Historically, the northeastern states have been cut off geographically and culturally from the rest of India. Largely populated by tribes - many of whom continue to follow their ancient animist religions - the Seven Sisters of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Manipur, Tripura, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh have always attracted proselytizers, whether it was the Vaishnavites who influenced Manipur in the late medieval period or the Christian missionaries of the colonial period.
RSS-styled assemblies and shakha activities is part of the physical activities assigned for the children. The daily routine includes morning and evening prayers which include singing RSS prescribed patriotic songs and devotional songs praising Hindu gods and goddesses (Photo: Subrata Biswas/HT)
Now, the battle for the hearts and minds of the northeast seems set to intensify with the growing presence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates in the region, who are working to further the Hindutva agenda there. Indeed, the saffron bodies seem to have learnt a good deal from the Christian missionaries they so deride and their message is being successfully propagated through education.
This could have been unremarkable, perhaps even welcome in the absence of a robust secular educational system provided by the state, except that the work of right wing Hindu organisations and the government's deep interest in northeast raises several questions; questions about the erasure of indigenous cultures through the indoctrination of children and the propagation of the idea that the area's animist cultures are actually a strand of the ur-Vedic religion that's also the precursor of modern mainstream Hinduism. (Also read:
RSS's battle in Mirzapur
The eventual hope seems to be to reap political dividends.
Last week, RSS affiliates in north India caused controversy by conducting public 'reconversions'. Another bigger event is planned for Christmas in Aligarh. Under attack, the government mooted an anti-conversion law to be followed by all states and the Centre. During a debate in Parliament on the same topic, union minister Venkaiah Naidu, while quoting Sardar Patel, said: "It is well known that in this country there are mass conversions by force, conversions by coercion and influence. And, we cannot deny the fact that children have also been converted."
"We consider every tribe to be a part of Hindu or Sanatan Dharma. We consider all Vanvasis a part of this larger Dharma," says Rajesh Das, Sangathan Mantri (organisation secretary) of Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, which runs a growing network of schools, hostels and temples in the northeast. Das, who supervises the ashram's projects in Tripura and Mizoram, believes the tribals of the region are being guided to the right path through a holistic and nationalistic approach. Das, just like other karyakartas in northeast, is not in a hurry either. "We'll see what happens to them [tribal identity] after 100 or 200 years."
In February this year, the long-standing conflict between the Mizo and the Bru (Reangs in Tripura) tribes took me to that corner of the country. In 1998, thousands of Bru tribals had fled Mizoram following ethnic clashes with Mizos. They had taken refuge in the bordering areas of Tripura. Today, some 35,000 refugees remain stranded in the camps scattered around the remote reaches of Kanchanpur, a sleepy hamlet in Tripura.
In 1998, the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA), an RSS affiliate in tribal areas that provided relief at the camps, had stirred trouble by claiming that the Brus were Hindus. 17 years later, in February 2014, there was no overt sign of the VKA's relief work at the camps. Instead, there were religious mandalis or groups. At the Santipara camp, I met Manikya Reang, a Bru tribal who had fled Mizoram at 14 and sought refuge in one of the seven camps in Tripura.
When I first met Manikya as a Hindustan Times reporter, he didn't care about my name but was insistent about finding out my religion. I gave him a fictitious Hindu name, Sanjay, which stuck as my chain of contacts expanded through him.
The Brus, like many northeasterners, were originally animists - many still are- and believed in the spiritual essence that inhabit inanimate. The concept of worshipping idols or symbols is completely alien to them. Many were initially converted by Christian missionaries. Some of those who escaped Mizoram after the troubles continued to follow animism.
Lighting up of incense, diyas and praying to symbols and images have replaced some traditional Apatani rituals blurring the lines between indigenous practices and north Indian Hindu rituals (Photo: Subrata Biswas/HT)
After the VKA reached the camps, a large number have turned toward Hindu deities. A Bru priest of the Shiva mandali recalls that his people accepted Hindu gods, and eventually formed Ram or Shiva mandalis or groups. Manikya didn't just turn toward these mandalis, he became a purna kaaleen pracharak (full time worker) of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).
Since 2006, Manikya has been preaching to displaced tribals about the Hindu way of life and about Bhartiya sanskaar (Indian values), and has been involved in opening schools in remote areas. Soft-spoken, short and lean, Manikya, who is in his thirties, spoke in the fluent Hindi that he had picked up during his stay at a VHP-affiliated hostel in Banswara, Rajasthan, which he also credits with his 'return' to Hindu dharma.
