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Nationalist Schools, Tea Workers and Adivasis: How RSS Grew Roots for BJP's Growth in North Bengal

The RSS has operated 910 shakas in 650 places in south Bengal and 452 shakhas in 373 places in north Bengal. In Cooch Behar and Alipurduar, along with Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Raiganj, this proved a key factor because of the nature of the seats and its electorate.

Aniruddha Ghosal | News18.com@aniruddhg1

Updated:April 10, 2019, 10:59 AM IST
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Nationalist Schools, Tea Workers and Adivasis: How RSS Grew Roots for BJP's Growth in North Bengal
The RSS has operated 910 shakas in 650 places in south Bengal and 452 shakhas in 373 places in north Bengal. In Cooch Behar and Alipurduar, along with Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Raiganj, this proved a key factor because of the nature of the seats and its electorate.

Siliguri: As the campaign for the first phase of Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal ended on Tuesday, the BJP admitted that the first two phases are the party’s best chance to win the elections. It said that “electoral success” would owe greatly to the work done in the area by the RSS since 2014, and losses would be due to the party’s own organisational weakness.

The hectic campaigns for the first phase - that will see Cooch Behar (SC) and Alipurduar (ST) seats go to polls on April 11 - have seen Prime Minister Narendra Modi and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee speak extensively on issues ranging from communalism to NRC and chit fund scams to border security. A total of 18,09,598 electorates will decide the fate of 11 contestants in Cooch Behar, while 16,42,285 voters will choose from seven contestants in Alipurduar. Leaders from both TMC and BJP agree that the elections eventually boils down to a single binary: Mamata versus Modi.

Neither of the two seats have traditionally voted for the TMC and neither seats are dominated by Left-Front heavyweights. In fact, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) won uninterrupted from Alipurduar between 1977 and 2014, and in Cooch Behar, the Forward Blockwon from 1962 to 2014.

This time, the TMC has fielded Paresh Adhikari against the BJP's Nisith Pramanik in Cooch Behar where Gobinda Roy of the Forward Bloc is also in the fray. In Alipurduar, the TMC-nominated Dasarath Tirkey is contesting against John Berla of the BJP. Mili Oraon of the RSP will also contest from the same constituency.

With the weakening of the Left, and the smaller parties that are now a part of its fold, the BJP has been quick to try and seize the opportunity. “The anti-TMC vote has to go somewhere, that is where we are hoping we will do well,” said a senior BJP leader, adding, “The RSS presence here has helped us greatly in increasing our acceptability.”

Rise of the RSS in north Bengal

Until 2014, Madhab Bhawan at Hakim Para, a quiet neighborhood in Siliguri, was just another nondescript building. But as its footprint expanded over north Bengal, so did the building — keeping in pace with its ambition of increasing its imprint from “Maldah to Gangtok”.

The building — with a life-size statue of Bharat Mata on its front facade with the words “Himalayam Samarabhya Yavadindu Sarovaram Tam Deva Nirmitham Desham Hindusthanam Prachakshathe” (The sacred land which lies between the Himalayas and Indu Mahasagar is called the Hindusthan) — housed RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat in December.

During his visit, sources said, Bhagwat had joined an aggregation camp organised by the RSS in Hindi High School in Siliguri and also met the BJP leadership in north Bengal.

Explaining the role of RSS in the party’s north Bengal expansion plans, a Bengal RSS leader said, “Traditionally, the RSS had a strong grip in the state’s south western areas such as Purulia and Jhargram. We have been running schools here for a long time. But expansion in the north had not happened.”

This changed with the BJP coming to power in 2014.

Till last year, the RSS operated 910 shakas in 650 places in south Bengal and 452 shakhas in 373 places in north Bengal. In Cooch Behar and Alipurduar, along with Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Raiganj, this proved a key factor because of the nature of the seats and its electorate, the RSS leader said. Of the five seats, three are reserved either for tribals (Alipurduar) or Dalits (Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri) while all are dominated by tea estate workers.

One of the reasons the BJP fared well in Darjeeling was because of the support of Gorkha Janmukti Morcha worker union that had been working in the tea estates. Anjani Tamang, a tea estate worker and member of GJM in Darjeeling, explained, “Until 2014, the BJP would get the votes of Nepali workers in tea garden. But they tend to be more concentrated in the hills. Tea garden workers in the foothills are primarily Dalits and they voted for the Left and later for the TMC.”

The RSS’s plan for expansion in the area, sources said, had largely been two-fold: to concentrate on tea workers’ unions and the rights of adivasis through the Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) or through expansion in schools.

Take, for instance, a school on the banks of Jayanti river along the buffer zone of the Buxa Tiger Reserve in Alipurduar that started three years ago. The school, backed by the RSS, offered free tuition to school children and a committee was formed for the guardians to discuss implementation of government schools. An NGO was established soon after to organise religious events and impart “nationalistic morals”. This didn’t escape Mamata Banerjee and in a public meeting last year, she urged people to “stay from those informal schools” and alleged that the “Satsang Samitis are working to foster communal disharmony”.

Will organisational strength matter?

Some in the Bengal BJP argue that organisational strength matters little and some insist that it is the X-factor in an election -- the difference between winning or losing. What most don’t disagree on is that the BJP is sorely lacking in the department in the state.

As one BJP leader put it, “The problem is that we have expanded and we have taken up the space that the Left once occupied of being the anti-Mamata party. But on ground, our presence doesn’t compare with the TMC or even the Congress.” Another state committee leader argued, “If elections could be won through organisational machinery, the Left would never have lost in 2008 (Panchayat Polls). People have to come out and vote.”

Banerjee has also been hitting out at the BJP over their ground presence. "Babus of Delhi set fire in the hills and we defused it. You (Modi) had not come to Darjeeling during the days of unrest. Where were the BJP leaders when there were disturbances in the hills?" she said at a rally at Churabhandar in Jalpaiguri district, hours after Modi spoke at an election meeting there. Later at Falakata in Alipurduar district, Banerjee said BJP leaders "are seasonal birds who come here only during elections and run away after polls" while Trinamool Congress was with the people 365 days a year.

Meanwhile, the Election Commission on Tuesday transferred Superintendent of Police of Cooch Behar, Abhisekh Gupta, a day before polls on April 11 while also barring him from election duty. A few days ago, Gupta was threatened by BJP leader Mukul Roy during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's North Bengal rally. Roy had publicly threatened the SP for "acting as the ruling party's stooge".

TMC spokesperson Partha Chatterjee alleged the transfer of the officers clearly indicated that the “EC was working under the instruction of the BJP”. “The Bharatiya Janata Party is trying to convert the Election Commission into its extended party office,” Chatterjee said, adding, “Why is the EC acting on behalf of the BJP? Is it democracy?” The EC refuted the allegations.

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| Edited by: Divya Kapoor
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