Catch them young, watch them grow
"I want to join the Army and fight Pakistan," says 15-year-old Dhangapaya.
And what if he doesn't get selected? "I will join the Bajrang Dal and protect the country." From whom? "Terrorists, anti-nationals, those promoting western culture…" he rattles off in faultless Kannada.
Dhangapaya is one of the 70 children from Meghalaya who are receiving free education at the Sri Rama Vidya Kendra - an institution run by the RSS in a small town near Mangalore called Kalladka.
Locals in this unremarkable town in Dakshina Kannada district often say that Kalladka is famous for two things - KT and KP.
Dhangapaya is one of the 70 children from Meghalaya who are receiving free education at the Sri Rama Vidya Kendra, an institution run by the RSS, in Kalladka, Mangalore (Photo: HT)
KT or Kalladka Tea is a special tea preparation and KP stands for Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat. The head of the Sri Rama group of institutions, Bhat is described as the most powerful RSS leader in south India and the architect of the first BJP government here. His admirers call him the Bal Thackeray of Karnataka for his fiery speeches. Detractors say he is the reason coastal Karnataka has seen an upsurge in communal violence since the 1970s.
There have been seven major Hindu-Muslim flare ups in Kalladka town this year. Bhat's students have been listed as accused in at least three of these cases. In two cases, registered in March, Muslim victims alleged that students from Meghalaya pelted stones at their houses. The names of the accused students are being withheld as all of them are minors. Although he wasn't part of it, Dhangapaya says the violence in March was a response to provocation by the Muslims who live just outside the school campus. "They attended a Congress rally where they said insulting things about Guruji (Bhat)," he says.
"Dhangapaya is one of our star students. He will be a great leader one day," says a beaming Bhat of the boy who came to him at the tender age of five. Dhangapaya is proficient in the Hindu scriptures and in martial arts and is an ace sportsman. Brimming with the Sangh's ideology, he feels Love Jihad is one of the biggest problems facing the country.
"Why can't Muslim and Christian men find women in their own communities?" he asks, "All they want is to convert our women." Dhangapaya's polemic sounds like an echo of an incendiary speech, targeting Christians and Muslims, that Bhat delivered just ahead of the parliamentary elections this year for which he was booked by the police. Here's the irony: Dhangapaya's father is Christian and his mother follows a tribal faith.
Like Dhangapaya, hundreds of students from the north east have passed out of the Sri Rama Vidya Kendra in the last 15 years. "Ours was one of the first RSS-run institutions in Karnataka to host these children," says Bhat, "The project was started by Thukaram Shetty, one of our pracharaks, in the 1990s with the help of the [Meghalaya-based] Lei Synshar Cultural Society." He estimates that today there are at least 5,000 students from all over the north east in schools run by the RSS and its affiliates in Karnataka.
In 2009, an investigation conducted by the Child Welfare Committee of Dakshina Kannada found that children from the north east were being illegally trafficked without proper paperwork by the RSS "to be trained and indoctrinated in Hindutva".
The committee found that, in most cases, the children had been listed as orphans and that Thukaram Shetty had posed as their sole guardian. The CWC's report, which was shared with the State governments of Karnataka and Meghalaya, said that the parents were told that their children were being taught in English medium schools. In reality, they were put in Kannada medium schools.
The report stated that in violation of the UN Convention on the rights of the Child, which stipulates that children must stay with their parents until the age of eight, children younger than six were being brought. Most of the children had forgotten their native language and culture. The CWC also found that the facilities in most of the RSS-run schools were extremely poor and that they did not qualify as fit institutions as prescribed by the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act, 2000.
Following the report, the CWC came under extreme pressure from the then BJP State government and was eventually dismissed, says Geo D'Silva who was then a member of the CWC. "In December 2009, the Joint Director and Deputy Director of the Karnataka Department of Women and Child Welfare barged into our office and took away important investigation files. We never saw the files again," he says.
