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Manufacturing believers

10 Feb 2002

The Hindu

Sunday, Feb 10, 2002

Manufacturing believers

The RSS runs a network of schools country wide. Anjali Mody looks at what is taught there

ON A cold January morning, the Union HRD Minister, Murli Manohar Joshi, told a captive audience of restive high school students from 12 institutions run by Vidya Bharati (the RSS' education wing) about the changes his Government had made to school syllabuses and textbooks. Pradeep (not his real name), a class 11 student from GLT Saraswati Shishu Mandir, in South Delhi who was there, summarised what he understood of the Minister's message: "He told us that although some people say that Lord Ramachandra never existed, that he did... He produced him in front of us... No... no... that's only a joke... he said that there is this river which people say never really existed, but he has scientifically proven that it did exist, that Lord Ramachandra was born on its banks... so he also existed."

The strange logic of this deduction would not have bothered the Minister. Nor, perhaps, Pradeep's teachers. For they, like him and his classmates, are drilled in `sanskriti gyan' or `cultural knowledge' based on a series of workbooks devised by Vidya Bharati. Last year, the `history' section of Pradeep's Sanskriti Gyan Pareeksha workbook would have told him: "In Faizabad district of Uttar Pradesh where present day Ayodhya stands, there on the banks of the Sarayu river was ancient Ayodhya, capital of Suryavanshi Kshatriya kings. Manu and Maharani Shatroopa were reborn in Ayodhya as Raja Dasharatha and Kaushalya, and in their home sakshaat Narayana took incarnation (as Lord Ram). According to astrologers and the puranas the time of Shri Ram is believed to be around 8,86,000 years ago."

This lesson in `history' is part of the `national education' that Vidya Bharati's 19,741 schools around the country impart to their 24,00,000 students. Vidya Bharati is, says its head Dinanath Batra, one of the "organisations through which the Sangh's vichardhara or way of thinking is propagated". Its aim is to provide an education which will turn out "self-less citizens... suffused with the spirit of Hindutva".

The first Vidya Bharati school was set up in 1952. Since then growth has been exponential. In just five years from 1998, the number went up from 13,000 to 19,741. These are by and large fee paying schools, started with private donations. Mr. Batra says Vidya Bharati has neither received, nor sought, financial support from the Government to run its schools. At Vidya Bharati's schools across the country there is much talk of `sanskara'. This broadly includes prayers in Sanskrit, the Saraswati Vandana, teachers being called `acharya' and students who touch their feet. Respect for parents established by touching their feet. Some schools run tulsi planting campaigns as part of `environmental awareness'. Mr. Batra believes that it is the `atmosphere' of a school that makes the `difference'. With uncharacteristic flourish he declares: "walls should speak, stones should sing". The walls of Vidya Bharati's schools do speak, to those willing to listen. They are lined with calendar art images of `mahapurush' - RSS gurus, M.S. Golwalkar and Baliram Hedgewar, Shankaracharya, Dayananda Saraswati, Vivekananda, Shivaji, Rana Pratap, Subhash Chandra Bose, Chandrashekhar Azad, sometimes Sardar Patel, but not Mahtama Gandhi.

A curious panoply of greats given that the majority of schools run by Vidya Bharati - variously called Saraswati Mandirs, Gita Niketans, Vivekananda Vidyalayas across the country - are affiliated either to the CBSE or the local state education boards, which still accept Mahatma Gandhi's pre-eminence in the history of the nation. Mr. Batra dismisses this observations saying: "We publish many pictures including a very beautiful one of Gandhi."

Pictures apart, how do those who run Vidya Bharati schools balance their version of the truth with the facts and figures in the prescribed syllabuses and textbooks? Sitting in front of a life size portrait of Golwalkar, R.P. Vishvendu, Principal of the Shri Sanatan Dharma Saraswati Bal Mandir, in New Delhi's Punjabi Bagh neighbourhood, admits it is a tricky business: "When you are teaching a child to distinguish between good and bad... you tell them Shivaji was good... then how do you tell them that Auranzeb was also good... that there was a battle between two good people?... similarly with Subhash Chandra Bose... and Gandhi..." He adds, "if you pour water over concrete it simply flows off... But if you keep dripping water at the same spot then after sometime there will be a dent even in concrete... that is how we work..."

Clearly, Mr. Vishvendu hopes that the drip-drip of a compulsory regime of Sanskriti Gyan Pareeksha (the workbooks to which he contributes) from classes 4 to 12, with their own version of history, will do the trick. Especially since two-thirds of the over 70,000 teachers in Vidya Bharati's schools have been `qualified' to teach the truth according to these books through a three-stage exam specially designed for them.

Sandeepji, the young clear-eyed history teacher at the Mata Ramrakhi Sanatan Dharma Saraswati Bal Mandir(MRSD), just north of Delhi University, whose students are drawn from the post-Partition resettlement colonies of north and west Delhi, has a far more sophisticated method: "I present the truth as written in the textbooks. The textbook for instance says `In the end the Congress accepted the partition of India'. I tell my students to go home and talk to their grandparents who experienced partition about whether there was any need to accept Partition, I then have a discussion in the classroom. And through the stories of their families and friends they understand that although Congress accepted partition it was not necessary."

Teachers at Vidya Bharati schools are happy to share their teaching techniques. Mrs. Kulsreshta, the highly regarded English teacher at the Punjabi Bagh Shishu Mandir, says that "in every lesson you can draw out the impact of Indian culture... from the Gita. I point out examples of this... I tell my students that even in this foreign author's writing you can see the influence of the Gita."

