Interviewing Hartosh Bal on Ekal Vidyalayas

Why Hartosh Singh Bal feels Ekal Vidyalayas are less about education and more about indoctrination of tribals.

ByAnand Ranganathan
Interviewing Hartosh Bal on Ekal Vidyalayas
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“Start counting from 1. Recite every multiple of 3 along with the word Shriram. With enough practice drop the number itself and just say Shriram. The same thing can be done with the other multiplication tables.”

The much-talked-about article that appeared recently in Scroll.in on the international funding of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliated groups, was based on a report published by South Asia Citizens Web (SACW). The report titled Hindu Nationalism in the United States: A Report on Non-profit Groups was anonymous – much like the SACW itself that doesn’t disclose who its members or founders are – and contained a liberal sprinkling of quotes from earlier reports commissioned by the non-government organisation run by Teesta Setalvad. That said, the SACW report did contain numerous verifiable facts pertaining to income tax and other departments of the Unites States of America – facts which the author could corroborate from their original sources.

The SACW report brings out the financials of RSS-affiliates in some detail. “From 2001 and 2012”, it states, “five Sangh-affiliated charitable groups: India Development and Relief Fund, Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of America, Param Shakti Peeth, Sewa International, and Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, allocated over $55 million dollars to their program services, funds which are largely sent to groups in India”. The report then specifically highlights the functioning of Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of America, EVFA (EVFA, tax identification number 770554248) and demands that America take strong action against this organisation.

EVFA runs numerous Ekal schools (also called single-teacher schools) mostly through the international donations it receives. It is supported by the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), an affiliate of the RSS. Indeed, the VHP (America) website mentions that it was the VHP that initiated the Ekal schools way back in 1999 and that VHPA “actively supports EVFA which provides basic education and health services to tribal (vanvasi) children in Bharat. Your dollar a day provides education to 30 children for one year”.

Writer and columnist Hartosh Singh Bal was the first journalist to investigate the Ekal Vidyalayas, their functioning and syllabi, and according to his findings – their indoctrination of tribal children. What follows are excerpts from an email interview with him. Some questions are from people on Twitter who were asked for their views on the topic.

Your first thoughts on the SACW report and on the funding patterns of organisations affiliated to the RSS. Are you satisfied with its objectivity? Journalist Rupa Subramanya called the SACW report Mickey Mouse, idiotic, and questioned Scroll’s journalism for carrying it.

I think it is an important and insightful report, rather well-documented. As for its objectivity, much of the material is just that, evidence that can be cross-checked. If you are asking about the premise of the report, its belief that the expansion of the Sangh is something to be wary of, then each of us responds according to our world view. If you believe, as I do, that the Sangh Parivar in its entirety promotes a world view, termed Hindutva, which is exclusionary and aimed against those who don’t think of this country as their sacred land — read Muslims, Christians and people like me who don’t think of any land as particularly sacred and draw their citizenship from the Constitution — then you welcome this wariness.

As for Rupa Subramanya, I don’t care one way or the other what she thinks.

When you wrote about the Ekal Vidyalayas in 2004, there were only 1,500 of them. Today, the Ekal foundation runs 54,463 schools spread all across India and according to its Mission: “The Ekal Vidyalaya movement aims to help eradicate illiteracy from rural and tribal India by 2015. It is a movement of over 51,943 teachers, approximately 6,000 voluntary workers, 35 field organisations scattered in 22 Indian states, and 8 support agencies [2013 data]”. I am interested to know of your objection to this, what one might call the Ekal spread?

If you go back to my report, the figure of over 1,500 is for schools in Madhya Pradesh – as of July 2003, 6,966 schools existed across the country. Since then, the numbers have clearly expanded, even though, as was true then, I believe there is considerable exaggeration of the numbers. The mission’s own numbers suggest the number of schools exceed the number of teachers. Often the very rudimentary presence of the organisation in an area is termed a school.

As for my own objections, they are a result of extensively reporting on the Sangh’s activity in the tribal areas of MP, the Bhils in the southwest and the Gonds in the southeast, from 2003 onwards, and a part of that material forms a chapter of my book Waters Close Over Us, A journey along the Narmada. In the course of writing the book, I returned to many of these areas and stayed there for days and sometimes weeks, so my experience is not confined to one visit, or a single trip undertaken from Delhi.

Ekal Vidyalayas form only one string of the network of Sangh activity in such areas. These institutions go by different names, the Sewa Bharti, the VHP and so on, but the same set of people guide and direct them, often shifting from one to the other, and their cadres on the ground work in concert as part of one organisation. The Ekal spread is, then, only one part of the Hindutva drive in these tribal areas, and I have already expressed my views above regarding this ideology. The schools exist in a larger environment, which is about the spread of Hindutva and this is not lost on any of the students, so the mere focus on the outline of the curriculum on website is to miss the very purpose of the Ekal spread, as you term it.

The SACW report quotes VHP General Secretary Praveen Togadia stating that the Maoist threat does not exist in villages where Ekal schools are operating. Do you believe this? I’d have thought it difficult to teach primary school kids lessons in combating Maoism?

The Ekal spread has come about at a time when the Maoists were already well-entrenched in their areas of influence. If you avoid those areas, then it is easy to claim, like Togadia, that you have kept the Maoists at bay.

Do you think the Ekal system wouldn’t have proliferated to the extent it has, had the Indian government been as active in tribal areas as Ekal has been?

Of course. And this is true of the Maoists areas as well, where again there is no shortage of apologists who argue for the Maoist spread as well, with the claim that they are empowering the tribals. Both these spreads spring from alien, exclusionary and dangerous ideologies, and both see the tribals as fodder for their own expansion. Neither addresses the world from the tribal’s point of view or bother to examine what kind of local self-governance would fit the traditional structures of tribal society, or what kind of education is most required under local circumstances, which vary from region to region and tribe to tribe.

