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Dionne Bunsha is an award winning journalist and humanitarian author. She has written extensively on a diverse range of human rights, social justice, and environmental issues

Featured Stories

  • What Clayoquot Sound Faces Now

    What Clayoquot Sound Faces Now

    October 17, 20130 Comments
    A historic opportunity to protect BC old growth forest, through new partnerships. By Dionne Bunsha, 19 Aug 2013, TheTyee.ca It has been 20 years since Clayoquot witnessed one of the biggest civil rights protests in Canada's history against the logging of old growth forests. Clayoquot Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, is one of British Columbia's most popular tourist destinations, with white surf, long stretches of beaches and towering rainforests. In the summer of 1993, over 12,000 participated in the historic protests and more than 800 people were arrested. The protests were accompanied by an international campaign to boycott timber from B.C. Today, efforts to protect Clayoquot's intact watersheds continue. The old growth forests haven't yet been logged, but they are still not legally protected. Clayoquot Sound is considered important for conservation because it has some of the last remaining rare intact watersheds and old growth temperate rainforests in Vancouver Island.
    The 'Summer of 1993' protests in Clayoquot prompted landmark changes in forestry, not only in Clayoquot Sound, but also influenced land use planning in other regions like the Great Bear Rainforest. In response to the protests, the government of B.C. appointed a scientific panel comprising scientists and First Nations elders to devise sustainable forestry practices. The panel introduced a new approach to land use planning called ecosystem-based management that recognizes the full array of interactions within an ecosystem, including humans, and allocates areas for protection as well as sustainable human use. It led to community-based watershed planning, which incorporated precautionary measures to protect the ecological and First Nations cultural values of Clayoquot's forests. The watershed plans added a network of reserves, resulting in a total of about 61 per cent of Clayoquot's forested land base in parks or reserves. As an alternative to clear cutting forests, the panel suggested variable retention, a system in which only a portion of the cut block is logged and the rest is retained in order to preserve environmental values.

    ClayoquotBirdsEye_600px.jpg

    Will First Nations and the B.C. government find a way to protect their intact forests? Photo by SparkyLeigh, Creative Commons licensed.

    The major forestry company operating in Clayoquot sold its Tree Farm Licenses (forestry licenses) to the five First Nations in the area -- the Tla-o-qui-aht, Ahousaht, Hesquiaht, Yuutuʔitʔath and Toquaht -- who formed Iisaak Forest Resources Ltd., a pioneering First Nations-owned forestry company. "Iisaak" means respect in the Nuu-chah-nulth language, and the company has avoided logging in the intact forests so far despite severe monetary pressures. In 1999, Iisaak signed a Memorandum of Understanding with environmental organizations in which it agreed not to log in Clayoquot's ecologically intact watersheds, and to adopt the international Forest Stewardship Council certification. In exchange, the environmental groups agreed to endorse Iisaak Forest Resources Ltd. as a model of ecologically sustainable forestry, assist in its development and help market its products. Big debt to chop down However, it has been difficult for Iisaak to balance sustainable forestry and economic viability, a challenge that some of the world's biggest forestry companies shied away from in this controversial region. The company has to service a debt that it incurred to buy the Tree Farm Licenses from the large forestry companies. Under pressure to show financial returns, Iisaak toyed with the idea of logging Flores Island in 2011, one of the intact watersheds. The plan prompted opposition from environmentalists and some First Nations members, and was not executed. "It would be tragic if the intact forests were cut just to pay off the banks, with no benefit to the communities," said an environmental activist. An alliance of environmental organizations including the Friends of Clayoquot Sound, ForestEthics Solutions and Greenpeace have been working with Iisaak and the region's First Nations leadership towards solutions to protect intact watersheds. Along with philanthropic organizations, they are trying to negotiate a "conservation finance" agreement with the First Nations that own Iisaak. The alliance is trying to raise money to pay off Iisaak's debt and to fund sustainable economic projects in return for an agreement that the B.C. government and the region's First Nations through Iisaak will protect Clayoquot's remaining intact watersheds. To accompany this agreement, Saya Masso, a resource worker for the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, feels that the B.C. government needs to reform forestry tenure law to give Tree Farm License owners the option of having a "conservation tenure." This would ease the pressure on tenure owners to log and pay high rents to the government and allow sustainable options like carbon credits. Several First Nations members have fought to preserve Clayoquot's old growth forests. Some leaders were part of the summer of 1993 protests. Prior to the protests, First Nations led historic demonstrations against plans to log intact Meares Island and won a landmark Supreme Court case in 1985 that declared an injunction against logging there. Now, the fate of Clayoquot's forests is in their hands. Will the First Nations and the B.C. government find a way to protect their intact forests? The Tyee, 19 August 2013.  
  • Gone with the Waves