Veena Khanna, the Hindi teacher at MRSD, says, "It is so hard to remove the wrong ideas from their minds... to teach them that it was not the Muslims who built the Qutub Minar, that Muslims peeled off the sculptures of gods and covered them with Arabic script... Prithviraj Chauhan's sister used to look at Yamuna maiya from the top of the minar." With great feeling, and no sense of irony she pronounced, "If you repeat a lie ten times it becomes the truth. It is even happening today". At least in Model Town the lessons have had their impact. In sanskritised Hindi students of class 9 and 10 at MRSD deliver well-rehearsed lines. Manish: "They said Hindus were cow eaters. This is wrong." Gaurav: "They said Aryans came from outside. This must be changed." Neha: "They have called Guru Gobind Singh a looter, when he gave his life for the nation."

"You mean Guru Tegh Bahadur, don't you," corrects Om Prakash, the principal who runs his school of 300-odd students from a building that also houses the local sanatan dharma temple. A soft-spoken man, he is very open about his long connection with the RSS. It was as a child at an RSS shakha in the 1950s that he learnt of the "wrongs" being perpetrated by modern school education. Before he joined the Vidya Bharati school network he was an RSS pracharak. Even today he keeps his eyes open for bright students whom he can point out to the local shakha as "worth working on".

A more thorough-going venture of "propagating the RSS vichardhara through education" is Sewa Dham Vidya Mandir. A free residential school run under the guidance of Vidya Bharati by another RSS-affiliated NGO, Sewa Bharati, funded primarily by donations from the Sangh's NRI supporters. Located on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border the school, with 285 students from 21 States, mostly from Scheduled Tribe and Scheduled Caste backgrounds, has results that many fee paying schools would envy.

The CBSE schools football trophy sits proudly among other sporting awards in the Principal, O.P. Sharma's office. School exam results displayed on the notice board declare over 50 per cent first classes, and only a tiny number of thirds.

Mr. Sharma hopes that the school will produce future administrators, who will "do work to improve their districts having learnt their sanskars here". The school regime is a far more rigorous and unequivocal induction into the Sangh's way of life than the Vidya Bharati schools in cities. Shakha attendance, complete with exercise and intellectual `discussion', is built into the school's tough regimen that begins at 4.30 in the morning and ends at 10 p.m., with television viewing permitted only on Sunday.

Mr. Sharma says the school has an open atmosphere and students can `think and speak freely' on any subject. They have a 10,000-book library, carefully selected to include books that "speak of gauravata ki batein not gulami ki batein". He says they may have to be taught, because of the existing textbooks, that the Taj Mahal was a mausoleum built by Shah Jahan, but there are enough books in the library, including many by P.N. Oak, which will tell them that it was not a mausoleum but a Hindu temple.

Mr. Sharma, whose academic discipline is economics, illustrates the focus of teaching in his school. He says, "for example economics books tell us that India is a poor country... we will not teach this. We will teach children that India is a very rich country... it has had a green revolution... it has the best record in milk production... the best cows in Denmark have gone from India."

Sewa Dham has its particular problems. It is not so simple, as it is at an average Vidya Bharati school, to assume that the students will find the fact that "Hindus ate beef" objectionable. Many of their students come from communities that do eat beef. Mr. Sharma who is something of a cow protection missionary and has a cow and calf tethered near his rooms on the school campus says, "Christians working in areas like Arunachal Pradesh have said beef is the most nutritious... we have to convince these children otherwise... we tell them that the cow is our mother... that gods reside inside her... that breeze from the direction in which a cow turns her head is pure... that there is no other treatment for cancer but go-mooth (cow urine)."

Outside the formal school system, the Sangh's affiliates are also involved in a variety of `educational activity'. Vidya Bharati, according to Mr. Batra, is to set up `Sanskar Kendras' in poor neighbourhoods and slums. Beyond city slums, he says, they are focussing on "sensitive areas" - the Northeast, Jammu and Kashmir, Bastar, the Bihar-Nepal border, with "50 centres for primitive tribes".

Mr. Batra explains the motivation: "Take the Northeast, you can hear the voice of disintegration... there are a lot of Bangladeshi immigrants. These are areas in which Christian missionaries are very active."

The Bihar-Nepal border, border areas with Pakistan? "They are full of madrassas funded from abroad... Muslims must be taught that they are born in this country, nursed by this country and must live for the country." Bastar? "It has naxalwadis and vanvasis."

`Vanvasi' is the Sangh's catch-all term for adivasis, devised to fit its thesis that far from being the original inhabitants of the subcontinent forced to the margins by later arrivals from central Asia, they are lost tribes of Hindus waiting to be reawakened. Another Sangh affiliate, Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation, is already involved in running schools in adivasi areas with the hope that they will be "awakened to their Hindu heritage". The foundation runs some 7,000 one-teacher schools in "remote areas where Government schools do not exist or are not being run properly".

The three-hours-a-day school is designed to deliver reading and numeracy skills, `general knowledge' no different from the material in Vidya Bharati's Sanskriti Gyan workbooks, `sanskara' - like Sanskrit prayers, touching the feet of parents - exercise and personal health and hygiene.

Seema Ajgaonkar, co-coordinator of the foundations Expert Committee, speaks with a missionary spirit about the activities of the school which "unite the village youth", give them a chance to throw off the "dependence created by Government" and "awaken in them the knowledge that they are not adivasis but vanvasi Hindus".


The Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia was formed in 1993 to combat rising religious intolerance in South Asia and to campaign for peace and justice in the region. We are committed to working towards a just, non-violent resolution of the crisis we are currently living through. If you are interested in joining us in this work, please call 617-983-3934 or e-mail info@alliancesouthasia.org

28 Jul 2007

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