Are you offended principally by the Ekal system, or do you oppose it because the VHP supports and funds Ekal? Would you, for example, be fine with a similar schooling system run by activists who still believe Mao did no wrong?

I think I’ve made it quite explicit why I think either is a problem.

The SACW report says Ekal schools possibly function to “recruit tribal youths into the Sangh’s anti-conversion and anti-minority activities”. Did you see any evidence of this when you investigated the Ekal schools?

As I said, the larger context in which they operate makes this quite clear, and I would advise a trip to a few such tribal areas by anyone who has doubts. Just do it unescorted by the Sangh. They don’t call it anti-minority or anti-conversion, but that is built into the world view they espouse when, in fact, what they are doing amounts to a conversion of the tribals to their Hindutva.

This goes hand in hand, and I have written critically of this as well, of the increased activity of the Pentecostals missions in these areas, who do in fact constitute a guerrilla movement aimed solely at conversion through programmes such as changai, or mass faith-healing. Having learnt from the Sangh, they work much like them, using local recruits to spread their message. During the years I was in MP the clash between these two activities resulted in communal violence in Jhabua. I believe that all such organisations should be kept out of tribal areas, and the government must take on the onus of education.

India Development and Relief Fund — which also figures in the SACW report and whose sister organisation is Ekal — says Ekal has prominent citizens like Dr BK Modi, Justice P N Bhagwati and Dr Abid Hussain on its board of trustees. Do you believe these eminent citizens are being hoodwinked by the VHP, or do you think they are wilful participants in the alleged indoctrination?

Ask them.

In 2011, Outlook Business carried a piece on the Ekal system, which it praised and said was supported by organisations like the Essel Group and the ShriRam Foundation. There was no mention of a rabid Hindutva ideology being indoctrinated by such schools as mentioned in the SACW report.

Outlook Business, the name speaks for itself. Can you cite an instance where business reporting in this country bothered itself with issues of value or ideology?

Do you have any issues with NGOs investing a portion of the money they receive as donations, into mutual funds and stocks? For example, in 2013, Ekal received 3 million USD in donations, invested 20 per cent of it in Mutual Funds, and lost 24,000 USD on it.

I think they had no business doing so, but then that is what I think of most of their activities.

Your initial report on Ekal in 2004, which provided an example of how students are taught multiplication – do you believe it is statistically significant? To be sure, Ekal does run 55,000 schools now.

They were running over 1,500 in Madhya Pradesh then, and as I said I have revisited several of those areas and I don’t think much has changed. At the time 1,500 out of 7,000 was significant and there was no reason to believe things were different in other states, and there is no reason to believe things are different today.

The glimpse of the syllabus that Ekal provides on its website in no way points to its alleged rabid indoctrination practices. Do you object to the seven subjects Ekal says it teaches: Language, Arithmetic, General Knowledge, Moral Values, Health Care, Handicrafts, Yoga & Physical Exercise?

I have already explained in some detail that you should not draw your conclusions from a website. Dissimulation is an art the Sangh has long mastered.

Ekal says it teaches the following “values” to the students: Touching the feet of their parents, daily bath and cleanliness, devotion to the nation, discipline. What could be hateful in that?

Do read my previous answer.

Have you personally gone through an Ekal textbook, attended an Ekal school session?

Yes.

Going by your finding, do you believe Ekal is alone in adhering to religious teaching methods? Are you, for example, against Christian, Muslim and Sikh schools teaching or perpetuating their religion or religious deities?

I went to a missionary school for several years in MP. We were burdened by a moral science class in lieu of church, but I didn’t have to learn multiplication or geography in the shadow of Jesus. If that were the case in any school, Christian, Muslim or Sikh I would have an objection to it.

Would it have been alright had Ekal replaced “Ram” in the multiplication quote with a tribal deity? It is an accepted view that children learn faster when taught with examples of things, places, names they are familiar with.

It would help if the Ekal system responded to local believes in any fashion. That said, I don’t think rote learning of multiplication tables, necessary if not very interesting, is speeded up by interpolating tables, chairs, Ram or Jesus.

@narenbalaji asks why do you not have a problem with Missionary schools and Madrasas?

I do. See above.

‏@arallan78 asks if you had the authority, say like Smriti Irani has, would you choose to keep students in the dark about extremist Islam?

No, rather I would also include the problems with Hindutva and its adherents, Sikh fundamentalism etc, and list them all as social diseases we would be well rid off.

@6amiji asks whether you have followed up on an Ekal student after he or she graduated from an Ekal school?

No, I do have other things to report on occasionally.

‏@dinipc says the Ekal schools do not run on state money, so why is taking the name of Ram hateful?

I did not say it was hateful. In the case I cited, not only was it stupid, it was illustrative of a larger worldview.

@nirax asks if you think indoctrination exists only in India. He also asks whether you have raised your voice against indoctrination by other religious groups.

No. And as for the second question, often enough.

@UrchinSpock asks whether you have written about Christian schools teaching religious subjects in classrooms?

I have. See above.

@vipulbhatt asks if you know whether any Ekal course material promotes hatred towards any person or group or belief?

Not the course material in explicit terms but that is intrinsic to the kind of world view the curriculum is intended to impart.

Finally, should religion be taught in schools at all?

I definitely think so. The salience of religious texts, their history, I think should be part of any schooling. But if one religion is to take up a disproportionate amount of the curriculum, students should have the option of choosing other alternatives, such as moral science in the missionary school I mentioned, though personally I think we would have just been better off playing some football outside.

Hartosh Singh Bal, thank you very much.

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