A strange and bitter crop

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Culture by rote Six-year-old Meghalaya children chant shlokas in Thinkabettu School

IN AN investigation spanning 35 schools across Karnataka and four districts in Meghalaya, TEHELKA has found that since 2001, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has embarked on an ambitious social engineering project to transfer at least 1,600 children from Meghalaya to RSS-friendly schools across Karnataka. The latest batch comprising 160 children arrived in Bengaluru on June 7, 2009. Thirty RSS volunteers accompanied the children on the 50-hour train journey down to the city.

Tukaram Shetty, the RSS organiser responsible for the programme, in conversations spanning three months, candidly admitted to TEHELKA that the children were part of a larger mission launched by the RSS and its affiliate organisations to ‘protect’ people from Christian missionaries active in Meghalaya. “We are committed to nurturing the Hindu way of life. There is a long-term plan envisioned by the RSS to defeat the Christian missionary forces active in Meghalaya while expanding our base in the region. These children form a part of that long-term vision. In the years to come, they will propagate our values amongst their own family members,” A childhood recruit into the RSS fold, Shetty hails from Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka and has spent close to eight years in Meghalaya – familiarising himself with the terrain and culture.

The RSS programme brings to the fore several concerns operating as it does within the demographic context of Meghalaya. The state is one of the few Christian majority states in India, with 70.25 percent of the population being classified as Christians in the 2001 census. In comparison, Hindus are pegged at 13.27 percent while a category of religious compositions pegged as ‘others’ – a possible reference to the indigenous tribal religions – is at 11.52 percent. The first Christian missionaries arrived in the mid nineteenth century to work amongst the Garo, Khasi and Jaintia tribes living in the region that now comprises Meghalaya. Despite the long entrenched history of Christian conversions in the state, there exists a significant minority population of tribals who have steadfastly continued to practice their indigenous religions – their beliefs often spliced with a thin wedge of resentment against those who have chosen to convert. The RSS plans of ‘expanding the base in the region’ capitalises on this wedge of resentment with children and their education being — as Shetty admits — the starting points of engagement.

The Thinkabettu Higher Primary and Secondary School in remote Uppur — nearly 500 km from Bengaluru — is one of the 35 schools in Karnataka where the children are studying. In 2008, 17 students between six and seven years were brought to this school from Meghalaya. Following instructions from the head of the school, the children of Thinkabettu School stand up, announce their names politely in Kannada, the local language, and sit down again on the bare floor. Ask the head of the school to introduce himself and he refuses, saying, “You have come to see the children, here they are. If I give you my name, you will use it against me.” The only details forthcoming are that he is a retired bank employee and that the school, which is a century old, was started by his father. A woman in the corner is revealed to be his wife, Nirmala.

Introductions done, the children are asked to recite the latest prayer that they have memorised. Hands folded and eyes closed, the children, with shorn heads and in ragged clothes, begin a Brahminical chant that is a tribute to the teacher — Guru Brahma, Guru Vishnu, Guru Devo Maheshwara. The children are sitting in the same hall that serves as their school and hostel. They live and breathe, eat and sleep and study on that same barren floor. A 30-watt bulb, a blackboard and a few books and slates neatly lined up complete the picture. An ancient fridge and a ramshackle sofa separate the children’s space from the kitchen area of the hall.

Drawn from remote and often inaccessible villages across four districts in Meghalaya — Ri Bhoi, West Khasi Hills, East Khasi Hills and Jaintia Hills — the children taken by the RSS to study in Karnataka belong to the Khasi and Jaintia tribal communities. Traditionally, the Khasi tribes follow the Seng Khasi religion, while the Jaintias follow Niamtre religion. Ask Manje Gowda, Headmaster at the Sri Adichunchanagiri Higher Primary School in BG Nagar, Mandya district where 38 children from Meghalaya currently study, why students are taken out of Meghalaya and he echoes Shetty’s logic, “If the children had stayed on in Meghalaya they would have been converted to Christianity by now. The RSS is trying to protect them. The education that the children receive here includes strong cultural values. When they go back home, after their education, they will help propagate these values to their families.”

