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

The Friends of Tribals Society describes itself as a volunteer organisation with an aim to improve literacy and health among the Adivasi population in rural India. Established in Kolkata in 1989, it runs Ekal Vidyalayas under the aegis of the Ekal Abhiyan. These are informal one-teacher schools where primary-schoolgoing children are provided free coaching in the regular school syllabus and additionally given lessons in moral values, Hindu traditions, history of Hindu kings, yoga, the importance of the cow and bhajans, among other things. Courtesy the Friends of Tribals Society
10 October, 2020

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.

Bishtu Barman and Labonu Barman, who are local residents, said that a few months after the coaching centre started functioning regularly at Jharbasti, another “NGO” came into the village. This was the Shree Hari Satsang Samiti. They said that the SHSS formed a Sanskar Kendra—a weekly gathering for adults where moral values and ethics would be discussed in the backdrop of religious songs. The men said that it initially began with the family members of the students who were attending the free coaching. As more and more villagers started frequenting the weekly gathering as a social spot, the SHSS started getting in kathakars—story tellers—every few weeks. These kathakars would perform sessions of Hari Katha, Ram Katha and Bhagwat Katha—tales of the Hindu gods Vishnu and Ram and a Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, respectively.

In addition, Bishtu and Labonu told me that at the coaching centre the children, too, were trained in religious songs involving Ram. One was the bhajan, “Ram, Siya Ram, Siya Ram, Jai Jai Ram” and the other, called “Ram Dhun,” had lyrics which say, Shri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram. One of the students, who was in the third standard, told me that they learnt an ode to “Bharat Maa.” The child said they would recite it every day as an oath, and that its started with “Jai Shri Ram,” followed by “Amra Sobai Bharat Mayer Santan, Bharat Mayer Chokhey Ashrudhara, Amra Mayer Chokher Jol Mochhabo, Amra Prithibir Shokti Jagabo, Amra Desh-ke Shukhi Banabo”—we are all children of Bharat Maa. Bharat Maa has tears in her eyes. We shall wipe out her tears. We will awaken the strength of the nation. We will make the country happy. The child said they would then end it with “Jai Shri Ram. Bharat Mata Ki Jai.”

Beginning with the eighties, when the Sangh first started mobilisation for a Ram temple in Ayodhya, and followed by the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992, “Jai Shri Ram” has become the biggest war cry of the Bharatiya Janata Party—the political wing of the RSS and the ruling party at the centre for the last six years. Since 2016, when Mamata Banerjee, the incumbent chief minister of West Bengal and the head of the Trinamool Congress, came back to power in the state, the slogan has been deployed by the BJP as a challenge against Mamata, who they claim is “anti-Hindu.” “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” has also been singularly associated with the BJP in the state, while the left parties had their “Laal Salaam”—the red salute—and “Inquilab Zindabaad”—long live the revolution. The Congress identified itself with “Jai Hind” and “Vande Mataram,” and the TMC, apart from the Congress’ slogans, had “Joy Bangla”—hail Bangla.  

According to local residents, by 2018, the RSS’s saffron flag, and Jai Shri Ram and Bharat Mata Ki Jai had become commonplace in Jharbasti and the whole of Rasakhowa panchayat. The students I spoke to at Jharbasti said they enjoyed going to Jayanti’s school and all the local residents were happy with it as well. They said the centre had made their children more “disciplined” and “obedient.”

In the May 2018 panchayat elections, the BJP nearly won the Rasakhowa panchayat, getting seven of the 19 seats, the same as the TMC’s numbers. The TMC’s Rinku Majumdar became the panchayat pradhan—chief—after the Congress, which won three seats, supported the TMC to keep the BJP at bay. And as of March 2019, the Karandighi block had 30 such free coaching centres or Ekal Vidyalayas in as many villages.

Tapas Das, a member of the Karandighi area committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who lives in the Rasakhowa panchayat area, told me, “People involved with the Ekal projects did not directly preach voting for the BJP but they worked towards promoting the RSS’ brand of Hindutva.” He added, “Following their interventions, there were certain noticeable changes in the traditional religious programmes of the villages. One of them is the popularisation of Bhagwat Katha musical sessions.” Tapas said these sessions are conducted in Hindi—the majority population in the area speaks local dialects of Bengali—and go on for days.  