Prabhakar Bhat, the head of the Sri Rama group of institutions, is described as the most powerful RSS leader in south India. There have been seven major Hindu-Muslim flare ups in Kalladka town this year. Bhat's students have been listed as accused in at least three of these cases (Photo: HT)
Earlier this month, a PUCL team in Karnataka conducted a fact-finding mission of its own. It found that most of the institutions offer the barest minimum facilities to children from the north east. They sleep in cramped rooms on thin mattresses with little to shield them from the cold. In some schools, testimonies from the children reveal stories of intense corporal punishment as well as ragging and racial abuse by other children.
The team concluded that the education being imparted was highly communal in content and was aimed at replacing the tribal faith systems of the children with Saskritised Hinduism through rituals like the compulsory chanting of shlokas and Hindu prayers. The PUCL report said: "The unchecked trafficking of North East children by the RSS under the garb of providing education and livelihood is reminiscent of the colonial project of the Australian government where aboriginal children were removed from their families under State sanctioned law between 1909 and 1969 resulting in the breakup of families, massive loss of community and indigenous culture."
Prabhakar Bhat doesn't refute the findings of the CWC and the PUCL team. However, he sees things very differently. "Yes, some of our hostels have poor facilities but these children at least get decent food, clothing and shelter. Back home, they don't even get this," he says.
But poverty exists all over India, why focus only on the north east? "Have you ever been there? There are boards saying 'Indians and dogs are not allowed'. Terrorist and anti-India outfits are thriving there. Christian missionaries are converting innocent Hindu tribals. We bring these children here to protect them from all these bad influences," Bhat says.
Jayendra Peraje, a senior teacher at Bhat's school, takes us on a tour of the institution. "We have carefully designed each classroom, hall and laboratory to resemble our ancient Hindu gurukuls," he says of the thatched roof structures that are set amidst gardens and fruit-bearing trees. The campus is dotted with statues of Hindu deities, saints and the Kamadhenu cow.
As soon as we enter the classrooms, the children stand up with folded hands and say in chorus, "Jai Sri Ram." When we leave, they wave their hands and say, "Ram, Ram." "This is true Indian culture," Peraje says.
Many of these children are Christian. "We don't ask the children what their religion or caste is. All are welcome here. All we try to do is imbibe nationalism and Indian culture in them. And that cannot be taught in English," says Bhat.
Ranjan Rao, a former RSS activist who worked in Coastal Karnataka in the 1980s, says the aversion to English education can be traced back to KS Sudarshan, who rose to become the head of the RSS. "He was one of the first RSS activists to start schools in the north east in 1977 to counter Christian missionaries. When the Arunachal Pradesh government offered him land, funds and support for his schools on the condition that children should be given English education, he flatly refused the lucrative offer," he says.
By the mid-1980s and early 1990s, the RSS realised that the odds were stacked against them in the Christian-dominated states of the North East. "They slowly started sending children out of these states into schools run by them in the mainland," he says.
Bhat hopes that these children will go back to their homeland and continue the work for the Sangh. "They need not do RSS work directly; they may work for the VHP, the ABVP, the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram or Samkara Bharati. Even if 20% follow RSS teaching in the north east, we will be happy... the process would have begun," he says.
"We aren't thinking of political benefit, but we will be happy if it does translate into political gains. Once someone has an idea about the country, they will automatically become BJP voters; they will not go anywhere else. When they learn our riti-niti (ways), they will automatically become BJP."
Before we leave, we look for Dhangapaya. We find him at the playground practicing the long jump. Many boys, dressed in RSS Khaki shorts, have gathered around to watch him. They roar and clap for their champion after each jump.
He allows us to hang out with him as he cools down. Asked if he has female fans, he blushes. He says he doesn't have time for a girlfriend but hopes to fall in love with a "nice girl" some day. What if the girl he falls in love with is Christian or Muslim? "In love, all that doesn't matter. She should have a good heart that's all," he says.
But the Bajrang Dal, the organization he hopes to join, might not approve. "Actually, my mother doesn't want me to join the Bajrang Dal. She doesn't like me getting into fights. Besides, in my village anybody can marry anybody." He suddenly goes silent and after some thought asks sternly, "What do you really want and why are you asking me all this?"