Jalespeta, Orissa: Deep inside the thickly forested hills of eastern India, where ancient tribes live in huts of grass-and-mud cut off from modernity, a stealth electoral weapon is at work for Hindu nationalists.
It is a sprawling residential school founded by a Hindu proselytizer, where girls from animistic tribes learn Sanskrit prayers and Hindu philosophy in between gardening and cooking.
Across the country’s remote tribal belt, a zone of Christian missionary activity for decades, such tutelage is aimed at converting tribes to Hinduism and creating foot soldiers for the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, the political standard-bearer of Hindu nationalist groups.
Catch them young: Religious hymns being taught at the Jalespeta ashram where a holy man was killed last month, leading to reprisal attacks against Christians in the village and elsewhere in Orissa. Parth Sanyal/Reuters
“The BJP is performing well in tribal belt because of the good work done by the Sangh Parivar,” Jual Oram, BJP’s vice-president and a tribal member of Parliament said, referring to the Hindu revivalist movement set up partly to counter Christian missionaries. As the party prepares for national elections due by May, the foot soldiers of Hinduism recruited in thousands of places, such as the Kanya Ashram girls school in Jalespeta, will help in campaigning. They are among the party’s grassroots network across India.
In most states, the recruitment of followers for the BJP sparks little controversy. But in this region, it has often led to conflict. Since last month, at least 16 people, mostly Christians, have been killed in reprisal attacks in Orissa after the murder of the founder of the Kanya Ashram girls’ school.
More than 3% of Orissa’s 40.5 million people are Christians, many of them devout converts from Hinduism, according to the World Christian Database. They are prime targets of these new Hindu nationalist campaigners eager to swell their ranks.
To counter the Christian missionaries, Sangh Parivar, an affiliated group of Hindu organizations, has replicated their work. It has opened thousands of schools and medical facilities to increase its influence among poor tribes, traditional worshippers of nature who Hindu radicals say are weaned into Christianity by coercion or inducements such as free education and health care.
“We have reconverted about 50,000 people in the past 40 years,” said Hansraj Maharaj, who looks after the Kanya Ashram in Jalespeta. He says the number of reconversions, as an ancillary benefit, directly amplifies the number of votes for the BJP.
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In 25 years, the BJP has gone from a bit player to the main national opposition party, a success many credit to the diligence of groups such as Kanya Ashram through its focus on Hindutva or Hinduness, a concept defined in sometimes strident, even fatal opposition to Muslims and Christians.
The BJP led a central coalition from 1998-2004 after a brief stint in power in 1996. It now governs or shares power in 12 states, in many of which it enacted laws making converting difficult or even impossible.
Although the Kanya Ashram and another residential school for boys in nearby Chakapada village say they are a social service organization, the links to the party are hard to ignore —the work of Hindu nationalist groups has been a political project as much as a religious and cultural one.
Full-time workers from these ashrams help in election canvassing, touring tribal villages and telling people to vote for the lotus flower that is the BJP’s symbol. The long-term aim of the ashrams is to have students always think of Hindutva and become automatic supporters of the BJP.
But the battle for votes is only a convenient by-product of the battle for souls which Hindu groups have fought with Christian missionaries engaged in converting tribesmen.
Christians form less than 3% of officially secular but mainly Hindu India’s 1.1 billion population. But Hindus say conversion rates are high in tribal belts where missionaries either coax or coerce the poor into changing their faith.
Christians say the Sangh Parivar uses the spectre of conversion to unite Hindus for votes.
In this tranquil village nestled in the teak forests, religious conflict seems particularly unlikely. Yet the calm is eerie, following days of religious rioting last week. Away from modernity, it is a place from another time, without electricity or tap water. Barefoot children play with cows. Women walk to a nearby market, balancing bundles of firewood on their heads, while bare-chested, sinewy men plough patches of fields.
“It’s a deceptive lull before more violence,” said Lambodara Kanhar, a leader of the Kondh tribe of Orissa’s remote Kandhamal.
Local media reports said fear of attacks was prompting many Christians among the tribes and ethnic groups to convert to Hinduism, with a ceremony involving the washing of the feet, sprinkling of holy water from the Ganga and the chanting of mantras.
Laxman Digal reconverted about two weeks ago. “Christianity couldn’t give us peace or security, so I am becoming a Hindu,” he said before a village gathering. But at his home, symbols of the faith he renounced remain—a Christian calendar, several small, metal crosses and a rosary. “There is no need for them now,” he said, putting the religious items in a steel box as neighbours peered through windows.
Whether or not Digal becomes an automatic BJP voter may never be known, but the Sangh Parivar attributes the BJP’s success among indigenous communities to “the home coming” of converts like him.
Jatindra Dash contributed to this story.