As of August 2020, the FTS’s Ekal Vidyalaya at Jharbasti was one of 4,440 such coaching centres in the state being run by the society under what is known as the Ekal Abhiyan campaign. However, there are Ekal Vidyalayas in West Bengal beyond the Ekal Abhiyan project. Several hundred of them in the state are run by various organisations belonging to the Sangh Parivar—an overarching term used to describe outfits affiliated and associated with the RSS.  At least three other Sangh organisations use a similar informal model to operate educational institutes in the state, and all of them focus on young children: The Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, or the VKA, which is the RSS’s wing that works in Adivasi areas; the Rashtriya Sewa Bharati, or the RSB, the Sangh’s social-service arm; and the Vidya Bharati Akhil Bharatiya Shiksha Sansthan, which is the saffron organisation’s education wing.

The VKA runs free pre-primary coaching centres called Shishu Shiksha Kendra while the RSB operates free coaching centres for primary and secondary students, which are called Sanskar Kendra and Pathdan Kendra, respectively. The Vidya Bharati, which has 14,000 formal private schools spread across the country, also operates informal coaching centres, called Sanskar Kendra, attached to its formal schools. These organisations either operate the centres directly or via an extensive network of affiliated NGOs and outfits, like the SHSS.

Based on my travels in the state over the past year and a half and on conversations with several high ranking and ground-level functionaries of the Ekal Vidyalayas, FTS, VKA, RSB and Vidya Bharati, there are around five thousand and four hundred such coaching centres in West Bengal as of August 2020. These humble one-teacher, informal schools, running on temple or residential courtyards and unclaimed open spaces in nondescript and impoverished villages have quietly helped the Hindutva nationalists grow deep roots in Bengal. The schools are merely the starting point of the Sangh’s aim of influencing every other major aspect of the entire village’s life—education, health, economy, environment, self-empowerment, culture, sense of morality and the religion they follow.  

The Ekal Vidyalayas were the first such endeavour in West Bengal. But their genesis comes from a school-centric village-development programme by the RSS that first began in what is present day Jharkhand, in the mid-eighties. This was known as the Ekal Abhiyan, or the Ekal movement, and one-teacher schools formed the nucleus of this Ekal project. While the initial thrust of the Ekal project had been in Adivasi areas, over the years the movement extended its activities to villages where people from the Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Communities dominate the demography. It is by far one of the biggest public-outreach programmes of the Sangh Parivar.

The model was a simple one to begin with. It started with the setting up of a free coaching centre, following which guardians of the students and other villagers would slowly be involved in activities around religion and moral values— by the mid-nineties, organic farming, health awareness and economic self-reliance had been added as components. As the project expanded, other organisations were created to look after various aspects such as funding, ideology, logistics and religious indoctrination. So, organisations such as the FTS, among others, would set up the informal educational institute, and other entities would be roped in for all the allied activities, creating a vast network of inter-connected organisations.

Like the FTS, almost all of these organisations that are a part of the Ekal Abhiyan claim that they have no direct link to the Sangh. But the history of the Ekal project contradicts this.

According to various accounts of the Ekal programme in the literature and websites linked to the Ekal movement, Murlidhar Dattatreya Deoras, popularly known as Bhaurao Deoras, had outlined the concept of these one-teacher schools. Bhaurao was a younger brother of the third RSS sarsanghchalak, or supreme leader, Madhukar Dattatreya Deoras, and a top RSS organiser himself. According to the Ekal website, around 1983, a nuclear physicist Rakesh Popli helped refine Bhaurao’s idea. Based on Bhaurao’s vision, in 1986, the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation, or EVF, was formed in Gumla district of present-day Jharkhand. Simultaneously, a similar project, which focussed on night schools for Adivasi communities, was launched in Odisha. Right from the beginning, the project depended on sponsorships from industrialists and wealthy philanthropists.

Around 1985, Shyam Gupta, a senior RSS pracharak, or full-time member, got involved with the campaign in Odisha. In 1989, he took over the EVF—it was under his leadership that an initiative was taken to connect urban people with what was a rural programme. Gupta expanded on Bhaurao’s vision and decided that urban centres—with their higher paying capacity and inclination towards charity—would be the source of funding and intellectual inputs. This resulted in the formation of the FTS, in Kolkata, in 1989. Purushottam Das Chitlangia, an industrialist, who also served as the BJP’s vice-president for West Bengal for more than a decade, was the helmsman of the FTS from 1991 to 2003.

In 1995, Gupta roped in another industrialist, Sadhu Ram Bansal, to form the Shree Hari Satsang Samiti, or SHSS, again in Kolkata, as the third organisation of the Ekal project. Bansal was already associated with the FTS and the VKA. Soon after Bansal’s patronage, the SHSS initiated the Ekal Kathakar Yojna to organise the Ram Katha and Hari Katha sessions. Though initially conceptualised for raising funds for the schools, the Hari Katha sessions were later taken to the village level to popularise Ram and Krishna among the Adivasi people in the areas where VKA was active.

