Kerala Brides

By Sonia Narang (class of 2008)

Sreeja, a Kerala bride, now arranges marriages between women from her hometown in south India and men in the north.

SORKHI VILLAGE, Haryana, December 2007—The day after her wedding ceremony, Omana and her new husband boarded the Mangala Express to make a 2,000-mile journey that gave her a panoramic sense of her changed life. The train left the verdant rice paddies and coconut groves of her home in southern Kerala and 56 hours later, she stepped off in the dry, brown fields of the north.

Up until that trip, Omana had lived with her parents and never left their village where local custom permitted her and other girls to wear their hair loose and to leave their face uncovered. Now, in her husband’s village in the northern state of Haryana, she is pronouncing words in a new language, learning to cook round flatbreads for her husband’s family, and adapting to the cold Haryana winter. Even the dress is different. Here, she must cover her entire face with a veil.

“It’s difficult doing my outdoor chores with this cloth on my face since I never had to wear this back home,” she said in broken Hindi as she sat in her husband’s home surrounded by his family. As she talked, she tucked loose strands of her hair under a scarf and showed a visitor the photos of her wedding.

Omana is part of a supply and demand phenomenon created by female feticide – the selective abortion of girl children, who many families here have long viewed as an economic burden. Up until ultrasound was introduced into India in 1979, many women were pressured to kill their infant daughters. Now, the new technology has led to selective abortion and some ten million female fetuses have been aborted in the past two decades, according to U.K.-based medical journal The Lancet.

Though sex selective abortion became illegal in India in 1994, the practice continues in many parts of the country. Female feticide is most acute in Haryana, a prosperous farming state where families can afford ultrasounds. The 2001 census counted only 850 women for every 1,000 men in Haryana. That imbalance has forced some in this country of more than a billion people to break with one of its more ingrained customs – marrying within one’s caste, a rigid class structure that defines a person’s place in society. Nearly 90 percent of the country’s marriages are within the same caste, but increasingly, Haryana’s eligible bachelors are looking beyond their region and their caste for brides. Even though doing so is considered the last step of a desperate man, it’s still better than staying single – for men and women.

Three friends from Kerala, south India hold their children in a village in northern India, where there’s a shortage of brides.

The importing of brides or the “marriage squeeze” as a UN report called it, has created its own abuses – women trafficked from the poorest parts of India, women unable to produce children sold off to other men, and the importing of under-aged girls. Demographer Christophe Guilmoto, who authored the UN report, said that scarcity of women also increases the risk of gender-based violence.

While the Kerala women are treated better than the rest, women’s advocacy groups say it’s clear that the adjustments many make are dramatic. Kerala has one of the country’s highest literacy rates and Haryana one of its lowest. And the Kerala brides are also moving to a highly patriarchal society, where property is passed down through the sons and women move into their husbands’ homes. In Kerala, women wield power and no one would think of getting rid of a female child.

But, getting married is as important for women in Kerala as it is for men in Haryana. So, the surplus of bachelors in Haryana gave Omana something she couldn’t find in Kerala – a husband. Like Omana, other Kerala women are considered undesirable by Kerala men for a variety of reasons: age, horoscopes difficult to match, and an inability to pay the required dowry. While Haryana men would ordinarily never marry anyone with these so-considered glitches, none matter if they marry outside their state. The grooms even pay for the wedding, a cost traditionally covered by the bride’s family.

And, brides from Kerala are particularly sought after.

“People here think Kerala girls are better than those from other parts of India because they are well educated,” said Rekha Lohan, a researcher in northern Haryana. Kerala also has the highest ratio of females to males in the country, with about 1,100 women for every 1,000 men.

In Kerala, when families of prospective grooms inquired about Omana’s horoscope and found it was one of the rare ones known as unfavorable for marriage, they looked elsewhere. Every year, her prospects got dimmer. At 29, she was considered far past the marriageable age, and her family considered the options. They had heard of other local women marrying men from Haryana and so they sent Omana’s photo to one recent bride and it went from there to the house of Ajay Singh, a 34-year-old sweet shop employee. Before long, the couple met in Kerala for the first time and just days later married.

“These women don’t share anything with the men they marry,” said Ravinder Kaur, a sociology professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. “They don’t share the language, they don’t share food habits or culture. Everything is very different.”

As a result, she added, the marriages are difficult in the first years. “But over a period of time, the women get accepted, they adjust, they learn the language and many of them who came a while ago dress and talk like the Haryana women,” she said.

The marriages are perhaps toughest in the smaller villages where the cultural practices such as wearing the head covering are strict. But even here, in the village, a few Kerala women are making their mark.

All the villagers, for example, know Sreeja, a 31-year-old woman from Kerala, who arranged Omana’s wedding and several other matches. After Sreeja’s matchmaking side business took off, she became the talk of the village and appeared on local newscasts. Though she works in the fields and dons the traditional head covering like most women here, she wasn’t willing to abide by the prejudice towards newborn girls.

Negative attitudes towards girls remain strong. “Haryana’s society doesn’t recognize they have created this shortage of women by eliminating their own girl children,” Kaur said.

Moreover, she added, as long as men are able to marry women from elsewhere, “They can pretend there is no crisis.”

Usha sorts through photos of her wedding, which took place in the southern state of Kerala.

Sreeja is an anomaly in the village. But nearby in the town of Hansi – just 10 miles away – strong Kerala women are becoming increasingly common. At present, the town of 75,000 people has about 300 Kerala brides, the majority who come from the same town in northern Kerala. Some of those marriages have been brokered by Usha and her sister Vasantha, who first married Haryana men several years ago. Now, with the help of their mother in Kerala, the sisters have enlarged their own community by arranging eight other matches.

“Earlier, I was always homesick and wanted to go to Kerala often,” said Usha, who lives with her large extended family in a two-story home with an open-air courtyard. Five years into her marriage, she comfortably moves about the house, cooks north Indian meals with ease, and speaks fluent Hindi.

“I was thinking about my mother, brothers, and sisters all the time.” Now, she doesn’t miss home as much and only visits Kerala for weddings or other major events.

She said her husband’s family welcomed her into their home, supported her, and even taught her how to cook like a Haryana girl. “The curries here are made very differently. We use coconut oil back home in Kerala and they use a different kind of oil here. I learned how to make the curries from my mother-in-law.”

