Named after an elderly woman ascetic Shabri, the Raipur-based Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA) has so far groomed around 160 tribal girls from the north eastern states on the set of beliefs adopted and propagated by the RSS.
Few know that Chhattisgarh's Jashpur region was the original focus of the RSS affiliated VKA, which was founded here in 1952.
The nine-room Shabri ashram- named after the old woman in the Ramayana who was blessed by Rama for her ardent devotion to him- established in 1984 has 56 tribal girls (51 of them are from the north east). At the ashram, the girls learn about the "true" Hindu religion and practices.
"The VKA works on the ideology of the RSS. The volunteers serve the ideals and the philosophy of the RSS," says Vaishali Deshpande, superintendent of the Shabri kalyan ashram. There are 12 such ashrams in Chhattisgarh.
Admissions are granted only on the recommendation of the regional secretary of the organisation in the north east. VKA rules stipulate that two girls from the same village cannot be admitted, and if they are, they should not belong to the same community. Occupants in any given room belong to different communities, regions and age groups to prevent them from forming a group.
The girls who represent some two dozen tribal communities from seven north eastern states live as one close family taking care of each other, the caretaker said. The girls of Shabri hostel are educated till Class 12 at Saraswati Shishu Mandir. Their parents pay a nominal Rs 2000 per annum with the VKA funding the rest. The VKA itself is funded largely by public support and donations, it was told.
Their day begins just before sunrise with prarthana (prayer) and meditation, the chanting of the Gayatri mantra, Ekatmata stotram (32 shlokas) and Chapter 12 (devotional bhakti yoga) of the Bhagawad Gita. After the aarti ritual, they chant udghosna (slogans) in chorus: Bhartiya sanskriti amar rahe, Hindu dharma ki jai, gau hatya band ho, Vande Mataram. Akhand Bharat is eulogized and the chants of Jai Jai Shri Ram end the performance.
"Our puja patterns in our native places were somewhat different but here we learn bhajans, aarti, surya namaskar and have gained knowledge about Hindu rituals and customs," says Koru Tayam (17) from Arunachal Pradesh, who says her family is Hindu.
The nine-room ashram has 56 tribal girls from the Northeast. The hostel also claims to have groomed 160 tribal girls from region so far (Photo: HT)
The girls learnt about the RSS only after coming to Raipur. "Neither we nor our family knew about the RSS or its shakha or of the cow being regarded as "gau mata". We learned Hindu cultural values, yoga and how to remain one and united here," said Ashita Azong (15), a student of Class 10. Azong, the only one among her six siblings to have come out of Meghalaya, she says she is "willing to join the army but is equally keen to give time to work for VKA".
When asked why her parents had sent her all the way to the Shabri ashram, 13-year-old Lalramhngaki from Mizoram responds with: "Dharm raksha, hit, sanskar aur shiksha (safeguarding of religious belief, in interests of self, culture and education)".
Hamsai Humplamber, a former resident of the ashram, who now teaches Hindi among the Konek tribals in Arunachal Pradesh says students maintain the same resolve and determination once they return to their homes. Humplamber is credited with observing national festivals in Hindi and in introducing Vande Mataram to her native village.
VKA cadres agree that northeastern tribals have their own indigenous gods and culture but insist that they are similar to Hindu deities. "Their gods, culture, dress or language may be different but the rituals and traditions followed by them are more or less similar to Sanatan dharma or Hinduism. So they cannot be regarded as different," says Atul Jog, national secretary of the VKA, who is actively engaged in the north east.
Senior office bearers of the organization select the girls to be sent to the ashram. As a rule, only one girl from one village and that too from one specific tribal community are chosen. The VKA prefers to select girl children between the ages of six and 12. "The young girls are like a blank slate and can easily inculcate the cultural values and ideological ethos," says Deshpande.
The VKA maintains updated records about tribal people living in the Northeastern states. "On the basis of this, we explore which tribal community has not sent a girl to us. We then consult the regional secretary of the VKA to facilitate one from that community," said Phool Kumari (34), the zone's Mahila Pramukh, who has been associated with VKA for the past 14 years.
The Ashram in-charge keeps in touch with the old students. "They are contacted during their birthdays, local north eastern festivals or major Hindu religious celebrations. We know what they are engaged with," Kumari said.
VKA volunteers say that some girls from Christian families who returned home had continued to worship Hindu gods. "Their parents have no objection," Deshpande said.