A short documentary on the SHSS titled Introduction of Shreehari Satsang Samiti, reveals that the Hari Katha Yojna is aimed at Sanskritik Jagran, or cultural awakening, to transform people into Ram Sadhaks, or worshippers of Ram, and develop villages into Sanskari Gaon—villages rooted in traditions. The documentary was made by the Vanvasi Raksha Parivar Foundation—a branch of the SHSS which aims to safeguard tribal people and their families. The SHSS would train village youth in the art of religious narration and develop them into dedicated, full-time kathakars for this project.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Pratap Sarangi, who is the union minister of state for animal husbandry, dairying and fisheries and micro, small and medium enterprises in the current BJP government, played a key role in the spread of the Ekal Abhiyan in Odisha. Sarangi has variously served as an RSS pracharak, a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the religious wing of the RSS and a chief of the Bajrang Dal, the militant youth-wing of the VHP, in Odisha. It was under his watch as the Bajrang Dal chief in 1999 that members of the Dal burnt alive a Christian missionary, Graham Staines and his two children.

Then, during the late 1990s, based on the model of the Ekal Abhiyan, the Jharkhand unit of the VKA too launched its own one-teacher school programme. In 1999, the VHP started opening one-teacher schools. The RSB entered the fray in 2011, and the Vidya Bharati joined in a year later.

It should be noted that all of these Sangh Parivar entities, the VKA, VHP, RSB and Vidya Bharti, employed the same model as the Ekal Abhiyan run by the FTS but according to the movement, they are not a part of the Ekal Abhiyan project—ostensibly to maintain the myth of the Ekal movement not being a Sangh project. But the reverse is not necessarily true. For instance, the VHP’s website displays a link to the Ekal Abhiyan website quite prominently, as an allied project.  

In 2003, a fourth organisation, named Arogya Foundation of India, or the AFI, was launched to provide medical help in the villages which had Ekal Abhiyan schools. Around this time, according to news reports, the Abhiyan had the backing of the BJP-led Atal Bihari Vajpayee government of 1998-2003.

A fifth organisation was launched in 2008 for the purpose of research and development—it was named Ekal Sansthan, or ES. In 2014, taking the programme a step further, the Gramotthan Foundation, or the GF, was founded to help villages become economically self-reliant. Around this time, the current Narendra Modi-led BJP government also extended its vocal and unequivocal support to the project.

At present, nationally, the Ekal Abhiyan is led by an umbrella organisation called the Ekal Abhiyan Trust, headquartered in Kolkata. The Trust encompasses EVF, FTS, SHSS, AFI, GF, ES and the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of India—an iteration of the EVF which was formally registered in New Delhi in 2000. The trust also includes the Bharat Lok Shiksha Parishad, or BLSP, an Ekal entity founded in 2000 and focussed on north India, the Rashtriya Mahila Samiti, a women’s organisation founded in 2011 under the FTS and the Gram Swaraj Manch, a self-help village-based entity. The FTS and the BLSP directly operate Ekal schools and raise funds to manage them, while the EVFI manages funds raised from abroad.

The Ekal project’s history makes it clear that it was initiated, backed and propagated by veteran RSS leaders. But the entire Ekal universe still persists in its denial of direct linkages with the Sangh. Nirmalya Bhattacharya, who heads Ekal Abhiyan’s activities in West Bengal, told me, “The FTS or the Ekal Abhiyan is not affiliated to the RSS. The RSS has no role in our functioning.”

However, apart from the historical ties with the Sangh, there are several recent and contemporary connections that cannot be overlooked. The FTS’s website describes Shyam Gupta as the “master architect” of the Ekal Vidyalaya model. In 2004, Shyam was a national joint general-secretary of the VHP and a general secretary of the EVFI, too. As of August 2020, he was a member of the advisory board, the board of trustee and central executive committee of the Ekal Abhiyan Trust. The Ekal Abhiyan’s website, though, describes him as a “social worker.” Most of the office-bearers of the organisations within Ekal Abhiyan come from the corporate world. Nevertheless, the SHSS’s office in Siliguri, a two-storied building called the Sanskar Bhavan, is adorned with framed photographs of KB Hedgewar, the RSS founder and first sarsanghchalak, and MS Golwalkar, the second sarsanghchalak.

