Indian-Canadian film-maker Nisha Pahuja spent years trying to get inside Durga Vahini, an Indian camp for radical Hindu women. She was finally granted permission and made the documentary The World Before Her. Here she describes what she saw in that camp.
It is the final day of the 10-day Durga Vahini camp.
Eighty girls are on their way to march and chant through the streets of the western city of Aurangabad. They are about to proudly proclaim India a Hindu nation.
All across the country many such parades are under way or being planned by the Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) – the cultural arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – the largest Hindu nationalist group in India.
Durga Vahini literally means Army of Durga – named after the goddess who is among the fiercest in the Hindu pantheon.
There is camaraderie and excitement on the bus. The girls are dressed in white salwaar kameez (pyjamas and long tunics) and saffron-coloured dupattas (scarves). Two of the camp leaders are at the front of the bus leading the girls in a chant: “Hindustan is for Hindus. Pakistan can go to hell!”
As the girls repeat the chant I’m struck by their eyes – they reflect the headiness of transgression.
‘Die for beliefs’
The leaders grin: “You could be put in jail for what you are saying!”
“We’ll die for our beliefs!” postures one young girl. “We’ll kill anyone who gets in our way!” yells another.
Ten days earlier the majority of these girls and young women, aged 13-25, were soft-spoken, shy and naive.
For most, this was the first time – and probably the last time – they were away from home without their families.
Many of them came from small villages, had little education, were from the lower castes and likely to be married in the next few years. Before they got to the camp, many were also free of the deep-rooted prejudice against Muslims and Christians that so defines the mindset of the VHP and the RSS.
But a lot can change in 10 days.
Apart from the military-style combat training, the girls are fed a revisionist history that promotes Hindu supremacy and posits Hinduism as the only legitimate religion of India. They are also taught to see their role in the defence and propagation of Hinduism as a service to their country.
And they are trained to be warriors and wives – they must be strong enough to break the bones of the enemy but docile enough to never question their husbands. The Durga Vahini leadership is blind to this duality – but that it has repercussions is abundantly clear.
No-one has been more marked by this duality than Prachi Trivedi, one of the leaders of the camp and quite possibly the most enigmatic woman I’ve ever met. In her world of limited choices, working for the Durga Vahini – which she admits is problematic – affords her a degree of dignity and freedom.
Prachi is the reason I am here, allowed to witness and document this camp. It has taken me nearly two years to get access to this world and thus far ours is the only camera crew to have ever been allowed in.
- Set up by the hardline Hindu organisation VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad or World Hindu Council) in 1984-85.
- Women aged 15 to 35 years are eligible to join the group.
- The group’s website describes it as a “dynamic voluntary organisation” of young Hindu women.
- It says the organisation “strives for the security of society” and imparts knowledge of culture and tradition.
- Every member is expected to exercise regularly for “increasing her physical stamina” and to read “good literature”.
- The group says it “ensures rehabilitation” of widows, women who have been deserted by their husbands, or women “involved in accidents”.
- Training camps of 15-20 days are organised for members in all states.
- The group runs vocational training and tailoring centres and blood donation camps, among other things.
- Members are also trained in “dagger wielding” and use of firearms, according to the website.
At our first meeting they chose a rehabilitation project the VHP ran for prostitutes and their children as a way to introduce me to their ethos.
Getting inside the camps was not easy – it took perseverance, negotiation, honesty, luck and a lot of time. But more than anything else, it took gaining the trust of Prachi, her family and key players within the VHP.
Finally, after close to two years, they opened the doors to a world that was complex, shocking and problematic – but that ultimately forced me to question my own prejudices and assumptions about them.
Yes, there were deeply troubling moments – taking young girls and teaching them to be paranoid and to hate the “other” is in itself a form of violence and yet, it was undeniable that these young women became more confident, stronger and more sure of themselves after 10 days.
In a country like India, where women’s rights is a constant battle, there was something powerful about watching these young women be transformed in spite of knowing that the cost of this process was intolerance.
It was also undeniable that the people instilling such lessons were hospitable and filled with a desire to serve their country.
What motivated them was a vision, an idea of the truth and a moral certainty that they had found it. It was as unshakeable to them as my belief in equality or Western assertions that “democracy” is the only way forward.
The question for me became one of faith. How does one reason with faith? And that too a faith that has been bred into you and reinforced by family and social structures that form the pillars of the world as you live it?
I began to see that all of us are ultimately products of time, place, history, genes and countless other factors beyond our control. If this then is our collective inheritance, how many of our choices are truly our own? How many of us are actually free?
On the last day of camp, as a group of girls boarded the van that was taking them home, Pansaray, one of the camp seniors, put her hands together and said: “Forgive us if we’ve done anything wrong.”
I still find that one of the most moving lines in the film. It reminds me that all of us are often dictated by forces we cannot see.
This story first appeared on BBC in November 2014 here.