Sowing saffron in the north east

Updated on Dec 14, 2014 02:54 PM IST

Largely populated by tribes, the Seven Sisters have always attracted proselytisers. With the ongoing debate on conversions, the work of the RSS and its affiliates in the north east raises questions about their attempts to bring tribal animists into the Hindu fold.

Hindustan Times | By, New Delhi

Going by the text
A committee setup by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) in 2005 headed by human rights activist Avdhash Kaushal submitted a report that found communalisation rampant in Ekal Vidyalayas and in their textual materials and curriculum. The committee surveyed Ekal schools in Jharkhand's Singhbhum district and in Assam's Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts.

These Ekal Vidyalayas run by FTS, as the committee found, were even funded by the then BJP-led NDA government. The funds sanctioned were not only from the HRD Ministry but also the Ministries of Rural Development, Tribal Welfare, Science and Technology and Women & Child Development. The funding was later stopped by the UPA government after the committee recommended that the grants given to FTS be frozen. As if communalisation wasn't bad enough, the students at the non-formal educational units are not even receiving a halfway decent education.

Take the case of the balwadis run by VKA in many parts of Arunachal. They work on similar lines to Ekal Vidyalayas that function as a pre-school of sorts. A visit to these balwadis in Itanagar, Ziro and Pasighat revealed a lack of interest in running such schools professionally. Many are run out of shacks or abandoned structures and basic amenities were absent.

The teachers hired quit quite often. But perhaps, as Mahato himself admits, the idea is not to run these 'institutions' professionally. "We don't want to run these schools as professionals. Schools, balwadis or health centres that we run are all set up to create a way into the community. Then we work with the community to counter Christian missionaries," he says.

Going local to go national
In Meghalaya, the model of the Sangh's educational network is markedly different. Several schools that operate in the villages do so as local Seng Khasi schools. Seng Khasi, an indigenous cultural and socio-religious organisation in Meghalaya started a school and a college in Shillong.
However, several independent Seng Khasi schools mushroomed in the remote reaches of the state and were named after the mother organisation.

VKA organising secretary of Meghalaya, Dr Vishwamitra Batra, said the Sangh funds and supports several independently running Seng Khasi schools in the state. Support ranges from helping set up a school, to providing books and stationery to hiring and paying teachers.

Another RSS supported organisation Lei Synshar Cultural Society (LSCS), hardly known outside the small town of Jowai in the Jaintia hills, has been sending scores of kids from Meghalaya to Karnataka. After the 2009 Tehelka story about the saffronisation of young minds and about children being sent to other states with the help of RSS volunteers, locals are wary of speaking about it, but continue to send their children to Karnataka.

In 2011, 165 children were reportedly sent by the society to southern states. The society claims to have sent more than 1000 children to various schools in Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu run by Trusts, Sadhus and Mutts. According to Swear, a local businessman and a member of LSCS who supervises the running of one such school, the Sangh is spreading the spirit of nationalism and supports them in safeguarding their identity.

"People in the villages are too poor to afford even food for their children; then how are they going to bear the expenses of a decent education? This is where RSS and Lei Synshar steps in by helping kids to get education outside the state," he says.

In February this year, the Madras High Court took up an alleged trafficking case of 20 minor girls between the ages of 8 and 13 from Jowai and nearby Pynursla. The girls were rescued from a Trust that ran a hostel in Hosur, Tamil Nadu and were sent by LSCS. Batra denies an RSS role in sending children outside the state.

The VKA and VHP also run several hostels in different parts of the country. According to the VHP website, it runs 89 hostels, 34 orphanages and 15 residential schools across the country. The VKA operates 225 hostels with a strength of 7,774 children in various parts of the country.

North eastern children are primarily sent to hostels in the states of UP, Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Kerala. With so many schools run by the Sangh and its affiliates in the region, why send the children to hostels outside the state?

According to Sewa Disha, the 'hostels for students belonging to north eastern states and other vanvasi areas [are run] to counter separatist mentality and convince the students that they are a part of the mainstream of our country.' The hostels also help the Parivar to propagate their Guruji's ideology and mould these children. Indeed, Manikya says it was his time at the VHP hostel in Banswara that made him realise that he has always been a Hindu.