Besides, the VHP is quite vocal about its involvement with the Ekal Abhiyan. The VHP’s website states that the launch of the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of USA in 2002, was among “some of the major contributions made by VHP of America.” The EVF of USA is the principal fundraiser for the programme in India. In 2017, the VHP’s Bengali mouthpiece claimed that they were helping run 1,763 Ekal Vidyalayas across West Bengal through the FTS. In 2020, the SHSS asked all its units to celebrate 5 August as “Okaal Deepavali”—a Diwali that has arrived not in its usual time—by lighting earthen lamps to mark the foundation ceremony of the Ram temple in Ayodhya by Modi. Curiously, Bhattacharya said that “the VHP had no role in the functioning of the FTS.”

The insistence on this identity separate from the RSS seems to stem from dimensions which on the surface are unrelated to the Ekal project’s core educational activities—that of political and religious influence. West Bengal, traditionally, has been outside the Sangh’s sphere of influence. The BJP has never held power in the state. The RSS’s ultimate goal is the establishment of a Hindu Rashtra. West Bengal’s population break up includes almost six percent tribal communities and twenty seven percent Muslims. The RSS has consistently maintained that the Adivasi communities spread across India are Hindus, and has tried to co-opt them in the Hindu fold repeatedly.

During the course of my reporting I discovered that in most cases, TMC leaders at the grassroots level had little idea about what FTS or SHSS meant. In the Pathankhali gram panchayat of Gosaba, a remote block in the Sunderbans, Debashis Naskar, the deputy chief of the panchayat and a TMC member, told me that he sent his daughter to one FTS-run Ekal Vidyalaya in 2018-19. “Not only me, no villager had any idea about their RSS links. We thought it was some NGO that trained the local women as teachers.” He added, “When we heard of Satsang Samiti, we thought it had something to do with Anukul Thakur.” Anukulchandra Chakraborty, commonly known as Anukul Thakur, was a Bengali spiritual guru and extremely popular across the Bengal hinterland. Thakur’s organisation used to be named Satsang Samiti, too, but had no connection with the RSS. Naskar told me, “It was after nearly a year that I learnt of their RSS links from higher level leaders of the party. We became alert but we could not have pushed for the closure of the schools since that could turn public sentiments against us.”

The increase in the momentum of the Ekal project in West Bengal coincided with the rise of the TMC in the state—after the fall of the Left Front regime in 2011, which had been in power for over three decades—and the consequent shift in power dynamics. Several grassroots-level functionaries of the FTS, the SHSS, the AFI and the EGF confirmed this to me. Most of them did not want to be identified. An EGF functionary told me that his organisation operated mostly in Malda, a district with one of India’s largest Muslim population. He also said that the largest number of one-teacher schools in West Bengal were run under the banner of the Ekal Abhiyan, even though other organisations—VKA, RSB and Vidya Bharati—were involved as well.

I travelled to Habibpur, in the Malda district and Rampurhat, in the Birbhum district, to examine the functioning of the Ekal schools set up in these areas after 2011. Like the coaching centre at Jharbasti in Uttar Dinajpur, the Abhiyan’s activities followed a similar pattern, with minor variations. The FTS would start a one-teacher free coaching centre or school. In a few weeks, a matri mandali, or mothers’ group, would be formed. This group would meet every two to three months to discuss the progress of their children. Once the centre became popular enough that students of a nearby government-run school started attending the classes regularly, the SHSS would enter the scene. They would start a weekly moral-values centre, or Sanskar Kendra, for the adults, and in some cases, for the children, too. The SHSS would also set up a Bhajan Mandali, or Bhajan group, for weekly bhajan evenings to engage a larger population.

The Friends of Tribals Society runs a vast network of Ekal schools across West Bengal and is supported by numerous organisations, such as the Shree Hari Satsang Samiti and the Arogya Foundation of India, among several others. These organisations get involved in numerous activities in a village once the Ekal school has been established and accepted by the locals. Each of them have a specific role to play. For instance, the SHSS conducts religious gatherings that preach moral values and ethics, while the AFI provides and facilitates free healthcare for the villagers. Courtesy the Friends of Tribals Society

The next step would be to form a village committee, called gram samiti, comprised completely of local residents. The committee would be entrusted with the wellbeing of the Ekal Vidyalaya and the all-round development of the village. A village where the programme has taken root would usually have three key persons—the acharya, or teacher, the gram pramukh, or village head, and the satsang pramukh, spiritual or religious head. The AFI would then enter the scene and organise health-awareness and check-up camps at regular intervals. These camps provide medicine for free, and critical cases would get help to get treated at urban hospitals.