"The daily routine involved learning about our motherland, patriotic songs and our history," he says. When asked why he was converting animists to Hinduism, he insisted that his people had always been Hindu. "It's just because of the lack of education and awareness that we call ourselves different," says Manikya who claims to have opened, in the last six years, more than 340 Ekal Vidyalayas or one-teacher schools in Tripura, Assam and Manipur. More than 12,000 children now attend these schools.
A concept introduced by the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of India (EVFI), which is involved in setting up non-formal schools in remote areas, the Ekal Vidyalays have one trained local teacher and about 40 students, who are taught for three hours. The emphasis is on imparting 'holistic education', which includes Hindu prayers, 'Indian values' and promoting nationalism. (Also read: RSS's battle in Chhattisgarh)
Posters of Swami Vivekananda and Goddess Saraswati look down from the walls of one thatch-roofed, makeshift Ekal Vidyalaya on the banks of a small stream at a refugee camp. Here, about 15 students of different ages are listening to a local 'Guruji'. On being urged by Manikya, the students recited a few prayers in Sanskrit.
Ekal Vidyalaya is just one of the many initiatives run by RSS affiliates in the region. Others like Sewa Bharati, Vidya Bharati, Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, Friends of Tribal Society (FTS) or Van Bandhu Parishad (VBP), Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bharat Kalyan Prathisthan (a unit of the VHP), Bharatiya Jan Seva Sansthan (BJSS) and the Rashtriya Shaikshik Mahasangh have also been running both formal and informal education units including balwadis (pre-schools), Bal Sanskar Kendras, hostels, residential schools, night schools, coaching centres and primary, secondary and senior secondary schools across the northeastern states.
Much has been written about the growth and spread of the saffron influence in the tribal pockets of western and central India. However, the campaign to saffronise the tribal belts of the northeast has gone almost unnoticed. According to Seva Disha, a five-yearly RSS report on the activities of the Sangh Parivar, its presence has grown at a steady pace.
Students in a hostel run by Vidya Bharati affiliated Abotani Vidya Niketa in Old Ziro. Children, as young as six or seven, are brought in from remote border parts of the state to this residential school (Photo: Subrata Biswas/HT)
In 1995, the RSS and its subordinate associates had only 656 units in the northeast, which is divided into two prants or regions- Uttar Assam and Dakshin Assam. According to the last available report, the figure had reached 5,198 units by 2009.
Looking for clean slates
Since its inception in 1925, the RSS has recognised the centrality of education in any project to gain prominence and power. Towards this end, it has focused its energy primarily on propagating its ideology through education. Going by their own figures and claims in Seva Disha reports from 1995 to 2009, nearly 50% of all their sewa karyas is dedicated to educational activities.
In the book Khaki Shorts and Saffron Flags: A Critique of the Hindu Right, Tapan Basu, Pradip Datta, Sumit Sarkar, Tanika Sarkar and Sambuddha Sen wrote: 'It is not surprising that Hedgewar (RSS founder Dr KB Hedgewar) began with boys of 12 to 15, and that RSS has always tried to catch its recruits at a very tender and impressionable age. "Leave aside the minds already crammed with well-formed opinions," RSS workers are told, "and concentrate on clean slates."
The utter failure of the secular Indian state to provide even primary education in large swathes of the northeast has left a void there. Despite registers showing growing numbers of schools opened and teachers, the truth is that the scene is grim. For many decades, the only major private educational enterprise in far-flung parts of the country was the Catholic church with its schools and colleges.
Christian missionaries of different denominations have been working in the area since colonial times. Today, more than 70% of the population of Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya are Christian and the numbers are growing in Manipur and Arunachal too.
"It is a fact that the whole northeast owes a great deal to the Christian missionaries," says Bishop John Thomas Kattrukudiyil of St Joseph Cathedral, Itanagar, referring to the large percentage of the educated population of these states who attended Christian schools. The RSS and its sister organisations, however, beg to differ.
Manikya Reang, a VHP karyakarta working in the Bru refugee camps near Kanchanpur, Tripura claims to have opened, in the last six years, more than 340 Ekal schools in Tripura, Assam and Manipur with more than 12,000 children attending (Photo: Burhaan Kinu/HT)
"In the garb of providing them with a good education, the Christians have converted the uneducated tribals. We are just trying to bring them back," says Srikrishna Bhide, sangathan mantri or organising secretary of VKA in the northeast.