Still, Usha feels most relaxed around other transplants from Kerala. On one recent winter day, she wrapped a chiffon pink scarf around her neck, put on a red sweater, and headed to a nearby house to meet her closest friend, who like most of her friends is also from her hometown in Kerala. These women are like her sisters, she said.

“If there’s some event in my home, I invite them. Similarly, they invite me over to their houses. If I fall ill and have to go to the hospital, they come with me to the hospital.”

As Usha navigated the narrow alleyways, she got a few stares, but mostly blended in with the others on the street. The minute she arrived at her friend’s home, she switched into her native language of Malayalam and the two women chatted over cups of steaming sweet tea.

Usha, a Kerala bride, learned a new language and customs after marrying a groom in north India.

When the women visit their parents in the south, the differences between life in Haryana and Kerala are immediately visible. As the train pulled into a Kerala village one January morning, the villagers were in the final hours of an all-night temple festival, complete with drumming, fireworks, and intense traditional dances performed by men in bright red masks and headdresses. In Haryana, the Kerala brides said, everyone would have been asleep hours earlier. And like New Yorkers who winter in Florida, Kerala brides prefer the warm weather of home to the cold weather of Haryana.

Usha’s mother Kalyani, who still lives in Kerala, said that marriage will always trump geography.

“When the girl gets old and is unable to find a groom and get married here, we’re fine even if she gets married to someone far away,” Kalyani said. Moreover, she added, even if her daughter and the other brides can’t stay in Kerala, they get married in the Kerala style.

“The groom’s family brings the wedding dress and jewelry to the bride’s house the day before the marriage.” Even though the brides permanently move to Haryana, Kalyani has no regrets.

“When I arrange a wedding, I’m giving the bride a new life and god will give me blessings,” she said.

Read the story on Sonia Narang’s blog.

Militants and Moderates Spar Over the Future of Kashmir

By Mike McPhate (class of 2003)

Soldiers patrol the streets of Srinagar. Approximately 400,000 Indian troops are based in Jammu and Kashmir. Photograph by Mimi Chakarova.

SOPORE, Kashmir, April 2003 – For the first time since the two nuclear neighbors snapped virtually all diplomatic links and squared off a year ago over Kashmir, there is the possibility of rapprochement between India and Pakistan. In an emotional address to his Parliament at the end of April, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee offered to open negotiations and said: “At least in my life, this is the last time I will be making an attempt to resolve the Indo-Pak dispute.”

That dispute is over Kashmir where a stepped up turf war between militants and moderates resumed with a bloody vengeance this spring. “The situation has assumed monstrous dimensions,” said Kashmiri leader Abdul Ghani Bhat, who belongs to the Hurriyat Conference, a mixed bag of 23 political parties, mostly moderate and all united in their demand for self-determination. “The two countries may have to go the Hiroshima way.”

It is just this possibility that alarmed diplomats and helped trigger the 79-year-old Vajpayee’s dramatic proposal that promises to bolster the position of the moderates in Kashmir — one that is much in need of reinforcing.

Moderates, mostly local Kashmiris, are eager to join a dialogue between India and Pakistan while the hardliners, supported by Pakistan, reject anything short of an outright merger with that country. Since 1947, when Pakistan broke away from mostly Hindu India and declared itself a homeland for Muslims, the two nations have wrestled bitterly over the ownership of Kashmir, and some 55,000 have died in the ongoing struggle.

India blames Pakistan for sponsoring the violence while Pakistan says it gives only “moral and diplomatic” support to what it calls a “freedom struggle.”

Yet Pakistan-based militants today comprise more than half of a total of 3,000 fighters in Kashmir, and while Bhat’s warning may seem to be a rhetorical flourish, the two nuclear powers came perilously close to nuclear war last summer.

Following a series of attacks in India, including one on Delhi’s Parliament building, which India blamed on Pakistan-sponsored terrorists, the rivals amassed a million troops along their border. The apocalyptic escalation was averted only after U.S. officials leaned on President General Pervez Musharraf to cut off the flow of fighters into India.

Washington’s pressure seemed to be working. For the first time, Musharraf declared that Pakistan would not “allow terrorism from its soil in the name of Kashmir.” But as U.S. attention has turned to hot spots in Afghanistan and now Iraq, the turf battle between militants and moderates in Kashmir heated up.

First on the militants’ list this spring was Abdul Majid Dar, one of India’s fiercest rebels who emerged unarmed from his forest lair three summers ago and said he wanted to talk with his enemies. “We will halt attacks against the (Indian) security forces. We want to show the world that we are not hardliners.”

But others within his ranks wanted to demonstrate otherwise. In late March, eyewitnesses said, intruders barged through the front door of Dar’s family home in Sopore, just north of the capital Srinagar, where he had stopped for a short visit, and fired “wherever they felt movement.” The bullets pierced his mother and sister and killed Dar as he sat waiting for lunch in his living room.

The children of Kashmir have been silent witnesses to the 14-year-old conflict and are psychologically affected the most. Photograph by Mimi Chakarova.

Most assume that the killers were from within Dar’s own ranks, the Hizbul Mujahideen, the militant wing of Pakistan’s radical Islamist party the Jamaat-e-Islami. His message of reconciliation, they calculated, had become too popular.

Only days after Dar’s murder, suspected militants followed up with the worst slaughter of civilians in Kashmir in three years. Pulled from their beds in the late evening, 24 Hindus in the farming village of Nadimarg — including two boys, aged 2 and 3 — were rounded up and gunned down in the town square.

Hafiz Saeed, the founder of Kashmir’s scariest militant group, Lashkar-e-Toiba, apparently justified the killing to journalists in Pakistan. “The solution is not to bow before India and beg for dialogue,” Saeed was quoted as saying in the Friday Times. “[The Indians] only understand the language of jihad. We have no choice but to respond by killing Hindus.”

Soon after, India began making a case for war.

“I genuinely believe that if possession of weapons of mass destruction, absence of democracy and export of terrorism are the criteria,” Indian Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha said recently, drawing a comparison to the U.S. explanation for attacking Iraq, “then no country deserves more than Pakistan to be tackled.” Pakistan said it would give a “befitting response.”

Washington took note, with Colin Powell promptly denying any “similarity” between the situations in Iraq and Pakistan.

In his first move to change the climate, Vajpayee flew to Kashmir in early April, the first Indian prime minister to do so in more than a decade. He offered a “hand of friendship to Pakistan” and to all groups who “abjure the gun.”