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HARD FACTS

1,600 children brought to Karnataka from Meghalaya since 2001

The latest batch of 160 children arrived in Bengaluru on June 7, accompanied by 30 RSS volunteers

Siblings are always separated to ensure better discipline

Most schools where children are studying are in the communally disturbed coastal districts of Karnataka

While most children are from poorer backgrounds, richer families who are RSS sympathisers pay up to Rs 16,000 a year

Children often forget their native languages

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The cultural values that Gowda talks of imparting to children include familiarity with Brahiminical chants, Hindu religious festivals, and a weaning away from an overwhelmingly non-vegetarian Meghalayan diet to vegetarianism. How could this possibly help the RSS in expanding their base? Shetty told TEHELKA that indoctrination of cultural values and discipline was the first step. “It is important that children imbibe these values early on. It will bring them closer to us and away from the Christian way of life.

We teach them shlokas so they will not recite hymns. We take them away from meat so they will abhor the animal sacrifice that is inherent in their own religion,” he says. “Ultimately, when the RSS tells them that the cow is a sacred animal and that all those who kill and eat it have no place in our society, these children will listen,” he recounts calmly. Are these children being groomed to be the future foot soldiers of RSS? Shetty’s only answer is that they will part of ‘the family’ in one way or another and that time will decide.

As TEHELKA found, across schools in different districts of Karnataka, the cultural values imparted did not vary. The degrees of immersion into the RSS credo, however, depended on the schools the children were placed in. Children who came from financially stable homes were placed in schools with proper educational and hostel facilities since parents were able to pay for them. In these schools, the disciplinary regime imposed on the children was more relaxed compared to the schools where children from poorer families were placed. TEHELKA found that 60 percent of the children it met came from economically weaker families. Subsequently, the schools that these children were placed in resembled the Thinkabettu school in Uppur where both education and lodging facilities were free and dismal.

Most of the schools where the children have been placed are located in the coastal belt of Karnataka, the region that has emerged as the centre of communal violence in the state. The places include Puttur, Kalladka, Kaup, Kollur, Uppur, Deralakatte, Moodbidri in Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Chikmaglur districts. Besides these, the children have been placed in schools run by influential ashrams such as the JSS Mutt in Suttur, the Adi Chunchanagiri Mutt in Mandya district and the Murugrajendra Mutt in Chitradurga district.

How do children from Meghalaya end up thousands of kilometres away in Karnataka? What is the modus operandi? Almost every child and parent that TEHELKA spoke with identified Tukaram Shetty as the man who proposed the idea of educating children in Karnataka, offered to take the children there and then ultimately accompanied the children to Karnataka.

A former Seva Bharati (an RSS-affiliated community service organization) worker, Shetty is the official face of the Lei Synshar Cultural Society, a shell organisation established to maintain the required official distance from the RSS. In fact, the Lei Synshar Cultural Society is utterly unknown even outside its own head office in Jowai in the Jaintia Hills district. Ask for Tukaram or Bah Ram as he is called in Meghalaya and there are instant flashes of recognition. Outside the capital city, Shillong, right down to the village level, people easily recognise the RSS as the organisation that takes children to Karnataka. The organisation runs three offices in the Jaintia Hills district – in Jowai, Nartiang and Shongpong. Besides, there are several spaces occupied by the Seva Bharati and Kalyan Ashram organizations which help in the identification and transport of children.

RSS organiser Tukaram Shetty candidly admitted that the children were part of a larger RSS mission to ‘protect’ them from Christian missionaries

YOLIN KHARUMINI, a teacher at a local Seng Khasi school and resident at Shillong’s Kalyan Ashram described the process. “We are asked to identify families that have not converted to Christianity and are firm in their belief in indigenous religions — Seng Khasi and Niamtre. Usually, these are families that nurse some form of resentment against Christians. Offers are made to these families to have their children educated in Karnataka. We always tell them that they will be educated according to Seng Khasi or Niamtre traditions.” Kharumini’s own niece, Kerdamon Kharumini, studies in Mangala Nursing School in Karnataka. Lists are drawn up based on the parents’ capacity to afford the child’s education and hostel facilities.