    Gone with the Waves

    October 16, 20131 Comments
      Rapid sea invasion along the Gujarat coast is forcing families of fishermen to abandon the sea and their homes. TEXT & PHOTOGRAPHS BY DIONNE BUNSHA  

    danti1Villagers with bricks retrieved from their old homes in Danti.

    DANTI in Valsad district of Gujarat is being invaded. More than half the residents of this sleepy fishing village have fled already. It is not guns and troops that they are running away from. The sea they revere has swallowed up the village and is making them beat a retreat every year. Only the poorest remain on the edge of the village, with just a sea wall for protection. On one side of the wall are lashing waves. On the other are ramshackle, makeshift huts. No one here has permanent brick homes. They have to rebuild every year after the waters rush in over the wall. The sea knows no boundaries. Govindbhai Tandel is the first to face its fury. His hut lies at the tip of the village, very close to the seafront, unprotected even by a stone wall. Govindbhai is back home after spending eight months away at sea on his fishing boat. He returns to Danti during the monsoon, when it is too rough to be out fishing. But there is no rest at home. His family is hard at work filling their porch with sand, trying to elevate the entrance to prevent the tide from coming in. There is not much they can do. Water will flood their home anyway. It is only an effort at damage control. "We have moved back three kilometres in the last 20 years. Our original village was out there. You can't even see it now," says Govindbhai. "Three village wells have been submerged. We've relocated the school thrice. I've shifted home thrice so far. Can you see out there? That's where my last house was," he says pointing to a distant spot in the sea. The village is long gone, but lives in memory. As we walked around the village, most people pointed to various landmarks - all in the water. Nostalgia is the only thing that remains. During low tide, the beach is a hive of activity. Families are hard at work, trying to salvage bricks from the ruins of their old homes. On the seashore is a brick wall with an arch - the remnants of Damentiben Tandel's house. "It broke three years ago. Since then, we have kept moving and rebuilding every year," she says. "When the water comes in every monsoon, it's knee-high. We have to put our kids on the roof in the pouring rain. We don't have the money to buy land and move out, so we remain here."

    danti2A road built two years ago near Kaladra village has been eroded. A sea wall (in the foreground) offered little protection.

    There is often a lot of water in their homes, but not a drop to drink. "Our wells are in the sea. We get drinking water from the tap once every week or in 15 days. Otherwise, we have to buy water. Tempos come and supply water. It is Rs.30 a barrel, which lasts a day," says Damentiben. Danti is on the coast of south Gujarat, one of the most industrialised areas in the country. It is called the `Golden Corridor', but has some of the country's worst polluted spots such as Ankleshwar and Vapi. Dandi, the site of Mahatma Gandhi's historic Salt March, is 12 km from Danti. "The fish have gone further into the sea because of [industrial] pollution. And the water has come further in; so we have suffered. We can't go very far in our tiny boats. We used to get 400 to 600 fish in one night. Now we barely get a hundred," says Shantibhai Tandel, a small fisherman. He has shifted back six times and is now in his seventh house. "I want my kids to study. The only thing is we can't afford donations for their education or bribes to get them a job. If they are lucky, they will find a job, otherwise they will have to stay here, continue fishing and face the hardships." Sandwiched as they are between the sea and the saltpans, there is not much further they can retreat. Many from the village have moved to other towns or to Dandi in the past eight years. But like Mahesh Hari Tandel, those who moved out for safety reasons still yearn for the sea. "My boat is still in Danti and I feel I have to go there every day," he says. "When my father was alive, we shifted our house four times. After he died, our house broke twice and then we moved here. After we lost the mangroves in the last 15 to 20 years, many people had to migrate to big port towns like Mumbai, Porbandar or Veraval in search of work. Earlier, we could survive by fishing close to the shore and in the mangroves." The villagers along the coast are not sure why the sea is advancing at such a voracious pace. Some fishermen guessed it might be "because there are more storms in the sea". One of the reasons could be a rise in sea level owing to global warming. They don't know what global warming means, but have become "environmental refugees". Although they are barely surviving, the fisherfolk are facing the brunt of reckless consumption in more affluent places. Ironically, most of these villages have not been provided electric metres. People tap electricity from the power cables that run above their homes.

    danti3A house ravaged by the sea at New Kaladra in Bharuch district.