The prime minister’s effort got a boost this month when the U.S. State Department added Hizbul Mujahideen, the group suspected of being responsible for the March murder of Dar, for the first time to its list of terrorist organizations.

Sumit Ganguly, author of “The Crisis in Kashmir” and a professor at the University of Texas-Austin, says today’s militants or jihadis are nothing more than crusaders and mercenaries that care little for the wishes of Kashmiris. “Anyone who tells you otherwise is a fool or a naive or both,” he said. “They are engaged in murder, mayhem, rape, and lots of other atrocities.”

Yasin Malik, chairman of the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front, speaks of the struggles in Kashmir and the uncertainty of the region's future. Photograph by Mimi Chakarova.

The Pakistani fighters are driven by a severe version of Islam. Their ideological training in the radical Deobandi and Wahabbi Islam is at odds with the softer, more tolerant Sufi faith of Kashmiris who have historically lived in peace with their Hindu and Sikh neighbors. “They (the jihadis) belong to a different Islamic heart,” admits Kashmir’s religious head and former Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Umer Farooq.

The most serious threat to the hardliners arrived last fall in state elections that delivered a new, moderate government to Kashmir. Independent observers said they were the first “free and fair” elections in over 15 years.

Kashmiris put their hope in the moderate People’s Democratic Party and its promises to bring a “healing touch” to the valley and to restrain the valley’s 125,000 Indian security forces, seen by most Kashmiris as a menace. Moreover, the party promised to make friends between separatists and Delhi.

Now, it remains to be seen whether these forces, with new help from Delhi and Washington, will prevail. At the end of his address to the Indian Parliament last week, Vajpayee, who is up for re-election next year, appeared determined to make the resolution of Kashmir his legacy. “I am confident I will succeed,” he said.

Coming of Age in an Era of Violence

By Jessi Hempel (class of 2003)

Pinkey watches as her mother spins cashmere. Photograph by Mimi Chakarova.

SRINAGAR, Kashmir, April 2003 – Pinkey Ahmed Dar has had just 14 birthdays so far and she has seen her father die, three brothers killed and a fourth go missing. She sits in her drafty two-room shack at the top of a steep staircase in a poor Srinagar neighborhood, and pulls her knees up under her pink woolen cloak. “I am scared,” she says. “Things scratch at the walls in the night.”

The fear that haunts her every night dates back five years to when Kashmiri police shot her third brother, Mushtaq, and brought his body to her house. “We didn’t know what had happened. The women were sitting around gossiping. Then they brought his body in,” she said, a white headscarf framing her large dark eyes. “I could see he’d been shot in the left eye — there was no eye.”

A few months earlier, her brother Mushtaq had joined a militant group fighting to cede Indian Kashmir to Pakistan. The police killed him a couple of hundred yards away in a neighbor’s backyard, according to several of Pinkey’s family members.

Pinkey was born in 1989, the year militants took up arms to fight over Kashmir, a state sandwiched between India and Pakistan and whose ownership both lay claim to. Until then, blood hadn’t stained the yellow fields of mustard and blossoming apple orchards that fill the Kashmir Valley. Pinkey’s mother Syeda remembers her own adolescence. “In the summers, we played outdoors at night,” she says.

But Pinkey has passed through childhood in an era of violence and is coming of age at a time when it’s only getting worse. And there are countless civilians like her. Among the nine million people who live in Indian Kashmir, nearly everyone can name a close friend or relative who has been killed. They die after joining the militancy. They die after being taken into custody by the police. They die in crossfire.

A 33-year-old journalist from a village in the Valley mentions how he looks at his nursery school class picture and has, with a pen, marked out those who have been killed — almost 70 percent of the class.

“We have no men to protect us,” said Pinkey. And she’s right. While it’s the men who do most of the fighting and dying — 55,000 at last count — it’s girls such as Pinkey and mothers such as Syeda who are left to grapple with the grief and despair.

Pinkey sits next to her mother while she spins cashmere. She hasn't been able to work for a few weeks due to a lung infection. Photograph by Mimi Chakarova.

“Women have been the worst victims,” said Mehbooba Mufti, president of the People’s Democratic Party which was elected last year to head the state government promising to bring a “healing touch” to the scarred Valley. “It’s the women who go to the hospitals and to the police searching for their husbands and brothers. And then it’s the women who must carry the family responsibility.”

Mufti’s concern is as personal as it is political. In 1989 — two years after a rigged election left little room for legitimate political opposition in the state — her sister, who was then a medical student, was kidnapped. As ransom, the abductors demanded the release of some militants. Within days, the panic-stricken government in New Delhi gave in, released the militants and Mufti’s sister was let off unharmed. That kidnapping is widely seen as marking the start of the militant movement in Kashmir.

Since then, the cycle of violence has been non-stop. Although heavy winter snows bring some calm, freezing the mountain passes and making it more difficult for armed militants to sneak in from across the border in Pakistan, as soon as the trees show buds, the killing resumes.

Less than a week after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March, armed gunmen slaughtered more than half the residents of a Hindu village in the predominantly Muslim countryside. This came a day after the assassination of Majid Dar (not related to Pinkey Dar), a militant who was killed by members of his own group for advocating talks with Delhi. And later the same week, pro-Pakistan militants cut off the noses of six villagers suspected of spying for the Indian government.

Pinkey has trouble speaking of her brothers' deaths. Photograph by Mimi Chakarova.

Such violence leads to generations of women who live in a perpetual state of grieving. A visit to Pinkey’s home offers a glimpse into what that means.

Her mother, Syeda, is a frail woman with lung disease. She has callused fingers from her work spinning fabric into the Pashmina yarn used for shawls that retail in the United States for $200 apiece. She works 15 days to weave a skein of yarn the size of her index finger, which she sells for the equivalent of $3.

Her husband, a vegetable seller, died of natural causes shortly after Pinkey was born, leaving Syeda with seven children — four sons and three daughters. “I still had hope because of my sons,” she said. Her sons promised to build her a larger house, but then came 1989 and, for many young Kashmiri men, building the movement became the priority.

Syeda pulls a strip of three photographs from the window ledge, in which three young boys smile. Her first son, Nazir Ahmed Dar, is center strip, his eyes piercing and dark. At 25, he was recently engaged and selling vegetables in front of their house when militants lobbed a grenade at Indian security forces. Nazir was killed in the grenade attack.

The second son, Tariq Ahmed Dar, 18, was killed in crossfire. This time, it was the police who were firing on militants along the banks of a nearby river. A bullet knocked Tariq into the river’s current where he was swept away. His body washed up two days later.

