The dimly lit classroom with wooden benches near the Jhargram Raj College looks like that of any other school. But these are special schools. They are the Shishu Shiksha Kendras, pre-primary informal schools run by the RSS. The teachers in these schools don’t necessarily teach from books, there are games and the children are relaxed.
These schools have had a deep impact in the tribal green belt of Bengal. Just as the Left hold on this area waned and Mamata Bannerjee government pushed several development works in this area, once the hub of Naxal activities, the RSS saw an opportunity. Simmering discontent over land, the need for modern farming techniques and people’s ambition to get good jobs — these were perfect ingredients for the entry of the RSS. Several Hari Sabhas or religious clubs were set up. Student hostels, Ekal Vidyalayas or coaching centres began to crop up.
Wearing gamchhaas over their shoulders, many locals began advising farmers on how to use traditional methods to increase crop output and even cultivate abandoned infertile land. They were the RSS swayamsevaks. And slowly the BJP began to make inroads. It bore fruit when in the 2018 Panchayat polls where the TMC received a jolt. Of the 20 seats in the Balarampur Panchayat Samiti, the BJP won 18. It also swept 7 gram panchayat and two zilla parishad seats in Balarampur that falls in the Jhargram assembly segment.
RSS swayamsevaks began work in the area since 2014, in the spheres of health, education and moral ‘upliftment’ of people.
Water is one of the basic problems in this area. Eighty-two-year-old Lulu Mahato has just had a cataract operation and can barely see. But what he can certainly see is the lack of basic facilities like water and sanitation. “Look at this gutter, it’s so dirty. We don’t get water. Some people come and give it to us, they are the RSS people we know. But suddenly a few days back this tap was set up. We know elections are here.”
Sudhir Gorai, who has come to check on his friend Lulu, agrees. “Yes the TMC government has done a lot of work here. We have seen development. But I see how my family suffers for want of water.”
The RSS and BJP have scored in beginning small. The swayamsevaks saw that providing basic facilities like tube wells and drains would help them reach out to the people of Jhargram. As development came into this area, ambitions rose. The youth want jobs, and the many coaching and training centres have given hope that the technical skill acquired would help them get jobs in big cities like Kolkata.
The TMC came in for another rude shock when in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls when the BJP won the seat. Kunar Hembram is the Jhargram MP. It is believed that the anti-TMC, Congress and Left votes went to the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections and helped the BJP win. Having tasted success, the BJP wants to repeat it in the assembly seats as well. This is why top leaders like Rajnath Singh, Amit Shah and JP Nadda have been campaigning here. But the TMC has now woken up. Mamata Bannerjee, in an obvious reach out to her pet Jangalmahal area, in which Jhargram falls, has promised water supply, free ration at people’s doorsteps and technical education.
Hovering around Sudhir Gorai are a handful of boys in their twenties. They said, “Those who give us jobs we will go for them. That’s all what matters to us. We don’t want to farm, we want to move out of Jhargram.”
The statues of tribal leaders like Sidhu Kanu, who are worshipped as gods in this belt, have been witness to many changes in this area. From being a Naxal stronghold, patronised by the Left to several incident of violence. It has seen development too, when Mamata Bannerjee nurtured this area. The Jhargram Rajbari, or palace, has been transformed into a popular heritage hotel and is a popular tourist destination. But Sidhu Kanu is also seeing some dissatisfaction creeping in. With development comes desire. There are complaints that local TMC leaders don’t let the benefits percolate down. The RSS uses its conventional door to door meetings to reach out, where the state government is unable to. And BJP is hopeful. Maybe Sidhu Kanu will see another change here.