YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Young Hindus Schooled in Defense, Hostility

Muslims feel threatened by training camps and demand that the Indian government stand up to fundamentalists.

June 15, 2003|Prajnan Bhattacharya | Associated Press Writer

KANPUR, India — At her summer camp, 10-year-old Stuti Gupta is learning to use guns, leap through rings of fire, and fight with knives and wooden truncheons -- skills that India's most powerful Hindu nationalist group tells her she needs to protect her faith.

The World Hindu Council's women's wing is holding training camps in several parts of India, where girls learn martial arts and are "ordained" with metal tridents, the symbol of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction.

But in a modern nation built on principles of tolerance and equality, such camps don't just deepen Hindus' faith. They create cauldrons of hostility and inject hatred against Muslims and Christian minorities, critics say.

"Such trends are inconsistent with prosperity, development and modernization. They are completely antithetical to the modern project of nation building," said Mushirul Hasan, a Muslim who is a professor of modern Indian history.

"If the government wants to create a modern state, it must call the bluff of the Hindu fundamentalists and show the danger they pose to the country."

Stuti, a fourth-grader, traveled 170 miles from her native Banda to attend the camp in the northern industrial city of Kanpur. Both cities are in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state.

"This training will prepare me to fight the odds in the society confidently. They are killing Hindus everywhere to reduce us to a minority, and this would help me to face that challenge," she said.

The Hindu council's main target is Muslims, who make up more than 12% of the country's 1.02 billion people. About 84% of India's citizens are Hindus, and Hindu nationalists often warn of what they say are the growing militant ambitions of Muslims.

Although the camps for girls are a relatively new phenomenon, the nationalist group has long held camps for boys, who attend them by the thousands.

"The camps are not only organized to impart arms training and physical education, but also to give them an in-depth knowledge of Indian culture and traditions," said Hari Agarwal of the camp in Lucknow, capital of Uttar Pradesh.

But Muslims are alarmed. In a rare move, a Muslim organization in Uttar Pradesh announced June 2 that it would distribute 5,000 tridents to Muslims to counter what they see as a growing threat.

In the western state of Gujarat, several camps are underway for hundreds of young women. Gujarat was the scene of Hindu-Muslim riots last year that claimed more than 1,000 lives, most of them Muslims. The riots began after Muslims burned a train car, killing 60 Hindus.

"These camps are being run across the state without any ban from the government," said Ataullah Khan, a Gujarati industrialist and organizer of a relief camp for Muslims whose homes were burned in the riots. "If tomorrow Muslims start organizing such camps in the name of their religion, and the same with Christians and Buddhists, would the state government permit them to do so?"

The Gujarat state government, widely accused last year of doing little to stop the anti-Muslim violence, has not taken a stand on the camps.

Kalpana Vyas, a senior Hindu Council leader who is supervising the camps in Gujarat, said they were meant to aid girls in "physical, mental and spiritual development."

"Learning how to use firearms is not illegal and it is not meant to kill anyone without provocation," she said. "Muslims also organize such camps in Pakistan to train people how to handle deadly weapons."

The Hindu Council campaign has been bolstered by the 13-year Islamic insurgency in the disputed Himalayan province of Kashmir. India has long accused Pakistan of supporting the militants, a claim that Islamabad denies.

The Hindu Council, an ideological affiliate of India's ruling Baharatiya Janata Party, has used the Kashmir insurgency to push its hard-line brand of Hinduism, traditionally a peace-loving religion.

Minorities throughout India and those who defend the country's secular constitution say training young Hindus to use weapons is neither patriotic nor religious.

"These camps are being organized to scare the minorities," said Sharif Khan Pathan, secretary of the Citizens Relief Service in Gujarat. "We understand that the state government is a sponsor of such activities, but the [federal government] should ban such training camps, as ultimately it is the Muslims who will suffer."

AP correspondent Rupak Sanyal in Gujarat contributed to this story.

Los Angeles Times Articles