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'Civilising the uncivilised'

By Geetashree

Around 40% of the children evacuated by the Salwa Judum to camps in Chhattisgarh are not in school. Some of them are being “adopted” by ashrams like the Chhattisgarh Jana Kalyan Sangh which aims to “civilise the uncivilised tribal children”. Eleven-year-old Naampodium Lacchu is now called Akash, and is well on the way to losing his tribal identity

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Naampodium Lacchu no longer lives in his village, Murliguda. Neither can you find him in the government-run camp. His brother, who is at the base camp in Konta, has no idea where his brother Lacchu is.  

The brother recalls that some people from an ashram took Lacchu away.  

But where? 

He does not know. And how would he. 

Because 11-year-old old Naampodium Lacchu is no longer known by that name.  

He is now called Akash. 

He is living at a gurukul run by a non-government organisation called the Chhattisgarh Jana Kalyan Sangh. 

Naampodium Lacchu does not know what he wishes to become when he grows up but he is deeply interested in Hindu religion and religious activities at the moment.  

His brother back home still worships tribal gods and goddesses. He would be shocked to know that Lacchu prays to Hanuman and Ram.  

Lacchu’s friend at the gurukul, Ravi, has a similar story. 

His earlier name was Pandrum and he comes from Chinta village in Konta. He studied till the sixth standard in his village. Then his father fell ill and died. 

Soon after, his village was evacuated by the Salwa Judum. Pandrum was brought to the relief camp at Kona along with his mother. But his mother disappeared mysteriously and he was left all alone. 

Though now he goes by the name Ravi, Pandrum still remembers all his school mates. He remembers swimming in the village pond and having fun with friends all day.  

He remembers walking through the forests and trying to imitate the sounds of various animals and birds. And he also remembers climbing tall trees.  

At times when he misses his village terribly, he sings hymns taught by the priest in the gurukul. 

This ashram is run by Guru Maharaj Narayan, a laboratory technician in a local Raipur college. He himself does not live in the ashram because it is located in the forest area far from the capital city of Raipur.   

He says: “We run the ashram with the help of the government and the people and we wish to impart good moral values and religious teaching to the children.” 

Some 25 tribal children affected by the Maoist violence live in this ashram and their upbringing is now the responsibility of this ashram.  

According to Narayan Rao the gurukul is designed to be an “ideal Hindu learning centre”.  

Hands held behind his back while walking the campus, Narayan Rao philosophically says: “We wish to civilise the uncivilised tribal children.” 

And turn them into fascists? 

Rao says: “Tribals are essentially Hindu. It is a misconception amongst urban people that they have their own belief system. They are more Hindu than us.” 

Niranjan Mahavir has been working with the tribal people of central India for the past 50 years. He says, “For many years now in Chhattisgarh there has been a systematic effort  to enforce Hindu beliefs and customs on the tribal people. And now with the Salwa Judum these children are being kept in right-wing institutions with the connivance of the government and the Hindu belief system is being forced on them.” 

This can mean sweeping changes across districts like Dantewada and Bijapur, where the ongoing conflict has severely impacted children's access to education. A survey conducted by a local NGO indicates that around 40% of children between 6 and 16 residing in camps are not attending regular schools.  

The Chhattisgarh government has relocated or merged around 260 schools from Dantewada and Bijapur districts since Salwa Judum started operations. The relocation of schools has in some cases separated children from their families because they are studying in residential schools far from their home villages. 

In some cases, such relocation has separated children from or led to limited contact with their parents who are residing in camps. 

In the interim, organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Sewa Bharati, and Gayatri Shakti Peeth have reportedly started adopting such tribal children. 

First their tribal names are changed, and then their daily routine and then their entire tribal identity. As in the case of Akash and Ravi, who are on their way to losing their tribal identity and becoming part of mainstream Hinduism.

(Geetashree is a Delhi-based journalist who writes mainly on social issues and women’s rights. She is currently Features Editor of Outlook Hindi. This is the concluding part of her series on the tribals of Chhattisgarh researched as part of the Infochange Media Fellowships 2008) 

InfoChange News & Features, May 2009