    Geologists from M.S. University, Vadodara, are studying the Gujarat coastline as part of an all-India study by the Space Application Centre of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). "Our preliminary observations reveal that the seawater has shifted in by 10-15 metres in 10 years, and at places it has moved around 80 metres horizontally," says Dr. Nikhil Desai, who is heading the survey of the Gujarat coast. They are comparing recent satellite images with Survey of India maps prepared in the 1960s, and have observed that the contours of Gujarat's coast are changing. Several places along India's 7,500 km-long coastline are experiencing similar erosion. In the Sunderbans, two islands have already vanished from the map, displacing 7,000 people. Twelve more islands are likely to go under owing to an annual 3.14 mm sea level rise, which will make 70,000 people refugees. Five villages in Orissa's Bhitarkanika National Park, famous for the mass nesting of Olive Ridley turtles, have been submerged, and 18 others are likely to go under. India is one of 27 countries identified by the United Nations as the most vulnerable to the impact of global warming-related sea level rise. Rising sea level "Observations suggest that the sea level has risen at a rate of 2.5 mm a year along the Indian coastline since the 1950s. A mean sea level rise of between 15 cm and 38 cm is projected by the middle of the century along India's coast. Added to this, a 15 per cent projected increase in intensity of tropical cyclones would significantly enhance the vulnerability of populations in cyclone-prone coastal regions," according to Dr. Murari Lal, a renowned climatologist engaged in research related to climate change vulnerability analysis in India. Lal has been one of the lead authors of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports for over 15 years, which collates research about climate change from scientific work across the world.

    danti4Jayantibhai Rathod repairs his fishing net at New Kaladra, where he resettled after the fishing colony at Kaladra was submerged 15 years ago.

    "No local studies have been done in India to measure the precise impact of global warming. But, in the last decade, several factors contributed to the loss of coastal land due to sea level rise," says Murari Lal. "Arctic ice has melted three times faster than predicted by the IPCC in 2001. The sea level has risen twice more than projected by the climate models. Stronger surface winds and storms have resulted in higher waves, which reach further inland. Human interventions, such as the removal of mangroves, reclamation and construction along the coast, have also led to faster erosion of the coast." "Sea rise due to global warming could be just one of the reasons for the erosion along the Gujarat coast," says Desai. "Local factors could also be responsible. Neo-tectonic activity - shifts in the level of the seabed - could also cause the sea level to rise. If there are disturbances in sediment budgeting along the coast, the amount of deposits from rivers, it could also affect the water level." Their study will determine which of these reasons is driving the changes along the coast. Further north, at the estuary of the river Narmada, Kaladra village in Bharuch district is also being nibbled away by the sea. Several houses are broken and hanging on the edge of a cliff of sand that threatens to cave in at any point. A sea wall built 20 years ago is now a relic of the past. A road constructed two years ago (at a cost of Rs.30 lakh) has been cut like a cake by the lashing waves. "The poorest are the most directly affected by this. Most families here are in a dilemma. They can't afford to shift but they cannot stay here either," said Desai.

    danti5Children help in raising the level of Govindbhai Tandel's house in Danti as the family braces itself for the onslaught of the monsoon.

    Kaladra too has been almost abandoned. The Rathod fishing colony here was washed away some 20 years ago. The fisherfolk resettled in "New Kaladra", a little higher up the estuary, but their houses are still temporary. Here too, there is no escape from the advancing water. "For around six days every monsoon, the water is waist deep. Then, we bring our boats to the doorstep and fill all our stuff in it," says Jayantibhai Rathod, a fisherman. When fishermen are forced to run away from the sea and they do not want their sons to continue their trade, it is time to start worrying. "This is a land of sand so you can never tell when it will shift," says Shantibhai Tandel.

    danti7A view of an eroded road in Kaladra.