Continuing the narrative, Khatbiang Rymbai, a Class 10 student at Vidya – niketan School in Kaup, Udupi district described in detail how 200 children travelled to Bengaluru from various villages. “There were many young children. So when they divided us into groups of 13-14, the older children were put in charge. In Shillong, we were all given identification tags which had mobile numbers and the Jowai address of the Lei Synshar Cultural Society. From there, we traveled in Tata Sumos to Guwahati to take the train to Bengaluru,” she says. In Bengaluru, they were taken to the RSS office before being split into groups to go to their respective schools.

The children are taught to avoid meat so they will start to abhor the religious sacrifices that are part and parcel of their native religions

In a chilling admission, an RSS worker in Shillong, Prafulla Chandra Koch and the head of the Thinkabettu school told TEHELKA that care is always taken to ensure that any siblings are separated from each other. “It is easier to discipline them if they are not together. We have to control them if we have to mould them. The lesser the contact they have with home, the better it is, really,” he stated.

TEHELKA met with several siblings placed in different schools – Khatbiang’s brother Supplybiang Rymbai was placed in Prashanti Vidya Kendra in Kasargod, Kerala while she studies in Vidyaniketan school near Udupi in Karnataka. Yet another student at Vidyaniketan, Reenborn Tariang admitted to having a sister, Wanboklin Tariang, at the JSS Mutt school in Mysore. Bedd Sympli at the Abhinav Bharati Boys Hostel in Mandya district has a sister studying in Vidyaniketan, Udupi district; Iwanroi Langbang a student at the Adi Chunchanagiri Mutt school in Mandya district had a sister, Daiamonlangki, at the Vanishree school in Shimoga district. There is not one instance of siblings studying together. Ask the children why they were separated and there are no answers.

WHEN TEHELKA asked parents why they had chosen to place their children in different schools, they admitted they were only informed of it several months after the children had started school. Says Klis Rymbai, Khatbiang and Supplybiang’s older sister, “When they left home, all we knew was that they would go to Bengaluru. We had no details of the school they would go to – not even a name or address. Much later, we realised that Khatbiang and Supplybiang were separated and that they were not in Bengaluru. Khatbiang also told us she was repeating Class VIII after she got admitted into school. The RSS promised to take care of our children and we trusted them.” Klis admits that her family is attempting to bring Supplybiang back to Meghalaya. “He has not adjusted well and is still young so we want him to come back. Khatbiang has already lost a year so it is best she finishes school there,” says Klis. The Rymbais are extremely well off, having made their money through mining in the Jaintia Hills district. The father, Koren Chyrmang, is an RSS sympathiser, who, besides sending his own children, has helped convince other families to send their children across. “He used to be very active but has fallen sick of late This has prevented him from traveling to other villages in this area with the RSS,” says Klis.

The physical and mental impact of studying in school environments diametrically opposed to their culture, language, religion, and food habits has been devastating. In the schools that TEHELKA visited, hostel wardens, heads of schools and the children themselves admitted to having had serious physical problems given the differences in climatic conditions between their villages in Meghalaya and schools in Karnataka. In the Deenabandhu Children’s Home, Chamarajnagar, Karnataka, according to the Secretary, GS Jayadev, the six-year-olds from Meghalaya — Shining Lamo, Sibin Ryngkhlem and Spid Khongshei — had skin rashes for over a month as their bodies tried to acclimatise to the heat of Karnataka. Besides rashes, Spid’s eyes turned bloodshot. Doctors at the hospital where Spid was taken by school authorities told them that it was a natural reaction to the altitudinal differences.

In Thinkabettu school, too, children had severe sunburns on their faces, hands and legs though they had already spent three months in Karnataka when TEHELKA visited them. The situation was no different with the children studying in the Kalabyraveshwara Sanskrit College run by the Adichunchanagiri Mutt in Nagamangala. Of the 11 children from Meghalaya who were placed in this school, the oldest, Iohidahun Rabon (see box) told TEHELKA that the three of the younger ones — Sowatki Chulet, Tailang Nongdam and Perskimlang Nongkrot — were chronically ill since they had not taken to the food being given to them.

