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‘Urban Naxals’, religious conversion dominate IIT sessions on tribals under govt campaign

Webinars organised under Unnat Bharat Abhiyan meant for rural and tribal development have featured numerous speakers allegedly propounding the RSS line.

30 August, 2020 11:02 am IST

IIT Delhi | Photo: Commons
IIT Delhi | Photo: Commons
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New Delhi: There is a growing imprint of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) campuses, through the ‘Unnat Bharat Abhiyan’ being promoted by the Ministry of Education (previously Ministry of Human Resource Development).

The campaign seeks to get the domain expertise of IITs and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) to help the development of village communities across India, and IIT-Delhi is its ‘national coordinating institute’ or nodal agency. But after its implementation in 2015-16, it was pointed out to the campaign that tribal communities weren’t getting as much attention as others. So, IIT-Delhi collaborated with the Indian Tribal Cooperative Marketing Development Federation (TRIFED) to increase the tribals’ livelihood and income opportunities.

Discussions on tribal issues are now being organised for students of IITs and other premier institutions across the country, for which Swadeshi Vigyan Abhiyan, a body under the RSS-linked Vigyan Bharati, has signed a tripartite agreement with the IITs and TRIFED.

IIT-Delhi has so far conducted two webinars on tribal development where several speakers have given presentations to engineering students, raising issues like ‘Urban Naxals’ and religious conversion.

Also read: How metallurgical engineer Ashok Singhal cast Ram Janmabhoomi movement in popular mould

‘Ideological imposition’ versus ‘domain experts’

Speaking to ThePrint Congress spokesperson Gourav Vallabh said the Narendra Modi government was trying to “pollute” IITs and IIMs with its ideology.

“IITs and IIMs are like temples of modern education in the country. No government has ever tried to pollute them through influx of any specific ideology,” he said. “Only those people should be invited to participate in the webinars who have either worked or are still working for the tribals by living among them. It is quite wrong to utilise the platform of the IITs for the sake of your agenda.”

But the IITs claim only domain experts related to every subject are being invited, and their ideological leanings have never been considered.

V.K. Vijay, IIT-Delhi professor and national coordinator of the Unnat Bharat Abhiyan, told ThePrint: “The campaign has been going on for the last four years now. Recently, IIT-Delhi signed an MoU with TRIFED under which we are organising webinars on subjects related to tribal affairs as well as other topics, including rural development.”

He added: “Apart from the students and faculty members of IIT Delhi, students and teachers from all other IITs, IIMs, NITs and other educational institutions present in various other regions of the country have also joined in these webinars. In future, we are planning to host a webinar on the subject of livelihood of the tribals.”

Vijay insisted the campaign has “nothing to do with any specific ideology”. “Only those people are invited to speak during these webinars who have actually worked on the ground. The main idea behind this webinar is to discuss how to improve the lives of tribals as well as what can be done for them with help of new and advanced technology.”

Harsh Chauhan, executive member of RSS-linked organisation Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, and the co-founder of Sivaganga Samagam Gram Vikas Parishad (village development council), was a participant at one of the webinars. He told ThePrint: “In this programme, the invitees were only those who have worked for rural development and among tribals.”

Also read: Delhi Police books JNU scholar for ‘anti national’ tweet on Army and RSS

‘Urban Naxals’

On 20 June, a webinar titled ‘Understanding various modes of tribal development while protecting their indigenous culture from external influences’ was organised, in which one of the speakers was Rajiv Ranjan Prasad, senior manager (environment) at the National Hydropower Corporation in Faridabad who has penned numerous books chronicling the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh.

Prasad said discussions in universities have also affected the reality of tribal discourse, as the academia has used tribal discourse according to its own convenience. “In reality, any discourse about tribals should start from where they live,” Prasad said.

In his presentation, Prasad went on to say that anybody can be an ‘Urban Naxal’, and called it an “extremely dreadful situation”.

He noted that various types of movements, NGOs and social organisations across India are flourishing within the larger Communist umbrella, and they work for the same objective under the guise of different names and purposes.

“If you listen to the voices with some more attention, you will find that those who are advocating azadi (independence) for Kashmir are the same voices that are screaming aloud for freedom of Bastar,” Prasad said.

He also talked about “intellectual terrorism”. “There is a special sympathy among the intellectual section for Maoists — People’s Union for Civil Liberties, People’s Union for Democratic Rights, People’s Democratic Front of India, Dr Darshan Paul, Prof. G.N. Saibaba, Rona Wilson, Gautam Navlakha, Democratic Students’ Union (sic), Revolutionary Democratic Front, etc,” Prasad said.

“These faces and organisations have been active for the last many years and their ideology is also clear. There are damning accusations against them — that they have been working to increase the spread of CPI Maoist ideology.”

Harsh Chauhan, who had participated in the same programme, said every tribal region has its own way of life. “They have their own language and culture according to the states they live in. We need to fully understand the society where we have to work. Right now, the students need to develop that kind of understanding. We have to understand the tribal society on their terms,” he said.

Also read: ‘Secularists & distorians’, not Muslims, scared of real history — RSS editorial on Ram Mandir

Religious conversion

On 1 August, a second webinar under the same title was organised in which BJP MLA from Tripura Dr Atul Debbarma, who has been working on social issues among the state’s tribals for a long time with help from the RSS, was a speaker.

In response to a question regarding how the Church is working with tribals in Northeast, Debbarma said: “When it comes to the tribals, the strategy of the Church has been very aggressive.”

Another speaker, Prof. Anil Boro, head of the department of folklore research at Gauhati University and director in-charge at its Centre for Performing Arts, spoke about the vision of indigenous cultures and approach towards developmental models, saying that instead of looking at tribal society from a political point of view, indigenous aspects should be understood as academic and contextual concepts.

Boro also talked about the threat of religious conversion and external influences, saying they have alienated the indigenous people from nature. The new generation of tribal society believes in preserving indigenous culture and traditional community culture, he said.

Montuing Jeme, senior secretary of the Zeliangrong Heraka Association, an organisation claiming to represent the Zeliangrong sub-tribe of the Nagas, and full-time member of RSS-linked Vidya Bharati, spoke about the tribals of the Northeast.

“Around the year 1820, Christian missionaries started to infiltrate the Northeast, due to which large-scale conversion took place. In Nagaland, missionaries adopted all kinds of tricks to convert the populace,” Jeme said.

“Religious conversion has a direct and demeaning effect on the feeling of nationalism. Today, the government and people living outside the Northeast will have to understand our culture. If the religious conversion continues in the same manner, tribal society will become extinct in the coming days,” he said.

Answering a question on outside influence on the Northeast’s tribals, Jeme said: “The society and culture is witnessing adverse effects of outside influence. Because of this, people are failing to protect their culture and religion. Anti-national feeling is on the rise. People do not consider their country as their own. The feeling of being different has grown. We see diminishing nationalist sentiment among the people too.”

He added, “The Church is responsible for all the conversion. It has this web and knows how to work and how to target the people. It operates very professionally in this regard. The same is happening in our region. No person or missionary ignores anything said by the Church.”


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