Their 20-year-old brother Mushtaq, Syeda explained in the calculus of war, “became a militant because what else could he do?” Syeda isn’t clear how long he was on the run but one thing she knows: He outlived the average militant’s lifespan, six months, before he was killed.

Her fourth son, Nizar Ahmed Dar, was given a government job as part of the Indian government’s compensation for the family’s loss, but he was felled by mental illness. Syeda said she tried to take him to the psychiatric hospital but they couldn’t treat him. He would wander off into the night and turn up in odd places. More than two years ago, she said, he wandered off and never came back.

“I don’t care what happens in Kashmir. Whoever will come to our rescue can’t save us from this hell,” Syeda said as she looked down at the crumpled photographs of her first three sons. “All of them have perished, and there is no difference now.”

Across the city at the Valley’s only psychiatric hospital, Dr. Mushtaq Margoob works in an office atop the remains of the former inpatient facility. Mounds of dirt are littered with empty pill packages. The shell of the hospital sits in the shadow of the tomb of a Mughal emperor. Militants razed the hospital, like many, in the early 1990s to prevent Indian security forces from establishing a base there. Now Margoob dispenses treatment and medicine to a growing number of patients from a newer, makeshift building behind the rubble.

A young woman grieves over the death of her family which was massacred by unidentified gunmen in the village of Nadimarg. Photograph by Mimi Chakarova.

His patients complain of depression, insomnia, heart palpitations, and other signs of a fast growing problem for Kashmiris: post traumatic stress disorder. As the conflict continues, Margoob said that communities’ resources to support those who grieve have become depleted. “A Kashmiri woman in the past year has seen difficult things. A decade ago, deaths in communities were a collective shared trauma. People would visit their neighbors and offer support. But when this continued, everyone exhausted their emotional resources. Too many people have died.”

On a blustery Saturday afternoon, Pinkey visited her neighborhood faith-healer. “Nowadays most people who come ask me to pray for their protection against violence,” he said. “I give them an amulet with a black thread — a talisman.” He stopped to rearrange the coals in a small bucket by his feet. “What do you have to tell a person who has lost a husband,” a young woman asked him.

“You’re young, get remarried,” he said, with barely a pause.

“What do you have to tell a person who has lost her children?”

“You’re young,” he said. “Have more children.”

India’s Other Border: A Land of Beautiful Lies

By Sean Marciniak (class of 2004)

Indian Border Security Forces pose with confiscated cough syrup. Photograph by Mark Murrmann.

KALYANI, West Bengal, March 2003 – On a searing day here this spring, the Indian border patrol nabbed a boy trying to slip between thatched huts with two dozen bottles of cough syrup. His clinking contraband did more than cure a sore throat — each bottle had an alcohol content equal to three jiggers of whisky. Everybody on the India-Bangladesh border knows the cough syrup packs a kick, and really that’s all it’s good for. At 104 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s too hot to catch a cold here right now.

After border patrol soldiers marched the boy away, some hung back with a photographer, and posed behind the medicine bottles with their guns. Chest out, chin high, the soldiers stood over the cough syrup as if they’d slaughtered the last wild buffalo on the Great Plains.

Times might look easy on India’s eastern border but this is a land filled with beautiful lies. Never mind the wandering cows, the plush rice fields or the children that tease the local livestock. These stretches of the Indo-Bangladeshi border exist as an uncanny space of calm — an eye in a gathering storm that promises political conspiracy and international espionage.

India’s ruling party, the Hindu nationalist BJP, has begun a propaganda war that describes this border as tameless and dangerous; its new frontline in a war against terrorism. Bangladeshi immigrants, it says, are predominantly Muslim and hostile. Pakistani spies and terrorists float among them, the party argues, ready to get downright ugly when Pakistan tips its hat. About 40,000 Indian paramilitary troops have arrived here since February to stop this alleged border infiltration.

Bangladesh has denied the allegations, and Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Morshed Khan went a step further, telling a French news agency that India’s charges stemmed from “domestic compulsions.” However, he acknowledged that “small-scale intrusion” was possible and that “there is need for ensuring peace along this frontier.”

For a long time, all this was something one might expect of India’s more famous western border, the one it shares with Pakistan. It was always Pakistan that helped sneak in armed intruders, who then waged a “proxy war” over Kashmir. The infiltration in the west always drew more headlines, especially last year when it pushed both countries perilously close to nuclear war.

But this attention helped to change India’s border dynamics. In the past year, India’s western border has become much less porous, and those who insist on crossing the line now must look eastward. It’s the balloon effect in action, a law as old and tested as gravity.

A member of India's Border Security Force points out a well-traveled path along the India-Bangladesh border, used by smugglers and local villagers alike. Photograph by Mark Murrmann.

Consequently, the Indo-Bangladeshi border has been getting more attention. In early January, India’s Deputy Prime Minister, L.K. Advani, looked over alarming Indian intelligence reports that estimated 16 million illegal Bangladeshi migrants had infiltrated the nation. Advani, who also commands India’s homeland security department, barked out to state leaders that India’s national security was at stake.

“For us in India, (immigration) is a hideous problem,” said Advani in an interview in New Delhi. “The numbers are enormous. It is not merely the eastern provinces that are affected. The immigrants have spread. Here in Delhi, there are colonies where only Bangladeshis live.”

However, a visit to the border, as well as extensive interviews with security officials, political leaders and local residents, show that Advani’s rhetoric has as much to do with his party’s politics as with national security. As the chief minister of New Delhi put it, a woman named Sheila Dikshit who heralds from the opposition Congress party and faces an election later this year: “He (Advani) comes up with these comments every time there is an election.”

And the Pakistani spies? Few doubt that ISI spies have infiltrated parts of West Bengal, but not to the degree claimed by the BJP. State leaders in West Bengal recently said they caught 60 men and women in 2002 who worked in ISI-sponsored spy rings, small cadres that mostly collected intelligence on border security troops. But Hindu nationalists have taken it a step further, whispering that spies are planning revolutions in East India that would cause it to secede to Bangladesh.

“Look, anything that happens in India is ISI,” said Jairam Ramesh, one of the most articulate spokesmen for the Congress Party. “Blame the ISI. The American embassy was attacked in Calcutta … ISI. It’s like what Bush says with Al Qaeda. Blame Al Qaeda.”

