its charitable projects, most of it focused on tribal peoples and dalits. The voluntary service is active in 30,000 villages nationwide, Mr. Joshi said.
The group believes that all indigenous people, many of whom practice animism, are really Hindus, whether or not they realize it. Exposure to Hindu culture and history, the group hopes, will persuade those people to return to the fold.
"We believe all the tribalszap in India, they are originally Hindu only," Mr. Joshi said. "Slowly they will feel like this. Then they will say themselves, `We are also Hindus.' "
The common Hindi word for the indigenous people "adivasi," or people of the soil, is shunned by the Hindu right, for it suggests that they predate Hindu civilization. The voluntary service prefers to call them "vanvasi," or people of the forest.
Focus on the indigenous people seems to have paid off in at least one corner of Gujarat. There, only a couple of years ago, Hindu nationalists clashed with indigenous people over conversions to Christianity. During the recent Hindu-Muslim violence in that state, some tribal groups went on a rampage against Muslims.
Voluntary service recruiters select the best and brightest to enroll in schools like this one, with the goal that they will return to their communities armed with an education as well as a message.
In one Sewa Dham textbook, a section entitled "Our Goal" reads: "To develop a national educational system that can develop a generation of youth who are full of Hindu pride and patriotism."
Bisoran Wari, an indigenous boy from the hills of Assam, was chosen early. A volunteer from the group persuaded his parents to send him to a school near his home when he was 8. Three years later, after he had shown promise, he was brought here to Sewa Dham. "My parents are farmers, they can only write their names," the boy said.
His version of the group's history is, naturally, rosy. Its founder, Dr. Hegdewar — the students call him "guruji" out of respect — gathered young people together and taught them how to "serve society," Bisoran said. He would like to do that as well, he said.
Now 18, having just taken his state graduation exams, he plans to study politics at a state-run college near his parents' home and, eventually, become a lawyer. "Lawyers work for justice," he explained.
Then, if the voluntary service takes him for its rigorous training program to become one of its full-time workers, he said, he would consider joining.