How one-teacher Ekal schools helped the spread of Hindutva in rural West Bengal

It was March 2019, and Jayanti Barman, a woman in her early twenties, was teaching around thirty students in an open, unused space in the Jharbasti area of Kailara village. The village falls under the Rasakhowa II gram panchayat in Karandighi block, a remote, underdeveloped part of Uttar Dinajpur, one of West Bengal’s three Muslim-majority districts. Nearly half of Rasakhowa II panchayat shares a border with Bangladesh, with Hindus and Muslims comprising an almost equal share of the population. All the children were primary students; from the first to the fourth standard, and almost all of them were enrolled at the Kailara Free Primary School.

Six days a week, the students would go to Jharbasti, and Jayanti would give them free coaching. The parents of most of the students either did not get a chance at an education themselves or did not have the time to help them with their studies. According to the 2011 census, Karandighi’s literacy rate is 53.42 percent. The residents of Jharbasti are mostly migrants from Bangladesh, who settled in the area little more than a decade ago, and hail from the Rajbanshi community, a Scheduled Caste group. Jayanti would teach the children for about three hours every day. Several local residents and children who studied under Jayanti told me that the coaching covered not just the school syllabus but also moral values, yoga and religious prayers. Several parents corroborated this.

The free coaching centre where Jayanti taught is called Ekal Vidyalaya, and it is run by a non-profit called the Friends of Tribals Society, or FTS. Locally, the FTS is referred to as the Vanvandhu Parishad. The FTS is backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh though the members of the organisation deny any direct link with the Sangh. However, a look at the FTS’s website, its antecedents, literature, executive and even conceptual ideas all trace back to the Sangh. Jayanti, who completed her high school from the Rasakhowa Higher Secondary School, is the only teacher at the Ekal Vidyalaya and has taught at the centre since 2016, at a paltry monthly honorarium of Rs 1,000. The FTS pays this amount, and also provides free supplies like pencils, erasers and notebooks for the students. The residents told me that Jayanti has to undergo regular training from FTS to learn the nuances of teaching.

The parents said that the classes would start with the Saraswati Vandana, a religious chant which is an ode to the Hindu goddess Saraswati. The Gayatri Mantra—a Vedic hymn—was also part of the coaching. It was mandatory for the children to offer salutations before  images of Bharat Mata—a visual representation of India as a mother goddess, the image usually depicts a saffron-clad woman superimposed on the map of India—and Saraswati, often placed on a chair. They would learn to hail the nation with “Bharat Mata Ki Jai.” The students would be asked to touch their parents’ feet every morning and respect all teachers and elders. They would be taught to honour the Tricolour, the national anthem, and sing the poem Vande Mataram, which is pronounced as Bande Mataram in the local dialect.

According to the parents, Jayanti taught the children about historical figures she called “Indian icons,” such as Shivaji, a 17th century king and founder of the Maratha Empire, and Rana Pratap, a 16th century king famous for his resistance to the Mughal Empire. The lessons covered right-wing ideologues such as Syama Prasad Mookerjee and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya alongside Mohandas Gandhi and Subhash Chandra Bose. The coaching also included lessons on the divine nature of cows and the animal’s practical usages.

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