The Monkey God's Army

The Dharavi Times
Notes from different corners of the world.
May 17 2005 8:24 AM

The Monkey God's Army

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The headquarters of the Dharavi Times newspaper, which has a circulation of about 3,000, is located on the fifth floor of one of the few skyscrapers at the neighborhood's edge. To reach the office, an unenergetic visitor is required to take the elevator, which plays "Edelweiss" when the door is open and waiting. It's not Muzak exactly; it's tinnier and more primitive, like the melancholic tune of an old-fashioned music box.

Upstairs, in the one-room office decorated with flowered wallpaper, Raju Korde, who is 37 and the paper's editor, held court wearing khaki pants, a wrinkled shirt, and blue socks. A steady stream of visitors, mostly elderly contrarians—came to discuss the state of the world.

"Dharavi is a small town with its own problems, so I wanted to give voice to them," Korde said between visitors. Korde started the paper only two years ago. Before that, he was a reporter. He is also a Communist, which means that by definition he opposes the rabid politics the RSS preaches. Still, he said, the RSS has so successfully penetrated Dharavi that even his daughter attends a school that is surreptitiously run by the RSS. Korde said that his 4-year-old is being taught to perform their kind of worship, but "it's the best school in our neighborhood, and we figure we can undo the damage at home."

Korde rose and padded around the white-tiled floor. It was late afternoon, and his stringers were beginning to arrive with the day's news. "The biggest problem is that Dharavi is the largest slum in Asia," he said, throwing up his hands and laughing. Outside the office's window, the sea of tin roofs glinted in the bright afternoon. From a distance, if you squint, the angled roofs look like the peaks and troughs of waves.

Korde was waiting for one visitor in particular: his office computer technician, a young man named Ram Krishna. In addition to his job fixing computers, Ram Krishna is also one of the leaders of Dharavi's chapter of the RSS. The RSS was founded in 1925 by a man named Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, fueled by his growing disillusionment with Gandhi's campaign of nonviolence. From the beginning, the RSS provided training in martial arts and reinforced the unity of the Hindu community. Nathuram Godse, an RSS member, shot Gandhi in the name of Hindutva, or "Hindu Principles" in 1948. The transcript of Godse's statement to the court has been published as a book called May It Please Your Honor.The book is banned in India but not impossible to procure. In it, Godse argues that, "Far from attaining freedom under his leadership, Gandhiji has left India torn and bleeding from a thousand wounds." The book goes on to say, "Adopting Non-Hindus to [the] Hindu fold will alone maintain National integrity based on culture and knowledge. … The Hindus who say that teachings of all religions are equal are either ignorant, or [hypocrites]."

Although Gandhi's assassin, who belonged to the upper caste and faulted Gandhi's association with "riffraff," is an example of what the RSS used to be, these days, the base of Hindu nationalism is growing to include a vast number of lower-caste youths. Officially, the RSS has always been opposed to caste divisions. This is especially true in rural India, home to more than 70 percent of the country's population, and in Dharavi, where involvement in the powerful RSS can lead to job opportunities.

Last year, the RSS political wing, the BJP, which had held power for the past six years, fell out of favor and lost the national election to the rival Congress Party. On the ground, most people said that the BJP lost for two reasons. First, they failed to deliver promised jobs. Second, there was the violence in Gujarat. Last month, when one of the BJP's leaders, Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, attempted to procure a visa to the United States for a diplomatic visit and business trip, his visa request was denied on the grounds that he was a religious extremist.

Despite the promising signs that the larger political power of the RSS is on the wane, that of the Bajrang Dal is not.

"The Bajrang Dal is on the rise not only in Dharavi, but in all of India," Korde said. "It used to have a following only in the upper castes, but now it has a tremendous appeal to fishermen and landless laborers. The biggest problem here is unemployment. When you have no jobs, you look for easy answers as to why not. The Bajrang Dal says, 'Muslims are taking your jobs.' "

Dharavi is not Bangalore; the IT boom has had no effect on unemployment here, Korde said, except that the Internet has had an increasingly important role in the rise of Hindu nationalism—the RSS uses Web sites as a way to spread its message and, more important, to raise money. "These guys are long-term players. They don't think in a matter of days, but years."

In the hall, the elevator gate opened and the anemic strains of "Edelweiss" floated down the corridor as Ram Krishna came into the office. A young man with a thick head of short hair, he looked a little bit nervous, having been summoned to the office to discuss something besides computers. He sat in a plastic chair beneath a poster portraying a Muslim, a Sikh, and a Hindu holding hands.

The conversation turned to a discussion about the goondas, or thugs of Dharavi. Korde, fiddling with a padlock that was sitting on his desk, turned to Ram Krishna and said, "Your Bajrang Dal is Hanuman [the Monkey God's Army]. The monkey god has no brains."

The half-dozen men sitting around the stifling office laughed. Ram Krishna smiled and rested his elbows on the arms of the chair.

When they quieted down, Ram Krishna said: "One country, one religion, one culture—that's our ideology. Other people say there can be differences, but we are one, and we are Indian." He continued, "The RSS ideology is to make any youth a good person. It's not about religious dominance."

The room was quiet.

Korde spun the padlock's dial and said, "You take custody of a child's brain, and slowly, slowly, you destroy it."

Eliza Griswold, a fellow at the New America Foundation, is a poet and author of New York Times best-seller The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches From the Fault Line Between Islam and Christianity.