We roamed the narrow, crowded streets of Tirkha colony in Ballabhgarh in Haryana's Faridabad looking for a hostel that housed children from the north east. Our attempts to ask the locals failed as no one had heard of students coming from any of the north eastern states of the country. Then someone asked us if we were looking for 'Nepali or Chinese kids' living in the area and pointed us to one of the buildings. The board outside a two-storey building read Donyi Polo Chhatrawas, run by the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram.
The hostel, like many other buildings in the area, was constructed on a small plot. It was dark, hot and humid inside. Each room, named after revered personalities usually found in Sangh textbooks, housed three or four students who had come from the rural belts of Haflong, Karimganj (in Assam), Rajivnagar (in Mizoram), and Tamenglong (Manipur). The hostel was for students who had finished their tenth standard. Some hostellers studied in schools nearby while the older ones went to a private college nearby.
"We face a lot of problems here, mostly racist remarks from locals. When people see that our features are different they assume that we are Nepalis. Some have even asked us if Assam comes under Nepal," says Mongol Halam, one of the students from the Karimganj district of Assam that borders Bangladesh. It's not just the food, language or the climate that is challenging but also the attitude of the locals.
All the students come from poor families with limited access to education in their region. The situation is so grim it leaves them with no option but to trust a stranger, a karyakarta, to embark on a journey to the capital city.
"There were around 12 of us who came to Delhi. We were brought from Guwahati to Delhi by a karyakarta. I was the only one for this hostel in that group, the rest went to a hostel in Narela," adds Halam.
According to the kids in the hostel, these ashram karyakartas have networks everywhere which helps them establish contact with parents and convince them to send their kids for better education. The students are then sent to hostels in different parts of the country. A small amount is taken from the parents as travel and living expenses.
The children we met came from different tribes of the region. They tell us how the Christians have converted many tribals to Christianity and that this was the reason they were sent to the hostel. But aren't they animist? The kids tell us that most of them are Hindus, locally interpreted as Buddhism, Heraka or other animistic practices.
The VKP also runs the Shaheed Jadonang hostel in Narela, near the Delhi-Haryana border. It is named after Haipou Jadonang, a Rongmei Naga spiritual leader from Manipur who established the Heraka religious movement and had also envisioned an independent Naga kingdom. Jadonang was hanged by the British in 1931.
41 children between the ages of 12 to 16 live at the hostel. Everyone in the locality assumes the children in the 'ashram' are 'Nepalis'. The children mostly keep to the hostel premises and only leave to go to school or for Shakha activities held in a nearby playground.
"The kids who are brought by our karyakartas from the remote areas of the north east are handed over to us at Guwahati from where we bring them here on a train. These children stay here for free and study at a school nearby called Bharat Mata Public school, also for free," says Prashant Singh, caretaker of the hostel. The kids are allowed to go to their homes only once in two years.
Singh, who is originally from Gorakhpur, shifted to Narela, when the hostel was established in 2011. According to him, all arrangements at the hostel are made by the kids, including providing medical aid and cooking food. They follow a strict discipline of daily activities assigned by the caretaker. The day starts at 4.30 in the morning and lasts until 10 at night.
"We provide them with facilities that they can't get in the north east; that are not even available in Guwahati," says Singh. "Our goal is not to keep them here forever, but to expand our work in the north east, we want them to go back and propagate our work further."
"If everyone stays in the north east we won't be able to achieve anything. Then a state like Mizoram which now has 99% Christians will reach 100%. The entire north east will be cut from the country," says Singh. "They won't be a part of this country if they become Christians. Christians are working to achieve that."
The only child at the hostel whom we were allowed to speak to was Hamanso Valang. Valang, a Mishmi tribal, has been living at the Jadonang hostel for the past six years and has visited home twice. He would like to get into politics after his studies. Singh interrupts to say that Valang is a fan of Modi and would like to become a leader like him.
"There is no development in our region. There are no good schools around. No teacher or government official can change that, only a political leader can bring in some change," says Valang.