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Communalism

Indo-Nepal Border: Schools Run by Hindutva Outfit Teach Kids to 'Identify Enemies of Hindus'

The Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation, which is linked to RSS and VHP, is indoctrinating women and children of a the Tharu tribal community.

Lakhimpur Kheri: Palia Kalan is a village of about 50,000 people located in the Lakhimpur Kheri district of Uttar Pradesh. It is 40 kilometres away from Dhangadhi, the first village one reaches in Nepal if you cross the border from Uttar Pradesh. Palia Kalan is home to the Tharu people, an indigenous tribal community. The tribe is spread across the border districts sitting on the Indo-Nepal border.

Every day around 10 am, Tharu girls and women in Palia Kalan queue up to go to a one-teacher school. This school is run by the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation (EVF), which offers general education and vocational classes free of cost for children aged five to 14 from any caste or religion. EVF USA, which runs these schools is linked to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), USA.

Classes at Ekal include a mix of children from all segments of the village: Hindu upper castes, lower castes, tribals, and Muslims. Since 1989, Ekal claims to have educated over 10 million students in 80,000 villages and tribal areas in India. As of June 2023, Uttar Pradesh had 17,091 Ekal schools, where more than 5,16,562 students were enrolled.

‘War against enemies of Hinduism’

In Palia Kalan, Sanju Kumari, a 28-year-old woman from the Tharu tribe, talks very fondly of “Hinduism”. She has attended various women’s meet-ups of the RSS in Lucknow. “Our people (Tharu tribe) have been away from Hinduism for decades, but now with the help of the RSS, we are realising the importance of Hinduism and the war that should be waged against the enemies of the Hindu religion,” Kumari explains.

In her class of 18 women students, Kumari teaches them Hindu prayers and morals, how to stitch clothes, and who the “actual enemies of Hinduism” are. For a year now, Kumari has been educating women up to the age of 30 about the dangers Islam and Christianity can pose. Kumari and Chandravati Rana – another Tharu woman who is also associated with the RSS – have been teaching women about ‘Love Jihad’ – an Islamophobic conspiracy suggesting that Muslim men lure Hindu women into marrying them only to convert them to Islam and to establish demographic dominance.

Sanju Kumari (left) and Chandravati Rana at the Ekal Sewing Centre in Palia Kalan. Photo: Tarushi Aswani

“Did you not see what that Muslim man did to Shraddha (Walkar)? How he chopped her to pieces? Muslim men cannot be trusted,” Kumari told her students, who are as young as seven – referring to the case of Shraddha Walkar who was murdered by her live-in partner, Aaftab Amin Poonawala.

Kumari and Rana have also been fighting local pastors who try to spread the message of the Bible in Lakhimpur Kheri. They claim to have burnt copies of the Bible to stop this. Their affiliation with the organisation gives them strength, they say. Although they work as educators and are paid less, their passion for the propagation of Hinduism does not fade, they say.

Tharu women told The Wire that most men from the tribe are alcoholics and some travel outside of the village looking for work. Troubled by unemployment, Tharu women are becoming part of the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation to earn whatever little is handed to them. This, they say, gives them the chance to teach Hinduism and earn at the same time. According to estimates, there are about 1,50,000 Tharu people in Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar, which share a border with Nepal.

Tharu girls and women at the Ekal Centre in Palia Kalan. Photo: Tarushi Aswani

Both Kumari and Rana said that they motivate other Tharu women from neighbouring villages, such as Balera, Beldandi, Bander Bharari, Dhuskeya, Pachpeda, and Dhyanpur, to attend the classes at Ekal Vidyalaya.

“Ramnagar is the only village which has no students here, only Muslims live there. A few of them students came here once, but they refused to sing Hindu prayer songs, so it is useless for them to attend classes here,” said Kumari.

Indoctrinated to hate

In an abandoned temple in Palia Kalan, Janaki Devi, a priestess, has been asking Hindus to re-establish the sanctity of the temple by joining her in praying to deities and acting upon what Hinduism truly advocates.

“When I first came here, this temple had evil spirits. I cleansed the temple and now it has become a Dharamshala for the needy,” explains Devi. She also adds that ill persons who stay at the temple magically heal after chanting mantras. While Devi is not associated with the RSS or EVF, she subscribes to the ideology of Hindutva organisations.

Priestess Janaki Devi at the temple in Palia Kalan. Photo: Tarushi Aswani

Devi fully echoes the idea that Ekal advocates, she says, “We need more training. The Sangh (RSS) should also train women to defend themselves and fight against those corrupting Hindu minds.”

“Hindutva ko aage badhaane ke liye prayaas karna padhega, yahan buhot log issai dharam mein jaa rhay hain. Humein yeh rokna hoga. Chahe granth ki padhaai ho yaan danda chalana, Hinduon ko sab aana chahiye (Hindus have to put up with struggle to move forward. Several people here are converting to Christianity. We have to stop this. Whether it is through reading Hindu scriptures or through force. Hindus should know everything),” Devi argues.

For propagating Hindutva, Devi undertakes a ‘noble’ task every Friday. “My disciples and I make sure to blast bhajans on full volume when they (Muslims) read azaan for Friday namaz. This is my way to stop Islam. But Christians are out of control, they give money, property, and alcohol to convert Hindus,” says Devi. “Sanatanis are precious, they should be trained by the Sangh. They are the true fighters in the cause.”

Kumari and Rana agree with Devi. They told The Wire that this ‘training’ that Devi suggests is needed to keep the population of Christians and Muslims under check. They regularly consult Devi and take her suggestions to the local RSS affiliates who also contact Devi frequently concerning mass conversion conspiracies in the area.

Muslims on the Indo-Nepal border

The Wire met with Mahender Yadav, the supervisor of Ekal schools in Sitapur district. Yadav, who took Kumari and Rana under his wings, believes that Muslims and Christians “need to be shown their rightful place in society”. “They can either accept Hindu supremacy or convert to Hinduism. Ekal prepares children to identify enemies of Hinduism at an early stage,” he told The Wire.

Under Yadav, 430 Ekal schools and institutions further the agenda of radicalising students. But the propaganda that these schools further through Tharus travels beyond classrooms. Due to the presence of these schools, Muslims in Uttar Pradesh villages that border Nepal feel vulnerable with children being indoctrinated to hate.

Brij Bihari, a social activist from Uttar Pradesh’s Sitapur district, feels that Tharus are being “used as foot soldiers in the border districts to channelise Hindutva sentiment”. Bihari also views this as a dangerous trend which could jeopardise the lives of Christians and Muslims along the border.

With new schools of ‘hate’ coming up every day, Muslims like advocate Pervez Iqbal feel that his community is staring at genocide. Iqbal, who is a local activist from Shravasti, feels that Hindutva groups are gaining stronger ground in the border districts ever since 2014, and even more since 2019 – coinciding with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rise.

Iqbal’s neighbour, a 60-year-old Muslim man, Rabiullah, feels that with tribals siding with Hindutva groups, Muslims would be forced to leave their homes merely for being Muslims.

“Yeh log kabhi bhi nikaal denge humein, phir itni mehnat ka ghar do paise mein bech kar bhaagna parhega, yahan haalaat waisay bhi election ke time buhot garam rehte hain (These people can kick us out any moment. We will have to sell our hard-earned homes in distress and migrate. As it is, during election time, the situation is hot to handle here),” says Rabiullah, who has lived in Shravasti all his life.