It has worked. Advani’s alarm bells have sounded shrilly, rousing even the sleepiest of dogs. The Marxist party of West Bengal, for example, which has ruled the state for 25 years and has always bitterly opposed the BJP, is for the first time on the defensive. On the issue of illegal immigration, it’s doing what many observers call a “substantive rethink” on its longstanding policy of nurturing migrants.

The Marxist’s policy change is bound to hurt many feelings. Hundreds of Bangladeshis cross into India every day, and have done so since 1971 when, helped by the Indian Army, Bangladesh was carved out of Pakistan. Getting specific numbers is guesswork, academics said, because no reliable census data exists. Indian intelligence officials estimate that up to 37,000 cross in a single month.

They come for different reasons. Poor Hindus — a minority in Bangladesh — seek refuge from what they describe as persecution of a new Muslim government, sections of which are openly anti-India. Poor Muslims, who make up an estimated two-thirds of the immigrants, are economic refugees, having fled one of the most penniless and crowded nations on earth — a country best known for biblically proportioned floods.

If it’s economics that makes them pack their bags, it’s geography that helps them move across. West Bengal’s 1,000-mile border with Bangladesh, for example, wanders through the Ganges River delta like a love-struck teenager. It crosses and re-crosses rivers, bisecting fields as flat as pancakes. There is no Rio Grande here to mark the international border, nor any sort of fence that extends for any helpful length.

What little traffic there is flows freely along a border road that passes through the village of Kalyani, near Bongaon, West Bengal. Photograph by Mark Murrmann.

Unlike the U.S.-Mexico border, this line does not divide populations of different ethnicity. The entire area is home to an ethnic group known as Bengalis, and telling a Bangladeshi apart from an Indian here is as hard as distinguishing between twins. What turns this headache into a migraine is that India has no national identity card system — Advani is vigorously campaigning for one — and proving someone is not a citizen is virtually impossible.

Take the town of Petrapole, where the border is little more than an imaginary line marked by white stones that only sometimes can be sighted in the thick grass, and it’s easy to step into Bangladesh by accident. A short walk from the official customs crossing, people trickle out from a banana grove, then lope across a rice field into Bangladesh without so much as a hop.

Wiping away sweat and watching from a nearby railroad track sat soldiers from the Border Security Force. The BSF, the largest paramilitary force in the world, is charged with wringing a tourniquet around borderlands traffic, but the 96,000 stationed on the eastern border have only recently shown some degree of effectiveness. Some say it’s the increased numbers. Others say Advani’s focus on the east has forced BSF commanders to curtail what has been described as rampant corruption, a characteristic so often discussed that the BSF has become known as the Border Smuggling Force.

Still others wonder why everyone is fussing. Problems on the border, they argue, have existed since 1948, when the subcontinent was cleaved into India, West Pakistan and East Pakistan. For years, borderland smuggling outfits and undocumented immigration came and went without so much as a second glance. Nothing has changed, they say, but the political ambitions of the ruling party behind Advani, the BJP. And the new nervousness of the ruling Marxists.

Making the Marxists See Red

West Bengal, internationally most famous for its giant tigers, is known within India for loftier reasons: it’s the country’s best-governed state, thanks to the continuous re-election of a government as unique as its big cats. The Left Front, led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist, has remained in power for a quarter century. Under it, the literacy rate hovers at 76 percent and sociologists have noted that West Bengal doesn’t see the high degree of Hindu-Muslim violence that has plagued the rest of India.

Because of its ideology and electoral success, the Left Front has long been the bane of central New Delhi governments. Its grassroots organizing and discipline have caused their political enemies endless headaches, such that even the BJP, so mighty in New Delhi, has maintained an anemic presence here. In 1984 the state garnered less than half a percentage of the vote; since capturing power at the federal level, it’s only managed to raise its share of the vote to six percent.

But the BJP is poised for a power grab, thanks to recent outcries over immigration and terrorism.

The 2001 census confirmed what had long been suspected: that the demographics of West Bengal have changed to the advantage of Muslims. In districts like Maldah, for example, almost 50 percent of the rural population is Muslim; in Murshidabad, it’s more than 60 percent. Blocs of Hindu voters have grown nervous and the BJP has been quick to stoke these fears.

Wary that this could give the BJP a foot in the state’s door, the Marxists, many political observers say, have decided to realign their immigration policy with Advani’s more conservative vision. Or, at least, make noises to that effect.

“We had the immigration problem here long before the Kashmir problem but that was not so serious,” said Jayanta Roy, leader of the Forward Bloc, a member of the ruling Left Front. “But then we got information from the Central government that Muslim fundamentalists, with the political patronage of the Pakistani government, are very much active in India and they have chosen Calcutta as a soft target.”

In recent months, the Marxists have called for more security and deportations. They have even talked of “modernizing” the madrassahs along the border, accusing them of breeding fundamentalism. Such language is unprecedented, coming from a party that encouraged an open border and accommodated so-called hostile Bangladeshis. Why? The reason is simple: the immigrants vote.

A Bandladeshi woman cooks dinner for her family on a busy sidewalk in downtown Calcutta. Photograph by Mark Murrmann.

How is an even more interesting matter. In exchange for support during elections, Indian politicians were rumored to distribute “ration cards” to newly arrived Bangladeshis. Ration cards, equivalent of food stamps, are key to the transaction because, aside from allowing one to purchase subsidized rice, wheat and sugar at local stores, these documents serve as identity cards. Ration cards are what gets you on the local voter registry.

Since the accusations were made years ago, no one publicly admitted to this vote-getting strategy. However, recent interviews with political party members drew outright or partial admissions.

Nirupam Sen, the second-most powerful Marxist in West Bengal, gave the following response: “It differs from area to area; I cannot spell out these things. I cannot make any comments on exactly where, who, how it has been done. That is absolutely not possible.”

Neither can leaders in West Bengal’s immigrant communities.

Bangladeshis currently congregate in such places as Calcutta’s Municipal Ward 30, a squalid neighborhood in the north of the city. Ward 30 has steadily has grown over the last two decades, slowly spilling over the banks of a nearby black water canal. Infrastructure is scarce; people are not. Thatched homes, dirt roads, and outhouses are the order of the day. But locals say this den of illegal immigrants manages to squeeze a population of 9,000 into a space that measures 500 meters by about 33 meters.

The leader of the neighborhood is identifiable by his large pot belly, the only one in sight.

“No one here is Bangladeshi,” said Basander Das, who officially is a branch committee member for the Marxists. Questioned further, he acknowledged that 600 to 700 neighbors couldn’t produce documents, and that many feared Advani’s latest grumblings.