Smells of social engineering
Speaking during the launch of his book Jyotipunj in Rajkot in 2008 - attended by RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat and VHP leader Sadhvi Rithambara- the then chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi had quoted an instance where political leader Jayaprakash Narayan had attended one of the Sangh meetings and found it surprising when every worker introduced himself with his Sangh aayu (sangh age) - a measure of how much one worker has spent his life as a Sangh worker.

He says that Narayan was surprised and wondered how anyone can give 30-40 years of his life for one work, one thought and one mission. The karyakartas or pracharaks that I met in the north east were no different. They were in different stages of their Sangh aayu, working towards one mission- to convince animist tribals that they have always been a part of the larger 'Hindu fold', a part of Sanatan Dharma.

An Apatani village just outside the small town of Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh. The traditional prayer rituals in Apatani has now been Hinduised after the Hindu organisations like RSS and AVP started working in the area (Photo: Subrata Biswas/HT)

Arunachal Pradesh holds a special place among the RSS cadre as the state shares a border with China. Both Chinese claims over the parts of the state and the spread of Christian missionaries is a major concern and their call for nationalism across the state is much louder.

"There was a conscious effort by the state to keep Christianity out of Arunachal. Hindi and Hinduism were promoted to make Arunachalis different, a buffer zone between Indians and Chinese," says John Dayal, civil rights activist and co-founder of the All India Christian Council.

About 30% of the state's population - Arunachal prohibited the use of bribery or coercion for conversion in 1978 - follows animistic traditions like Donyi-Polo.

In the late 1980s, the small town of Pasighat, home to the Adi tribe began to see a revival of the Donyi-Polo religion. Talom Rukbo emerged as the father of Donyi-Polo and suggested recovering and recording endangered rituals, prayers, and hymns on paper. Soon, other tribes of Tani and Apatani followed. In the decade that followed, Rukbo was heavily influenced by the RSS and its affiliate the Arunachal Vikas Parishad (AVP), a front that the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram took when objections were raised about starting the organisation in the state.

Rukbo was made the first president of AVP and received support for his movement. Twelve years after the death of Rukbo, the AVP seems to have gradually taken over the movement. As a result, the difference between local rituals and Hinduism as practiced in north India has blurred. Traditional practices have mingled with borrowed Hindu ones like the lighting of diyas and incense during prayer.

The Ganggings, the Donyi-Polo congregation-prayer halls, now have a bell like the one in a Hindu temple. Symbolism is prominent in the AVP's promotional work and Donyi-Polo followers are asked to put up a flag, a white triangular one with the image of the sun on it, to ward off Christian missionaries. Books and pamphlets on Donyi-Poloism are published and distributed by the AVP, along with lockets and an image designed by the AVP for the tribals to pray to.

Talum Rukbo's counterpart and a leader of the Donyi-Polo Mission, Kaling Borang, who is involved in the documentation of indigenous scriptures, thinks Rukbo had made a mistake by seeking the help of Hindu organisations like the AVP and the RSS who later hijacked the movement. Borang, however, believes their influence has faded out after Rukbo's death.

So smooth, they can't tell
However, the Parishad and RSS pracharaks in the Apatani and Adi belt are very influential and their success lies in how their ideas have been absorbed and internalised by tribal people like Yabor Tagbo and Taga Borang, who belong to the Adi community. Tagbo and Borang, who are teachers, are convinced that their local beliefs overlapped with that of Hindus.

"We tribals didn't have any religion; we just had different tribal practices. Even though they look different, they have come from the same source," they say.

Tapan Basu, one of the authors of Khaki Shorts Saffron Flags believes a kind of colonisation is underway in many parts of central and eastern India. "There are little traditions or indigenous practices present in these [tribal] regions that can't be in any way be called or associated with Hindu traditions or practices," he says.

The extent of the internalisation of north Indian Hindu belief can be seen in the subtle shift in dietary habits. Traditionally, meat forms a major part of the diet of the Adis. Both Tagbo and Borang said that once they became part of the AVP, they started going to Hindu temples and tried not to eat meat when they went.