    "We will keep moving back as far as we can. Then, it's in the hands of destiny." It is total surrender to the forces of nature. But how much of Nature's fury has been because of the recklessness of other people? The residents of Danti and Kaladra are too busy surviving the onslaught of the sea to dwell on the actions of others. It is the last thing on their minds as they sit on their rooftops in the pouring rain. Frontline, Jul. 14-27, 2007   danti8  
  • The Holes in our Chappals

    The Holes in our Chappals

    June 30, 20071 Comments
    Farmers are killing themselves in Gujarat.  DIONNE BUNSHA Amreli, Gujarat “Gujarat’s farmers aren’t like those in other states. Our farmers drive Maruti cars,” chief minister Narendra Modi declares in his speeches at public meetings. If he met the widows of farmers in Gujarat who have committed suicide, he would probably choke on his words. Prabhaben Pungalpara was at her sister’s house when her husband Ramesh hung himself from a noose and ended his misery. He probably sent her there to soften the blow. Ramesh’s relatives rushed him to Rajkot hospital but it was too late. Now, Prabhaben’s nightmare was about to begin. “I have two girls and a boy. We will have to manage somehow. I sold off our two buffaloes after he died. My son has gone to Surat to work in a diamond polishing workshop. Ramesh’s brothers have taken care of us,” says Prabhaben from Sarapdar village. Ramesh and his four brothers have a 20–acre farm. “Our cotton and jeera crop failed for two years, so he was very tense,” said his brother Amarsibhai. But the police report says that he killed himself because of a family dispute. “The first police report said that he died because his crop failed, but later the police changed the story,” says Prabhaben. “They told me ‘you have such a big house, there must be some other reason for the suicide. If we give compensation in one case, people will start killing themselves and we will have to give them all’. The police just want to suppress the case.” “If the government can help Maharashtra’s widows, then why can’t they help women in Gujarat?” asks Prabhaben. Maybe because it would shatter the chief minister’s delusions? Across Gujarat farmers’ suicides are either unreported or wrongly reported.  

    Pahubhai Dakhada, 35, preferred death to a life of debt. His suicide didn't make it to the government's records. Photo: Dionne Bunsha

    Ironically, the people raising a voice against this is the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), the farmer’s wing of the ruling BJP.“The state is hiding the truth about the rising number of farmers’ suicides,” Praful Sanjelia, Gujarat president of the BKS said at a press conference recently. “While the government has declared there were 148 farmers suicides last year, we estimate that there are around 300,” he said. Sanjelia said the police are deliberately concealing the suicides. “The police are not registering an FIR, so many cases go unreported. If they do file a case, they attribute the reasons for the suicide to social tension and domestic disputes. Actually, it is a farmer’s financial crisis that could cause other problems like fights in the family.” “There are several police reports that say the person was ill and by mistake swallowed pesticide instead of medicine. That’s the ridiculous things they do to disguise the true number of farmers suicides,” says Vinubhai Dudheet, a BKS leader in Amreli. “We are very angry with the BJP government and have launched several campaigns against their policies. They have done nothing for farmers. Instead, now they want to give off our land to industrialists for Special Economic Zones (SEZs).”

    Pahubhai Dakhada's wife Vajuben has to run the family from the confines of her house because widows in her community should not be seen in public. Photo: Dionne Bunsha

    But why is the BKS going against their own government? They first rebelled against the Modi’s BJP government when their founder and RSS pracharak, Laljibhai Patel, camped on the banks of the Sabarmati in Ahmedabad on a hunger strike when the state doubled power tariffs. Since then, the BKS has been on the wrong side of the chief minister. “Most BKS activists used to benefit from being aligned to the ruling party. They had clout with the local administration and used to get contracts etc. Now, it’s not so easy after they have fallen out of favour. So they too have an axe to grind with Modi,” said a local journalist, explaining the split in the Sangh Parivar’s ranks. The BKS cadre are from the core constituency of the Sangh, basically traders and big landlords. Most of them have businesses ranging from sand mining to stone crushing to hotels. But raising the issues of farmers is crucial to keeping their local political support and clout. That’s why they are doing their best to bring farmers’ concerns into focus and embarrass the government.

    Whatever the political motives of the BKS, there is no doubt that small farmers in Gujarat are in distress. Besides the police, families too have not reported suicides of their loved ones. Many widows are scared of dealing with police. “Though his suicide was reported in the newspaper, I didn’t report it to the police. I didn’t want to be harassed. They demand money and I didn’t have any,” said Vajuben Dhakhada (30) from Vadli village, whose husband Pahubhai (35) died on 12 July 2006. “In the past two years, our crop was destroyed. We had a debt of Rs 50,000. He kept worrying about how we would look after three small kids with no money and no crop in the field.”