“No one is Bangladeshi,” he repeated, “but we fear that if there is a drive against illegal settlers, we may be affected unnecessarily. No one here has been dislocated, but if there is any move, there will be rioting.”

Feeding the Fear

Das’ warning betrays the growing unease in the Left Front as it prepares its bitter pill for Bangladeshi immigrants. To stem mass demonstrations, state leaders have said, time and again, that its campaign is aimed at only those who are “terrorists backed by Pakistan and the ISI.” Of which there aren’t that many.

A fading hammer and sickle painted on a wall in Calcutta's Municipal Ward 30, a community of over a thousand Bangladeshi immigrants. Photograph by Mark Murrmann.

A Calcutta Police inspector agreed to meet with reporters in a relative’s shop, one nestled deep in the side of a narrow alley. Asked about the presence of terrorist ISI agents in West Bengal, he looked pained to say that he had not encountered any Pakistani spies in Calcutta for five years. “We are searching the pebbles,” he said, “but it is very tough.”

Despite limited information, Advani and his followers have been able to gain support in hostile West Bengal by taking an international slogan — the war on terrorism — and localizing it.

If Advani has set the tone, his junior colleagues in the party are amplifying it to alarmist levels. According to regional BJP leaders, there are ISI spies lurking in every border village and immigrant colony, blending into places like the village of Kalyani and Calcutta’s Municipal Ward 30. According to them, secret agents are poised to incite insurrection at the command of Islamabad.

“You don’t expect part of America to break away and join Mexico, but over here, the problem is that if a part of India becomes a Muslim majority, then we’d be scared,” said Tathagata Roy, president of West Bengal’s BJP chapter. Asked what this fear was based on, Roy said: “I have no access to intelligence reports. I go largely on newspaper reports … and what I get on the net.”

The Border’s Dadas

By Sean Marciniak (class of 2004)

Officially a waiter at a coffee shop near the Bongaon bus depot, Vikram Saha helps transport illegal immigrants across the India-Bangladesh border. Photograph by Mark Murrmann.

BONGAON, West Bengal, March 2003 – Three miles from the border, in this lawless outpost, a man in a cheap shirt emerges from a café in the bus station. He doesn’t look especially menacing; he’s what Americans would call a coyote, a smuggler of humans. Here in Bongaon, they call him a dada, which carries a slightly less pejorative connotation. It effectively means a don.

But lost on the West Bengal gangster are the ostentatious suits and cigars of the Italian-American wiseguys.

“I’m totally invisible. No one will know I’m here,” said Vikram Saha, who “officially” works as a waiter in the corner coffee shop. And, it’s a good thing. The Government’s focus on the border has meant that the business of smuggling has soured. Nowadays, the most active border activity is by agents sending back Bangladeshi migrants.

It’s already noon and Saha hasn’t found a single customer for his side business. Normally he culls the bus stop for the poor and disheveled — people who obviously have arrived to sneak back into Bangladesh and visit family. For a fee of 450 rupees (about $10), Saha will transport them from the bus stop to a safehouse on the border. There, another dada will guide them across into Bangladesh.

Farther down the road, another sort of dada has been fiddling his thumbs.

In the claustrophobic backroom of this three-man-wide money exchange store, Saroj Biswas has been waiting for the government’s firestorm to blow over. Biswas, who is uncommonly tall for the area at about 5’8″, is the A-dog leader of a syndicate that deals in smuggled goods.

“Everything except heroin and gold,” he said, eyeballing the strangers around him. “That’s on principle.”

The number one illegally transported good between India and Bangladesh is cattle. Experts estimate that dadas stampede more than 1.5 million cattle across the border every year.

Business is down, said Biswas; border trade has braked to a standstill. “It’s the political climate,” he said. And then there’s the new assistant commander of the Border Security Force, a “good officer” whom they are lobbying to transfer.

The Border Insecurity Force

Sitting in a small foreign exchange shop he manages, Saroj Biswas moves goods across the India-Bangladesh border. Photograph by Mark Murrmann.

That new assistant is commander Senthil Kumar, stationed at the nearby Petrapole office for about 10 months.

Sitting in his office where it’s hard to ignore the stuffed toy Bengal tiger in the corner, the 26-year-old Kumar echoes Deputy Prime Minister L. K. Advani’s rhetoric to the last word. “Pakistan feels a setback there (in the west). The ISI agents look for a safe passage and where do they find a safe passage? Bangladesh,” he says. However, he acknowledged: “We have not caught any ISI agents but we have lots of reports. We don’t have a direct confrontation with them because they sneak in clandestinely.”

But with so many men and relatively so little an area, it would seem impossible to slip something past the BSF, which boasts about 250,000 members — 20 times bigger than the U.S. Border Patrol. Kumar said he has stationed two BSF agents every few hundred yards, each outfitted with night vision goggles. Behind the line, teams of foot, bike, horse and vehicle patrols provide zone coverage.

However, size never really has seemed to equal potency. In 2001, the BSF apprehended about 11,000 transborder criminals and 8,349 Bangladeshi nationals. The U.S. Border Patrol, with a force of about 10,000, apprehended 1.2 million undocumented immigrants.

So what does he do given Advani’s message? Kumar says he has little choice other than conducting “push-ins.” Push-ins are informal acts of repatriation that usually occur at night, in which BSF agents round up their daily catches and march them through unguarded stretches of the Bangladeshi border. Since February, it has been estimated that the BSF has pushed back 15,000 to 20,000 immigrants. “We try to contact them (BDR agents), but they don’t respond,” Kumar said. “We have a game over here.”

Subrata Nagchowhury and Mark Murrmann contributed to this report.

Modernity Brings New Wave of Selective Sex Abortions

By Shani Moore (class of 2004) and Ofelia Madrid (class of 2003)

CHANDIGARH, Punjab, March 2003 – When India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, decided to get architect Le Corbusier all the way from Paris to design this city, he saw it as a modernist symbol for an ancient country, a city that would be “unfettered by traditions of the past.” Chandigarh is of enormous importance, Nehru said, “because it hits you on the head and makes you think.”

Fifty years on, what hits a visitor on the head is how tradition trumps modernity.

Yes, Nehru’s vision exists. Streets swell with color as women in bright T-shirts, jeans and Western dresses head to Internet cafes or local coffee shops, defying stereotypes that often depict them solely in saris or behind veils.