The latent animosity among some tribals towards Christian proselytisation and their own fears about losing their cultural identity has, in a convoluted way, helped the spread of Hindu nationalist organisations.
From Guwahati in Assam, to Agartala in Tripura, to the small towns of Pasighat and Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh, every worker of the RSS, VKA or VHP that I met repeated the same words when asked why they considered the area's tribals to be Hindu- "Sanatan Dharma". A term of antiquity, it became popular in the 19th century as a 'native' name for Hinduism during the Vedic period and was liberally used during the Hindu revivalist movement of the period.
Of brainwashing and indoctrination
In its January 16, 2005 edition, RSS mouthpiece, Organiser quoted the-then VHP general secretary Pravin Togadia as saying, at a gathering in Rohtak, Haryana: "With a view to create awareness among the villagers, the VHP has decided to start Ekal Vidyalayas and other service projects in 25,000 villages of the country".
He added that "the VHP wanted to expand its work in such a way that the Hindus, whenever the need arose, could foil any conspiracy in the society".
The anti-Christian sub-text is strong in all the branches that I visit in Tripura, Assam, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh. Nibaran Mahato, a full-time member of Arunachal Vikas Parishad (AVP), an offshoot of VKA, whom I met in Itanagar in April this year, puts the organisation's fear bluntly: "We work with the community and prevent them from becoming Bharat Vidrohi (anti-India)".
Mahato claims that the focus of the Christian missionaries has always been to target tribes that are relatively richer and occupy a higher rank in the hierarchy.
"This way, they can convert the weaker ones easily," he says. "We work with all the communities and help them develop without any discrimination."
A Christian dominated neighbourhood in Itanagar. Throughout Arunachal Pradesh religious allegiance is evident with these symbolic assertions. A white triangular flag with a red sun is symbolizes that the house follows Donyi-Polois and helps in warding off Christian missionaries (Photo: Subrata Biswas/HT)
Mahato, who is from West Bengal, is a product of VKA's education programme and is in charge of a balwadi where his wife teaches. Like many other karyakartas working in the northeast, Mahato believes that once a tribal community adopts a 'foreign' religion like Christianity or Islam their nationalism starts to diminish.
Khawang Lowang, principal of the Abotani Vidya Niketan school (a branch of Vidya Bharati schools, an educational front of the Sangh with several branches in the northeast) in Ziro has been a part of the RSS since the 1990s when the organisation first entered the region.
Located in picturesque Old Ziro, where most people belong to the Apatani tribe, the school runs a hostel for children from remote border villages that are not even connected by road. Its students belong to tribes that follow different forms of animism including Donyi Polo, Intay and Rangfra, apart from Christianity and Buddhism.
Lowang, a Nocte tribal from Changlang district says young people are being seduced by the Western influences that the Christian missionaries bring. "It's the lure of an English education and western culture that attracts young ones to the Church and their schools," said Lowang. "When we started there was a lot of opposition against opening a 'Hindu school'; now we get students from all the tribes."
A day in the hostel starts with pratah vandana (morning prayers) that involves reciting Sanskrit slokas. The evening assembly complete with the RSS salute is held in front of a saffron flag. This is followed by sandhya vandana (evening prayers). The vandana session involves singing devotional songs or bhajans before pictures of Hindu gods followed by patriotic songs prescribed by the RSS. (Also read: Catch them young, watch them grow )
The prayer room is adorned with portraits of Swami Vivekananda, Sangh leaders like KB Hedgewar and MS Golwalkar, and of Bharat Mata holding a saffron flag instead of the tricolor! Students are required to recite the Ekatmata Stotr in praise of Bharat Mata at the start of the day. The stotr names places associated with Hindu saints, poets, kings and queens, Hindu sacred geography, myth, and the sacred books of the Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs, and finally praises RSS leaders Hedgewar and Golwalkar.
The curriculum makes it clear that the Bharatiya sanskriti followed in these schools is actually mainstream north Indian Hindu sanskriti. Following on the RSS ideology of Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan, Hindi is part of the 'core curriculum' and extra effort is expended to promote it.
While inaugurating a Vidya Bharati school in a village in Gujarat's Bharuch district, in June this year, RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat said, "Five years ago, we started a Vidya Bharati school in Nagaland. Today, the children studying there speak Hindi. We are glad that we have been able to spread the spirit of nationalism there."
