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


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,


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


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


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


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


"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


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.


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