What’s Afoot in Asia’s Largest Slum

Click here  to see a slide show of photographs from Dharavi and Mumbai. One hundred years ago, Dharavi, which is now Asia’s largest slum, was a fishing village at the edge of Mumbai. As the growing city dumped its junk here, the salt plain turned to swampy landfill. Then, from the 1950s, as rural Indians arrived in Mumbai, or Bombay as it was then known, looking for work, they came to Dharavi. Now the teeming slum, which used to be the most marginal of all marginal communities, is right smack in the middle of Greater Mumbai. Its warrens ring with the sound of tinkers’ hammers and the chatter of Bollywood songs. A blind man could navigate Dharavi by scent if he could avoid the open sewers and also, somehow, the live and low-slung power lines. There is the smell of river trout from fishermen’s open carts, cardamom sold by spice merchants, caramelizing sugar, fresh clay spinning on potters’ wheels, and the tang of animal skin from one of the tanners’ colonies, home to a caste of Dalits, or untouchables, who live in Dharavi. Dharavi is also home to India’s first “Indian Idol,” 23-year-old Abhijeet Sawant, who, after sudden stardom struck last month, had to go into hiding because so many rabid mothers ran him down for marriage proposals.

For the other 499,999 people living in Dharavi, life has not changed.

Take Babalu, for example, a name that means something like “sweet little boy.” Babalu is a clean-cut 27-year-old with a freckle embedded in the white of his right eye who works on the street hawking barrettes. He is also the head of the Lord Ram Unit of the Bajrang Dal, the paramilitary youth wing of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, the religious wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The RSS is a Hindu nationalist organization that has supported a host of unsavory bigots from Adolf Hitler to Nathuram Godse, the man who assassinated Gandhi in 1948. Although the RSS claimed Godse was not a member of the organization at the time of the assassination, this was an attempt to distance the RSS from the scandal.

“As a member of BD, I’m a notorious troublemaker,” Babalu said as he sat at a back table in Venus, a vegetarian restaurant in the slum. The Bajrang Dal, otherwise known as Hanuman the Monkey God’s Army, is extremely violent. They claim to have 1.3 million members throughout India. I’d met Babalu through a lanky community leader who as a teenager had also been a member of the Bajrang Dal. The lanky man had left the organization years earlier because he was disgusted by their violence.

Babalu joined Hanuman the Monkey God’s Army at 16, when he heard about the anti-Muslim campaign of L.K. Advani, an avid member of the RSS and the current president of the group’s political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. In 1992, Advani drove a flatbed truck decorated to look like the chariot of Lord Ram to the northern city of Ayodhya. Claiming the site was Lord Ram’s birthplace and an ancient Hindu temple, Advani stood by as a mob of thousands destroyed the 476-year-old Babri mosque. It was a high-water mark in communal violence in India, and the ensuing riots throughout India left thousands of Muslims dead.

After Advani’s chariot ride, Babalu paid 5 rupees per year—about 10 cents—for membership in the RSS, and more specifically to the Bajrang Dal. At first, for Babalu, being a member of the Bajrang Dal meant only attending a weekly meeting. But soon, he was invited to attend a training camp that takes place twice a year in several locations throughout the country.

“We get up at 5:15, we learn karate, how to use air rifles—we learn how to talk to people about the Bajrang Dal and the RSS,” Babalu said. Seven hundred to 1,500 young men attend each camp, he said, blowing into his glass of hot tea. They run for 10 days, and return transportation is paid for by the organization.

“It’s all a free ride,” he said.

It may have been the mention of the rifles, or perhaps the mad scribbling of notes across the table, that made Babalu add, “There’s a perception that the Bajrang Dal is a violent and destructive organization, but the truth is we want to help society by continuing education for poor boys in the slums.”

In rural India, the RSS also runs tribal centers, and occasionally Babalu travels to villages to work in them. The centers are designed to convert people to Hinduism in the name of community development. Many Dalits are Christian, and RSS leaders have publicly decried the presence of Christian missionaries in India. In 1999, a member of the Bajrang Dal named Dara Singh murdered Australian Baptist missionary Graham Stuart Staines and his sons, Philip, 10, and Timothy, 8, as they slept in a jeep in the village of Manoharpur, about 600 miles southeast of New Delhi. In the southern Indian state of Kerala this past fall, several nuns belonging to Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity were attacked by assailants linked to the RSS. Recently, in a mass ceremony, the RSS “reconverted” 3,000 Dalits from Christianity to Hinduism.

Despite their dislike of the Christians, for the RSS and the Bajrang Dal, Muslims are the primary enemy.

“Of course they have the right to live in India, but they should live like Indians. During a cricket match, everyone should feel happy if India wins,” Babalu said.

Babalu has been arrested seven or eight times for inciting mob violence against Muslims.

“We are in such large numbers, they have to empty schools or hotels to hold us all,” he said, laughing. “If I have numbers on my side, and there’s a struggle, someone will get killed.”

Babalu took me and the lanky community leader who’d introduced us to his house. Fluorescent lights thrummed in the living room where eight members of his family sleep. There was a television, a VCR, a pair of large speakers, but nothing else.

“I didn’t have time to be so religious when I was young,” his 63-year-old father said, sitting with the rest of his family on the floor.

Ironically, the rise of the middle class in India has contributed to the radicalization of its youth. Suddenly, members of the second generation of once-rural youth do not have to work in the fields every day to eat. There is ample time to get into trouble and also to get religion.

Babalu’s mother said, “Late at night when he doesn’t come home, I get scared. I want him to leave all this and get married.” She pulled a white plastic photo album from a shelf on the wall. She opened the book to a snapshot of an infant wearing a baseball cap from the movie Mission Kashmir.

Then she showed me Babalu’s prospective wives, all smiling in soft focus under studio lights. Not one had worked out, she said, wistfully. At 27, Babalu was getting old to be single.

“I’ve had some proposals, but they heard I was in the Bajrang Dal so they didn’t want me,” he said. Yet as the cellophane pages flipped, it became increasingly clear that Babalu had rejected at least four of the women.

“She has no glory in her face,” he said, pointing to one who was standing in front of a fake English garden clasping her hands. “Marriage is too much responsibility,” he said, sliding the book back onto its shelf.

Babalu’s primary concern was to earn money for his family. We talked about whether being a member of the Bajrang Dal could get boys jobs. Yes, he said, adding that he was happy selling barrettes. “But other, poorer, boys have gotten jobs at textile mills from an older member.”

It was just before Eid, the Muslim festival that marks the end of Ramadan’s month of fasting, when we spoke, and Babalu was in charge of gathering young men to monitor the nearby slaughterhouses to ensure that no one killed any cows, which are sacred to Hindus. During the Gujarat massacre of 2002, the Cow Protection Movement within the Bajrang Dal reportedly led much of the violence.

Out of his parents’ earshot, Babalu said that at the slaughterhouses, things tend to get violent. “Yeah, people get hurt. Man-to-man combat takes place. Whoever is weaker runs away and throws stones.” He added, “I’ve never hurt a woman or a kid, and I never would.”

As Babalu went on, the lanky community leader, who had clearly had enough of this adolescent posturing, interrupted him.

“These boys are being used by the rich leaders who provide money but never get involved themselves,” he said, looking at Babalu. He said that the leaders rarely got involved in the violence and used poor boys to do their dirty work. “It’s the leaders’ style to pick up good strong boys and take them to the forest to brainwash them, so whenever they see a Muslim, they’ll kill him.”

Babalu thrust out his chin.

“I’m not a product of the RSS,” he said.