Yet despite the architecture, the chic dress and the wealth of women attending college, these states have the dubious distinction of being the worst place in the country for a female fetus.

At an average of about 10,000 a year, the number of selective-sex abortions from 1995 to 2001 in Haryana and Punjab rose almost 9 percent, according to the latest study by the United Nations Population Fund. This despite the fact that a full year earlier, the government outlawed the practice of determining the gender of the fetus through an ultrasound test and put in place several nationwide women empowerment schemes in health care and education.

“It is always in the back of your mind that you want a boy,” said Amrita Singh, a 28-year-old former college teacher who is four months pregnant. Even if she had a girl, a complete family would require a male child, she said. For her checkups, Singh goes to a private clinic that has a prominent sign outside declaring: “Using Ultrasounds to Determine the Sex of a Fetus is Illegal. It is Not Practiced Here.”

This is a result of the 1994 Pre-Natal Diagnostic Technologies (PNDT) Act under which conviction can lead to a prison term of three to five years and a fine of $200 to $1,000. Provisions of the Act apply to pregnant women unless it can be proved that they were forced to take the test.

The law is tough on paper but on the ground, there have been no convictions. “It gets very difficult to prove complicity,” acknowledged Union Health Minister Sushma Swaraj, who leads the government’s efforts against feticide. Minister Swaraj is a Haryana woman who, in her 20s, was the country’s youngest minister ever. Yet she realizes the reaction of her peers. “As soon as they could tell if they were having a boy or a girl, women were running to the machines,” she said. According to a National Family Health Survey, more than 75 percent of Punjabi women are aware of the technology to determine the gender of the fetus.

Government laws and private and public campaigns have made hardly a dent in reversing the exceptionally low female to male ratio here. For example, in 1991, according to the Indian census, there were only 875 girls (0-6 years of age) per every 1,000 boys in Punjab. By 2001, this number had fallen to 793.

In contrast, for India as a whole, the corresponding ratio fell from 945 in 1991 to 927 in 2001. In the United States, there are approximately 954 females per every 1000 males. Punjab and Haryana, incidentally, have the lowest female to male ratio among India’s 29 states.

Enforcing the pre-natal law has become tougher as ultrasound technologies have become cheaper and more lightweight. “People are just taking the portable ultrasound machines, putting it into their cars, and going to people’s houses,” said Dr. G.S. Kochhar, former president of the Indian Medical Association. “You can’t stop it.”

The Indian society does not want to, said Dr. Rainuka Dagar, a research fellow at the Institute for Development and Communication in Chandigarh. She blamed India’s patriarchal social structure for the female child not having the same value as the male child in the Indian family.

“Parents look at the female child and think, ‘We’re going to be paying for a girl for the rest of our lives,'” Dagar said. “It’s like putting money in the neighbor’s bank.”

A daughter is seen as a drain on the family finances because she will eventually marry, leave the family and a dowry will have to be provided. One common sign advertising ultrasound clinics in Punjab, pulled down after the law was passed, said it all, comparing the costs of an ultra sound test to a dowry: “500 now, save 5,000 later.”

So it is no surprise that while “there is no social stigma to having an abortion,” said Professor Pam Rajput, Director of the Women’s Studies and Development Center at Punjab University, “there is a social stigma if you have a girl.”

According to the pre-natal law, neither doctors nor technicians are allowed to test specifically for the sex of the fetus unless they are screening for a sex-linked genetic disease. When performing general scans, and recognizing the gender of the fetus is unavoidable, they are still forbidden from revealing that information to the parents.

All the law has done is “drive up the prices,” Professor Rajput said. “Before, where you could learn the sex of the child for 500 rupees, now they are charging 1,000 or more.” Abortions at the later state cost anywhere from $100 to $200.

“The whole process (of identifying and destroying late-term fetuses) takes about 24 to 48 hours,” Dr. Kochhar said. “These are not simple procedures, and now unqualified people are doing it,” he said, estimating that most people performing the illegal ultrasounds are X-ray technicians.

An attempt to address the problem has been introduced by select members of government, among them Minister Swaraj. Her experimental new plan, entitled, “Your Daughter, Your Wealth,” seeks to change the cultural psyche of undervaluing women. Pregnant couples that participate in the state’s pre-natal care program will receive 1,000 rupees or about $20 if they deliver a girl — and $10 if they deliver a boy.

Critics of the bonus program say it is unlikely to change the culture that prizes men over women.

“1,000 rupees?” Dagar, the Chandigarh researcher, scoffed. “From top to bottom, male superiority is legitimized. That matter cannot be targeted (by this program.).”

Other efforts from the government have focused on revamping existing laws. As it was originally crafted in 1994, the pre-natal law had no teeth. Amendments adopted in February of this year provide for greater tracking of the monies potentially received through sex-screening and also increase penalties for violating the law.

Professor Rajput, however, argues that the society mentality has to change before the edict can take any real effect. “These traditional ideas have been embedded into our minds for ages,” Rajput said. “It takes time.”

Reema Sharma, a 25-year-old teacher who is three months pregnant, is a reminder of how long that will be. Sharma has huge brown eyes that blink furiously when she talks about the sex of the child. “My in-laws are OK with this; they won’t force me to have another child if it’s a girl.

“But it would be nice to have a boy,” she said. “They would be happier.”

Saving Lives and Playing Politics

By Kelly Virella (class of 2003)

AHMEDABAD, India, March 2003 – When temperatures hit 105 degrees Fahrenheit, 35 patients lay in an infirmary without air-conditioning, in beds separated by less than three feet of space. But among the poor in this city of five million, they were the lucky ones.

A woman with jaundice, who had an IV in her arm, lay in her bed and explained why. She had been in the hospital for four days, but owed less than $8 for her stay. That’s 90 percent less than what she would have paid at a private hospital.

“Here we get doctors full time, 24 hours a day,” she said. “It’s as good as private practice, for a very nominal charge. Even better than government hospital.”

It’s cheap and by many accounts good health care, but somebody, somewhere down the line, has to pay. That’s where the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (Council) or the World Hindu Council comes in, a 37-year-old religious-cultural group with offices in 42 countries, including the United States.

Although the Council carefully avoids calling itself a political organization, its growth is good news for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which now rules India. The Council’s story in Gujarat offers a glimpse of how the ruling BJP hopes to keep increasing its seats in Parliament.