    Now, Vajuben depends totally on her relatives for help. By killing herself, her husband confined her to a life of isolation from society. She is a darbar (Rajput) and as a widow, is not allowed to leave the confines of her home, not even to fill water from the well. Her three young children help her with errands outside their home.

    In the same village (Vadli), Prassanben, the wife of Anakbhai Dhakada (32) who killed himself on 7 April 2007, has a similar story to tell. She too is in purdah and cannot leave the house. But luckily, she lives in a joint family. And like Vajuben, she was too afraid to have anything to do with the police. When contacted by Frontline, agriculture minister Bhupendra Singh Chudasama said, “Not a single farmer in Gujarat has committed suicide.” This contradicts his government’s statistic of 148. “The reason for those suicides are family problems. People have many marriages in their families. It is not the government’s responsibility,” he said. Often, farmers who are heavily in debt worry about how the expenses of getting their children married. Most of them are in a crippling financial crisis because agriculture is no longer profitable. Production costs are increasing, while the prices at which farmers have to sell their harvest are not as lucrative. Their loans and interest burden increase every year, until they finally drown in debt. The elders of the Kakane family decided to drown themselves in the sea. Vallabh (80), his son Mansukh (40) and their respective wives went to the beach near Somnath and drowned themselves on 3 November 2006. Now their house in Pania Dev village is locked and abandoned. Mansukh’s three sons went off to Surat in search of work. “This tragedy happened because they had run up a huge debt with the moneylender,” said their nephew Nilesh. They borrowed Rs 1.5 lakh at an interest rate of 60% to pay off their power bills. The moneylender was demanding Rs 12 lakh including interest. They offered him their land but he was not willing to take it.”

    Grieving relatives of the Kakane family, whose four elder members committed suicide by drowning in the sea off Somnath as a way out of the clutches of the moneylender. Photo: Dionne Bunsha

    “They were under so much pressure that they couldn’t even eat properly. They would sit here in my parents’ house and ask them what to do,” said Nilesh. “Almost half the village is in the grip of the moneylender. They give a loan and then they take everything. Farming is not profitable anymore. The price we get for cotton is not as much as the rise in input costs or the price of living, so we are forced to borrow.” The most industrialised state, ‘Vibrant Gujarat’, seems more feudal than modern. “The moneylender inflicts terror in the village,” said Nilesh. “They have taken away a Harijan’s home after he borrowed Rs 5,000. But no one will dare to speak. They will even pretend this mass suicide in my family never happened. The moneylenders are thugs and they have the police on their side.” “Not a single small farmer is doing well. We are all starving. If farmers start doing accounts, we will all leave the farms,” said Kanubhai Ganniya, a farmer with five acres in Malak Nes village. “Many people are leaving the village or getting into other businesses. The cost of inputs like seeds, pesticides etc are rising every year. But the price of cotton does not increase as much.” Farmers estimate that they spend between Rs 7000 to 16000 per acre, but get around Rs 13,000-16,000 for their one-acre harvest. Until now, Gujarat was considered the rare cotton-growing state that was immune to farmers suicides. Now inflation and the unsustainable commercial mode of cultivation has affected them too. “Earlier, farmers only had to pay for seeds. Now they pay for everything – tractor, power, water, labour. Farming has become more cost-intensive and less viable,” said Dr Sudarshan Iyengar, Vice Chancellor, Gujarat Vidyapeeth. Compared to states, Gujarat has a high yield (three times that of Maharashtra, where suicide rates are highest). It also has 44% of cotton farms under irrigation, compared to 4% in Maharashtra, or 18% in Andhra Pradesh, where suicides are the highest. This improves yields and reduces risks. Here, like in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, almost all cotton farmers use genetically-modified Bt seeds. These seeds are inserted with a bacteria that kills the bollworm, a common pest on cotton plants. You can’t find a non-Bt seed variety in any farm input shop here. However, many farmers use illegal home-bred versions of Bt seeds like Navbharat, which are cheaper than the Monsanto-MAHYCO Bollgard brand. While the environmental dangers of this illegal trade of seeds have not been studied, this home industry has reduced seed costs for Gujarat’s farmers in the short term. Yet, other costs like those of either buying water from borewells or paying for power etc have gone up, and prices haven’t kept pace. “One pair of jeans that weighs around 500 grams sells for Rs 1500-1700 in the designer stores, but we get only Rs 13 for 500 grams of cotton. Those who are processing get all the profit, not those who produce,” said Vinubhai. When I visited Malak Nes village, a group of farmers were eager to show me their chappals. They threw their chappals on the floor and told me, “Our chappals have gaping holes and are broken. Can you please send them to Narendra Modi? And ask him which farmer in Gujarat has a Maruti? We can’t even afford a new pair of chappals.” Frontline, June 2-15, 2007 Also available here
  • At a Hindutva factory