The physical and mental impact of living in environments diametrically opposed to their culture, language, religion and food is devastating

The psychological impact of the move was also obvious on several children. In all the schools that TEHELKA visited seeking information about children from Meghalaya, the school authorities summoned the children from their classes and instructed them to introduce themselves in Kannada. For the authorities, it was a matter of great pride that children who had no association with Kannada had been taught the language well. That students who did not know a word of Sanskrit earlier now recited Sanskrit prayers with great clarity. In the Sri Adichunchanagiri Higher Primary School in BG Nagar, Mandya district, the headmaster, Manje Gowda, flung a Kannada newspaper at a student from Meghalaya, ordering him to read it. Obediently, in a low voice, devoid of any expression, the boy proceeded to read a few sentences, before quietly folding and placing the newspaper back on the headmaster’s desk. Till he was sent away, the boy never looked up. In school after school, the same scene unfolded with variations in the demonstrations of skill and familiarity with Kannada and Sanskrit.

While the authorities claimed that the students from Meghalaya had integrated well with the rest, there was overwhelming evidence to suggest otherwise. A few minutes of conversation with the children brought out stories of how they were laughed at because their names were unfamiliar and because they looked different. Invariably, and especially amongst the older students, relationships were forged with others from Meghalaya. In classrooms, six or seven students from Meghalaya squeezed into a bench meant to seat four children. Speaking Kannada had integrated the children only so far. Faced with animosity, they have withdrawn into the familiar. In schools where this was not a possibility given the limited number of students from Meghalaya, they withdrew into themselves.

The locations of the schools did not help alleviate their isolation at all. Iwanroi Langbang, a Class IX student currently staying in Nagamangala (about 150 kms from Bengaluru), talked of her disappointment at not studying in Bengaluru. “We were only told that I would be studying in Bengaluru. It was only after I came here that I heard the name of the school and realised that it was very far from Bengaluru. Here, we are not allowed outside the compound wall. And even if we get away, there is nothing outside,” said Langbang. Her school is located off an isolated stretch of the state highway.

A consequence of completely immersing young children from Meghalaya in a Kannada-speaking environment was visible at the Deenabandhu Children’s Home in Chamarajnagar district. A caretaker at the Home described one child’s growing familiarity with Kannada, “Sibin [one of the children at the Home] has picked up a lot of Kannada in the two months he has been here. During a phone call from a relative back home, he kept answering questions in Kannada which obviously they did not understand at all.” In a shocking display of insensitivity, the caretaker burst into laughter at what she thought was a hilarious incident and added, “For 45 minutes, a woman, I assume his mother, kept trying. Sibin, of course, had no answers since he had forgotten his own language.” She giggled. The caretaker then proceeded to teach Sibin the Kannada word for dinner.

ACCORDING TO Sibin’s birth certificate, he is six. Yet another certificate issued by the village headman of Sibin’s village, Mihmyntdu, certifies that he comes from a poor family and needs help for his education. TEHELKA was unable to contact his parents.

The physical and mental consequences suffered by children from Meghalaya differ from the everyday story of children placed in several thousand boarding schools across the country. That there is a larger plan behind the transportation of these children is something that RSS workers like Koch, have no qualms admitting.

Why are parents willing to send young children aged only six and seven to a distant place? In the face of these overwhelming disadvantages to the children, during visits with parents across eight villages in Meghalaya, TEHELKA found that parents — mostly poor — handed over their children to the RSS in the belief that their kids would be well cared for, as promised. Often, the transportation of children followed kinship routes, with younger siblings following older ones. While this may seem to defy logic, examined closely, it speaks of the intricate web of lies that the RSS has managed to weave, webs that ensnare parents, school authorities and often the children themselves. There are multiple untruths that are the foundation of this entire process.

PARENTS HAVE GIVEN THEIR CONSENT IN WRITING

Why are parents willing to send their children far from home? The mostly poor parents believe the RSS’ promises that the kids will be taken care of

When TEHELKA approached schools in Karnataka seeking papers that legalise the transfers of children across states, letters signed by the village headman or the Rangbah Shnong attesting to the family’s poor economic condition were handed out along with birth and caste certificates. Across different schools that TEHELKA visited, not a single letter was produced with the parents’ signature that stated explicitly that the care of their children was handed over to that particular school. No parent that TEHELKA met in Meghalaya had copies of any signed consent letter signed. Under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000 – such consent letters are mandatory for legal transfers of children.

The transportation of children, then, with no official papers sanctioning the move, is in clear violation of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act of 2000. Under this law, the RSS can be held guilty of child trafficking.