A Donyi-Polo Gangging in Pasighat, Arunachal Pradesh. Ganggings are temple-like congregational halls constructed during the Donyi-Polo movement to revive and promote indigenous practices. The Ganggings stand heavily influenced by Hindu rituals (Photo: Subrata Biswas/HT)
He added that it was unfortunate that people see Vidya Bharati as a violent organisation when it was just educating tribals to make them aware of what is happening around them. "It is untrue. The aim is to educate through the tenets of the Hindu way of life," he said.
In 1996, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) evaluated school textbooks in Vidya Bharati run schools and pointed out that 'the Vidya Bharati schools are being clearly used for the dissemination of blatantly communal ideas' and that their Sanskrit Jnan series (taught in every Vidya Bharati school) is 'designed to promote bigotry and religious fanaticism in the name of inculcating knowledge of culture'. (Also read: Aims to propagate ideology)
School of thought
According to the statistics on their website, Vidya Bharati has more than 13,000 formal schools and nearly 10,000 Sanskar Kendras and one-teacher schools (run primarily in rural and Vanvasi areas) with a combined strength of over 33.5 lakh students all over the country. In Assam alone, Vidya Bharati affiliated Shishu Shiksha Samiti- that runs Sankardev Shishu and Vidya Niketans- claims to operate 470 schools with around 1.19 lakh students.
Formal schools affiliated to Vidya Bharati functions within the parameters of an organised, formal education system, where the school follows the syllabus and books prescribed by state or central examination boards- usually deviating in a few respects: the inclusion of yoga, Sanskrit and moral and spiritual education.
Similar to Vidya Bharti, the Vivekananda Kendra Vidyalayas (VKV) of the Kanyakumari-based Vivekananda Kendra operates a number of schools in the northeast, primarily in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. The Vivekananda Kendra is another beneficiary of the foreign funding that the Sangh receives. In July 2014, a report (Hindu Nationalism in the United States: A Report on Nonprofit Groups) on non-profit groups in the US affiliated with the Sangh Parivar mentions Vivekananda Kendra International as one of those that receive funding.
In Arunachal alone, under the aegis of the Vivekananda Kendra Shiksha Prasar Vibhag (VKSPV), the VKV is administering 33 schools, whereas in Assam, the number stands at 18 schools. VKVs too promise 'value-based education' and patriotic upbringing of 16,000 students that go to these schools.
What makes the Ekal Vidyalayas - run by VHP, VKA, Vidya and Sewa Bharati in tribal pockets of Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram and Tripura, and VBP or FTS in the tea estates of Upper Assam - different from these formal schools is the apparent lack of interest in professionally running the schools or training teachers, and the lack of a concrete curriculum. The spread of Ekal Vidyalayas in the northeast has been exponential. The current count of such non-formal schools stands at 3923 with more than 1.13 lakh tribal students.
Children in one of the villages inside a tea estate in Dibrugarh recite a prayer from the notebook distributed by RSS affiliated Van Bandhu Parishad that runs several Ekal schools in the tribal/rural villages across the country (Photo: Subrata Biswas/HT)
A one-teacher school entirely depends on the acharya/guruji or the teacher. Gurujis are mostly local youth who are supposed to be selected by the gram samitis, but in reality, are selected by the regional pracharak. These gurujis are trained in steps: first through a five-day training shivir (camp), then a three month teaching probation and a final ten-day training shivir. These schools serve a medium of contact with the villagers and the teacher is the eyes and ears of the Sangh.
"They aren't just teachers," says Rajesh Das. "The teacher is also a karyakarta, and that karyakarta keeps the organisation updated of what is happening in the village."
In one bagani (estate) tribal colony buried deep in one of the tea estates of Dibrugarh, some 30 kms from the city, Van Bandhu Parishad or FTS runs a one-teacher school. In the district alone, the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation claims to operate 271 schools attended by more than 8000 children. Most of the baganis who live in these tea estates hardly knew about Ekal Vidyalayas.
All they had heard about was a school that functions for three hours soon after the government schools are over. Run in the government structure designated for aanganwadi, this Ekal school is overseen by a 22-year-old guruji, Mithuram.
When I asked Mithuram about the need for a school when there was already a government school nearby, he told me what every other karyakarta has been saying - the curriculum includes teaching good manners to the students and learning about Hindu Dharma, daily recitation of Saraswati and Guru Vandana and Deshbhakti and Omkar geet (devotional and patriotic songs) that are not taught in government schools.