    At a Hindutva factory

    November 18, 20060 Comments
    Rifle shooting, lathi combat and how to fight anti-nationals. All part of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s training camp at Patan.  An account of a visit to a training camp run by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. DIONNE BUNSHA in Patan The gates to the empty school were wide open. But there was a bamboo barricade. Two rifle-toting Vishwa Hindu Parishad workers, in trademark khaki shorts, patrolled the entrance. The sound of gun shots greeted us as we drove inside. Rifle training was under way.

    I asked if I could take some photographs. That got the instructors very excited. Suddenly, they stood up straighter and shouted instructions with more authority. But the ‘seniors’ intervened. “Why do you want to take pictures?” asked one of the organisers, whose hair and moustache were cropped close in military style. “All you people from the English press want to give us a bad name. Next you will publish these pictures and say we are running a terrorist camp.” My denials fell on deaf ears. “It’s girls like you from the English press who have made us notorious. Except others have short hair,very modern. They don’t respect Bharatiya culture. Show me your visiting card. I want to know where you are coming from.” He was a bit perplexed when he saw “The Hindu” written on my card. “See, we are on the same side,” I joked. But he wasn’t convinced. “Who is your editor?” he demanded. “His name is N.Ram. Dekho, hum dono Ram ka seva karte hain. (Both of us are working in the name of Ram),” I told him. Finally, he smiled. “Come meet our leader.” I was ushered to meet ‘the leader’ from Delhi, Surendra Jain. “So, you are from The Hindu. We have asked that newspaper to change its name. They always criticise us,” he said. Immediately, the others were on guard. “Let them keep writing. It’s good to know what our detractors think. The more they write, the more we go forward,” he boasted. “It’s thanks to the media bashing that Modi won the Gujarat elections. People felt that it wasn’t correct. We reacted in such a small way. Yet, we got so many abuses.” I changed the topic and tried to get some information about the camps. “For the past 13 years, we have been running these camps. The basic aim is to prepare workers who are ‘deshbhakts’. To organise youth to protect the country and religion. This summer, such camps are running in 35 places across the country,” Mr Jain explained. “It’s not only the duty of the state to protect the country. It’s also the duty of all citizens. No one looks at all the social work we do. We did rehabilitation work during the Kutch earthquake. We have opened cow shelters all over the country. We are not anti-Muslim. We are the enemy of any person who hates India.”  

    Rifle training in progress at the VHP training camp in Patan, northern Gujarat. Photo: Dionne Bunsha

    After that, Mr Jain spoke to the young trainees on “The Uniqueness of the Hindu Religion”. Quite a bit of his speech was a put down of other religions. “We know that Christianity started around 2000 years back. We can trace the birth of Islam to around 1400 years back. But no one knows when Hinduism was born. The first person on earth was born in the form of a Hindu. The history of Hinduism is as old as humanity itself,” Mr Jain revealed. Some of his insights would startle both historians and theologians. Yet, they might well be in tomorrow’s textbooks.