The transportation of children without clear consent letters from parents and guardians is a clear violation of the Juvenile Justice Act

THE CHILDREN ARE IN SCHOOLS RUN ACCORDING TO THEIR SENG KHASI OR NIAMTRE RELIGIONS

Amongst the Khasi and Jaintia tribes, there is a tenuous relationship between those who have converted to Christianity and those who have not. The RSS carefully selects children from poor families who have not converted to Christianity. “I was told that the only way to protect my daughter from conversion was to send her outside. If I didn’t, the Church would take them away and make them priests and nuns,” said Biye Nongrum in Swer village. “I was afraid for my daughter and so I agreed to hand her over,” she says. Six years after her daughter left home, Biye has no details of the school that she is studying in. All she has is a class photograph. “I don’t have the money to visit my daughter and bring her back, even if I find out where she is. But I will never send another child away,” she says. Biye ekes out a living by selling sweet pancakes to richer families in the village. The ramshackle house that she shares with her mother and at least three other children further signal her poverty stricken condition. The socioeconomic status of the families are an indication of why it is difficult for the parents to ever bring their children back — they simply cannot afford it.

Several parents told TEHELKA that the RSS schools where their children were studying were schools that upheld their indigenous religions – a rationale that has many takers. In Jel Chyrmang’s home in Mookhep village, TEHELKA found a framed photograph of Jel’s daughter, Rani Chyrmang, being felicitated by the patron saint of her school, Sri Balagangadharnath. Ask Jel who the saffron-robed saint is and she blithely repeats what she has been told, a story that would be hilarious if the circumstances were not so sad. According to Jel, Sri Balagangadharnath is a Seng Khasi saint who runs her daughter’s school. There is no doubt in her voice at all. Jel’s ignorance, however, does not extend to others in the family. Her husband, Denis Siangshai, who contested the recent Lok Sabha elections, turns out to be an RSS worker. Using his daughter as an example, he admitted to having convinced others in the area as well. “People have a wrong notion of RSS. I always tell them that the RSS will give them good education and culture,” says Denis.

Most parents have no idea that the schools chosen by the RSS espouse a different ideology. Besides the forced culturisation, even the libraries and books handed out to the students are RSS publications from recognized right-wing publishing houses in Bengaluru. In the JSS Ashram school, the library was stocked with publications of RSS ideologues published from Bharata Samskruti Prakashana (Indian Culture Publications). No trace of Seng Khasi teachings or Niamtre practices.

THE CHILDREN ARE ABANDONED AND DESTITUTE

For a non-tribal society like Karnataka, the notion of a father abandoning the family is seen as a social and economic disaster. Meghalaya, though, is a matrilineal society, where men move to live with women in their villages. Mothers continue to remain the primary caretakers. Even if the mother dies, the child is brought up by relatives and is never entirely abandoned.

THE CHILDREN HAVE ADJUSTED WELL

When children first leave Meghalaya, parents and children are not aware where the children will ultimately be taken. As direct communication between the children and parents is limited owing to the socio-economic conditions of the parents and the lack of facilities at the schools, the RSS is the main intermediary between the two. The RSS tells parents that the children are happy and well adjusted in their new environments. The reality is something else.

Raplangki Dkhar, a standard VI student at Vidyaniketan, was clearly waiting for his uncle to come take him home. “Only if people from home come and take us, we can go back. Every year when school ends, we hear that we will be taken back. But it has been two years already,” said a forlorn Raplangki. Only two of the children TEHELKA met had ever returned home to visit. Back in Raplangki’s hometown in Raliang, Meghalaya, when TEHELKA asked his uncle why he had not visited Raplangki, he is surprised, “I had no reason to doubt the fact that my nephew has adjusted well. At every RSS meeting in Jowai we are assured by them that the kids are healthy and happy.”

Direct phone calls between children and parents are dependent entirely on the parents’ finances. If the parents have not been able to pay for the child’s education, the schools that they are placed in are often the free orphanages run by the Mutts, where access to phones is non-existent, as is the case with the free hostel run by the Sri Adichunchanagiri Mutt.

For the RSS, these falsifications are part of a process. A process that is bound to add an additional layer of complexity amongst the people of Meghalaya, quite apart from the mental and social costs inflicted on young children.

WRITER’S EMAIL
sanjana@tehelka.com

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