One year after the communal violence between Muslims and Hindus, this bed is the only item left in the relief camp for Muslims whose homes were burned. Photograph by Mimi Chakarova.

The Council that runs the hospital is the same led by people named in police records in riots that killed more than 1,000 Muslims in March of 2002. Following the riots, the Council distributed brochures across this city against Muslims — who make up less than 9 percent of Gujarat’s 51 million people — calling them “traitors and terrorists” and asking Hindus to “save our country by boycotting Muslims economically and socially.”

Such facts hardly faze Dr. Hitesh Ramanuj, the chief of staff of the hospital, who is also the head of a city-level branch of the Council. He says his organization is honored to fund and run the hospital. “It’s not a totally fascist organization,” he said. “I didn’t join the organization because it was a fascist organization. I joined because it had a social service component.”

It’s this “social service component,” many say, that the Council is using to hide a shrewd strategy to win over destitute, low-caste Hindus, a constituency that has traditionally shown little support for its brand of anti-Muslim ideology. The strategy seems to be working.

Some of the strongest evidence is in Bapunagar, the predominantly low-caste, Hindu slum of 75,000 residents, where Shree Dhanvantry hospital is located. Bapunagar is named after Mahatma Gandhi who was born in Gujarat and was called Bapu (father of the nation).

With nearly 20,000 laid-off textile mill workers, it’s a sort of refugee camp for people who lost their jobs in the early ’80s and ’90s, when changes in technology and government mismanagement shut down all but six of Ahmedabad’s 61 mills. Already, the Council has recruited an estimated 7,000 members here, including the jaundiced woman.

These numbers are key to the Council’s growth. The Council champions an ideology called Hindutva. Loosely, this means ensuring a Hindu state for India where minorities, notably Christians and Muslims, “should know their place.”

This ideology dovetails with that of the BJP. Political observers say that if the BJP is Hindutva’s brain, the Council is its brawn.

The BJP has reaped rich political dividends thanks to the Council’s “mass-contact programs.” These include several campaigns across the country against “cow slaughter,” (Hindus revere the cow) and against conversion of oppressed low-caste Hindus to Islam or Christianity.

Council leaders and activists played a key role in the demolition of a 450-year-old mosque in the northern India town of Ayodhya in 1992 and are now threatening to defy court orders to build a Hindu temple there. All this has come in handy for the BJP: from just two seats in the 545-member Parliament in 1980, the BJP now has 182.

The first ones to jump onto the Hindutva bandwagon were upper-caste, urban middle-class Hindus. Many political observers feel that with these voters under its belt, the BJP is looking at making inroads into the poor, low-caste Hindus, who make up over 52 percent of the country’s population and have traditionally sided with India’s leading opposition party, the Congress Party. The Dhanvantry hospital and other elements of the Council’s “social service component” in villages are designed to deliver these members.

However, some say that it goes deeper than that. “Charity is there, but it is basically a superficial thing,” said Gurang Jani, a sociology professor at Gujarati University. “They just want to create the Hindu fundamentalist mind in the new generation. They want to create this radical Hinduism. They are not changing the community. They are just creating havoc.”

And for this, no ground is more fertile than Gujarat. Of the Council’s estimated 4 million members nationwide, about 1.5 million come from this state alone — a 20 percent growth over the last five years. Gujarat is also the only state where the BJP is in power and where it has a special relationship with the Council.

In the national government, the BJP rules in a coalition of more than 20 parties and is often embarrassed by the Council’s brand of Hindutva since its shrill anti-Muslim rhetoric makes partners nervous — some have even threatened to quit if the Council isn’t reined in. In the Gujarat legislature, however, the BJP is in power alone and doesn’t need to look over its shoulder every time the Council raises the heat as it did during the riots, leading the mobs and fueling the violence.

During the communal violence in Gujarat, many Muslims were burned alive. This boy managed to escape but the scars on his body will always remain as a reminder. Photograph by Mimi Chakarova.

Our hands are clean of Muslim blood, says D.K. Akruwala, vice-president of the Gujarat branch of the Council. He says the Hindus who started the riots simply got upset when they heard how a Muslim mob had set a train on fire, killing 59 Hindus near here. “Do you expect that there would not be any reaction?” he yelled. “The reaction to burning 59 persons was burning 1,000 people. It was a reaction of the people.” All the Council did, Akruwala said, was help Hindus organize their defense. “Our agency is responsible for protecting the afflicted.”

That wasn’t all the Council did. In the elections that followed the riots, several Council members — from the top brass down to neighborhood activists — threw their weight behind the BJP. Not only did Council leaders share the campaign stage with BJP candidates, they mobilized voters, distributed pamphlets and called for a boycott of the Congress Party. At one campaign rally, Pravin Togadia, a former Ahmedabad-based surgeon and now the Council’s No. 2 man, ridiculed Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress, as an “Italian dog,” a reference to her Italian origins. Riding on a wave of such a campaign whipped up by the Council, the BJP won a landslide victory in Gujarat, securing two-thirds of the seats in the state assembly.

Dinesh Shukla, Gujarati University professor emeritus of political science, estimates that 20 to 25 percent of the BJP’s newly elected legislators are Council members. It wasn’t surprising, therefore, when just last month, the party pushed through the Gujarat state assembly a Council-backed law punishing with fines some conversions to Islam.

Yet even before the election, there was evidence the Council was reaching the masses. Poor, low-caste Hindus who had lived side-by-side with poor Muslims for decades allegedly raped, burned and mutilated their Muslim neighbors during last year’s riots, which were the most gruesome of the five that have occurred here in the past 35 years. What surprised many was how for the first time, the BJP made enormous gains in predominantly low-caste villages and districts which were traditional Congress bastions.

But Dr. Jaideep Patel, the man who runs the Gujarat branch of the Council, said low-caste Hindus are not his targets. “No, no, no,” he said, sitting behind his desk, flailing his hands. “All Hindu people are connecting with the Council,” from Brahmins to the untouchables.

“These (the charitable works) are not the workings of a fascist organization,” said Patel, who was shot in the head in an assassination attempt that he says left him unconscious for 15 days. “Who is the fascist?” he said. “The one who shoots or the one who takes the bullet?”

But Hanif Lakdawala, a Muslim psychiatrist and civil rights leader who runs a medical clinic for poor Hindus and Muslims, said “fascists” set up hospitals, take bullets and shoot them, too. “We’re up against very formidable forces,” he said. “Hatred against Muslims has become part of the collective consciousness of Gujarati Hindus.”