    “Christians and Muslims have killed crores of people and destroyed cultures in the name of religion. The history of their religions is tainted with blood. Hinduism is the only tolerant religion. Both Christianity and Islam say that the non-believers have no right to live. They can launch jihad against them. Finish them off,” he said. The tolerant Mr Jain then launched his call for action. “In Gujarat, you have shown the way forward to the rest of the world. You have shown us the path of how to deal with jihadis. It was a victory of our religion,” he said. “The concept of ‘ahimsa’ has been wrongly interpreted. It doesn’t mean cowardice. It doesn’t mean we don’t respond when attacked. To bear injustices is not written in the Hindu religion… We are the ones who believe in immortality of the soul. Yet, we are the ones most afraid of death. The jihadis have no fear of death. They learn this at an early age in madarassas. We must also end our fear of death.” Mr Jain’s speech reached a frenzied pitch. He got progressively shriller as he tried to mesmerise his audience. A lunch break followed his speech. No one was allowed to speak during lunch hour. Finally, we were allowed to break the silence. And I got a chance to speak to the participants. Who are these boys? Where do they come from? What draws them to this camp? Prajapati Hargovandas (20) joined after a colleague introduced him to the Bajrang Dal. He is an engineering student, and works in a weighing scale manufacturing company in Gandhinagar. His father is a farmer/moneylender. “After attending this camp, I feel all Hindus should sign up to protect our religion against Muslims. I will go back to my village and invite the Bajrang Dal to do a trishul distribution ceremony there.” But what’s the need for a trishul? “We should have weapons to protect our religion and our country. Muslims should be removed. They are spreading terrorism, communal violence and anti-social activities.” What did he learn in this camp? “We learn yoga, judo, karate, obstacle courses. There are discussions on religion and national issues. We are taught how to protect our country. If there is a conflict between Hindus and Muslims, how to deal with it. How to respect elders. What to do in a mandir. What to do if an earthquake strikes.” But what’s the need to learn rifle shooting, judo? “It is necessary for self-defence. If there is a riot, and if the Dal sends us to fight terrorists, we should know how to fight and use weapons.” A few had joined the Bajrang Dal following a minor communal incident in their village. “In our village, some Muslim boys teased a Hindu boy while he was praying in school. A fight broke out. After that, I was told to join the Bajrang Dal. All Hindus should unite- whether they are Patels, Thakors or any other caste,” said Manubhai Satvara (26), a marginal farmer and casual labourer from Sami in Patan district. There is little doubt that the feeling of belonging within the Sangh Parivar attracts many. “I am handicapped. But after joining this camp, I don’t feel so. Everyone works together. My self-confidence has increased,” said Bharatbhai Vadher (25), a farmer. “When I was a young boy, I remember one of the girls in our village was taken away by a Muslim boy. No one spoke out against this. That memory still haunts me. I will unite all Hindus in my village to see that something similar doesn’t happen again.” Some of the camp trainers are full-time VHP members. They live in the local shakha and work without any pay. The Sangh looks after their basic food and shelter. “I live in the shakha headquarters and travel in surrounding villages to recruit new members,” says Devraj Desai (22), a rifle training instructor, from Dhansura village in Sabarkantha district. “I was in the army for one year. One of my uncles died while serving in the army and another lost his leg. After that, my family asked me to leave the army. I always wanted to work for the nation, so I joined the Bajrang Dal in 1999.” For many, Hindutva is a family tradition. “I was in the RSS since I was 10 years old. My entire family is part of it,” says Ashok Vaghela (30), the lathi instructor, who is a small trader from Ahmedabad. “The Bajrang Dal teaches you more about security work compared to the RSS. But both have the same goals – to create a Hindu Rashtra. The Islamic and Catholic movements are a threat to our country. Islam is spreading terrorism. Christians are converting poor Hindus.” Both instructors and participants recited the same lines. Their education was complete. So was the military-like discipline. “We can’t talk to you until our senior gives us permission,” the instructors told me. I had to conduct all interviews with the camp organiser looking over my shoulder and prompting participants when necessary. As soon as the whistle blew, a young boy whom I was interviewing jumped up and said he had to leave. The boys had to sit through another ‘knowledge’ session. But the organisers didn’t allow me to attend. I tried to listen, to catch snatches of enlightenment. The speaker was telling the boys how to prepare for an emergency – a riot, earthquake. Who should be contacted, what should be done. One of the organisers saw me listening. “He is telling them what they should do in case there is any civil disturbance,” he said. After that, the organisers told me they had changed their plans. Instead of the evening physical training session, there was going to be a march through the town to make people aware of their public demonstration and trishul distribution ceremony the next day. Soon, I was asked to leave. “We have let you stay here for long enough. It is time that you left,” said the organiser, who had initially interrogated me. After being treated to such a generous helping of VHP-style Bharatiya culture, I didn’t persist. I left immediately. With a lingering suspicion about what was going to follow. As we drove out, the guards had put down their rifles and were napping near the gate. But for the young men inside the camp, it was an awakening… Frontline, June 7 - 20, 2003 Also available here