One of them had even taken a dip in the Ganga at Haridwar and had brought back Gangajal for the local temples. Earlier, the holy river revered by mainstream Hindus had no religious significance in the tribal belts of the north east.

The Sangh's social engineering project also continues in Ziro valley's seven villages, home to the Apatanis. Gyati Pada, a forest official, is a member of the local AVP and looks after the balwadis. While many in the Adi tribe are convinced that their faith is part of the Hindu fold, most Apatanis disagree. Pada said he joined the AVP because it offered to support their struggle to preserve their faith, but maintains that their faith and Hinduism are very different.

Pada, who has been to several religious places of northern and southern India on a trip sponsored by the AVP, is unhappy that many native practices have started to resemble those of the Hindus. The Hindu influence has seeped into the local temples too. People living in Ziro now know the Shiva temple as the Donyi-Polo Shiva temple, a name that's engraved on the entrance. Similar to the concept of Donyi-Polo Ganggings built in Adi areas, a Meder Nello (the newly-adopted Apatani place of worship) was started with the support of the AVP in one of the seven villages occupied by the tribe near Old Ziro.

In eastern Changlang district, a separate project has developed a version of idol worship which was absent in the traditional Rangfraaism followed by the Tangsa, Tutsa and Nocte tribes. Earlier, the supreme spirit Rangfra revered by these tribes wasn't bound to temples, idols or any form earlier.

Political dividends
While the Sangh Parivar tries to bring the tribes of the north east into the Sanatana Dharma fold, it can be assumed that the political fruits of these efforts will be reaped by its political face, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Although these projects are yet to lead to any political gains for the BJP, the election results in Assam this time might shed some light on the future benefits of the RSS' massive social engineering project.

For the first time, the BJP won seven out of the 14 parliamentary seats in Assam. More remarkably, it made inroads into a traditional Congress stronghold - the tea garden workers and Adivasi communities in upper and northern Assam, in Dibrugarh, Lakhimpur, Jorhat and Tezpur.

Political outcomes in the central part of the country might shed some light on how the RSS's political arm is sweeping across the tribal regions. BJP won 32 of the 39 tribal reserved seats it contested during the Lok Sabha elections - clinching proof of the party's popularity among tribals. It also won 10 of 11 seats, controlling two of the four tribal reserved seats in Chhattisgarh.

"It's a long-term investment. The RSS continues to try and build an opinion in civil societies, through education, for example. Once they do so, it is very easy for them to capture power because when people go to vote, they'll think of voting for a Hindu party," says Tapan Basu.

The changing dynamics in the tribal areas of Chhattisgarh has led to some communal unrest. The VHP along with a BJP MP from Bastar conducted a 'ghar wapasi' (Home returning) ceremony claiming to 'reconvert' 35 tribals to Hinduism. The event prompted attacks on church goers. Several such incidents have been reported from nearby Jhabua and Dhar, and from states like Odisha, Gujarat and Jharkhand. The north east seems to be headed for a similar fate.

Opium of the masses?
However, the Hindu nationalist RSS has always claimed to be a cultural organisation with no interest in politics but with one thought, one mission - the dream of achieving a Hindu Rashtra. To achieve that objective, the RSS and its affiliates run projects that recognise the part that education plays in moulding young minds.

"The school is embedded within a tight and comprehensive range of institutions that would, in calibration, coordinate the child's leisure, education, ideological growth and religious understanding', writes Tanika Sarkar in a paper on the Historical pedagogy of the Sangh Parivar.

Patriotic songs, disciplinary drills, sports and special curricula that favours a surrendering of individuality is as much a part of the educational experience at these schools as it is at any neighbourhood shakha. This method of combining both physical and psychological tools to propagate ideology among children can be gleaned from a story that Golwalkar loved to relate: A rich man who saw a beautiful peacock in his garden gave it food mixed with opium. The peacock started coming every day. Eventually, it got so habituated that it came regularly at the appointed hour even without the opium.

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    Furquan Ameen Siddiqui was part of Hindustan Times’ nationwide network of correspondents that brings news, analysis and information to its readers. He no longer works with the Hindustan Times.

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