At Jharbasti and its neighbouring villages of Mahashunda and Kakarmoni, the teachers ran a five-fold campaign among the students and their parents to eradicate illiteracy, shun chemical fertiliser and adopt cow-centric organic farming, prevention of child marriage, plantation drives and use of mosquito nets at night.

According to some of the teachers I spoke to, the beginning of a school was not always smooth. “Locals asked many questions, such as why we were offering free coaching and whether it would at all benefit when even paid tuition often does not work,” Aparna Naiya, an Ekal teacher, told me. Naiya was a graduate student at the Dr BR Ambedkar College in Kultali area of the Sunderbans region in South 24-Parganas district. “They also asked why almost always women are appointed as teachers. We had to answer them convincingly. We told them that the Ekal school was necessary for what was not being taught in the formal schools, such as moral values and culture.” Naiya said that it is the FTS which decides what lessons are to be taught. She lived at Koyalerchak village in Kultali and taught 22 students at her residence. She had been associated with the Vidyalaya since early 2019, when it first started. The students were mostly of Kachiamara Free Primary School in the neighbourhood.

Once the school and the Sanskar Kendra is set up, members of the Gramotthan Foundation would start visiting the village to teach locals about the positive aspects of organic farming, using cow dung and urine. Pradip Musaddi, who looked after the Gramotthan Resource Centre in Malda district, said that they impart trainings for self-empowerment, such as tailoring skills to local people, especially women. Musaddi said that the foundation’s members run awareness campaigns on various government schemes and peoples’ entitlement and often help local villagers to use the Right to Information (RTI) Act to put pressure on the local administration.

Bhattacharya, the head of the Abhiyan in West Bengal, told me, “We work on comprehensive physical, intellectual and moral development of the children, besides holistic development of the whole village. The aim is to make villages self-reliant so that the villagers do not require migrating to cities.” He added, “However, without values of morality, development in no other sphere will be sustainable. Can a village prosper if its workforce is ruined by alcoholism? Can a nationality progress if it forgets its history?” A former banking official, on paper he is the executive director of FTS in the state. 

Bhattacharya claimed that their initiative was yielding fruits in achieving what he called their foremost aim, “providing quality education to the most under-privileged.” He said that, “in 2019, we conducted a study in 60 villages in South 24 Parganas district in West Bengal to find out the performance of Ekal Students and non-Ekal students. It showed, of the 3,960 students who studied in Ekal Vidyalaya, 995 or 25 percent had passed secondary or above levels.” He claimed that for students of primary schools who did not have the opportunity to get additional teaching at Ekal schools, “the percentage stood at 17.78 percent, 160 of 900 students.” 

According to him, their study also revealed that Ekal students did comparatively better in school despite poorer economic backgrounds than non-Ekal students. “Ekal Vidyalayas almost always function in the poorest of the poor villages, among the most downtrodden and deprived,” Bhattacharya claimed.

While not as widespread at the Ekal project, other arms of the Sangh have also picked up pace post-2011 and followed a similar trajectory. The RSB, or Rashtriya Sewa Bharati’s work in the West Burdwan district, is a good example. Manoj Chatterjee, who serves as the sewa pramukh or social service in-charge of the RSS’s South Bengal division, said that the RSB’s venture in the district began humbly with an NGO named Vivekananda Vikash Parishad, which was launched in 1989. The VVP opened a free homeopathy dispensary at the non-descript, Adivasi-dominated Hetedoba village in Ichhapur gram panchayat, near Durgapur in the West Burdwan district. It was the year of Hedgewar’s birth centenary and the RSS had mapped a nation-wide push for expansion on the occasion. The second project, a sewing training-centre for women at the neighbouring Ichhapur village, was launched almost 12 years later, in 2001. The third, a computer training institute, came a decade later, in January 2011, barely five months before the fall of the Left Front regime.

Thereafter, the VVP’s activities picked up momentum. It started with the opening of Sanskar Kendras for students from the first to the fourth standard. A VVP organiser, who did not want to be identified, said that the first four villages to be covered were Ichhapur, Patsheora, Hetedoba, Laudoha. He said that the coaching provided by the Kendras had many takers in these impoverished villages. Local women were trained and engaged as teachers against a nominal honorarium. Gradually, the VVP launched similar free tuition for students from the sixth to the twelfth standard—the Pathdan Kendra.

These two types of tuition classes had one thing in common—things that were taught beyond the syllabus. Like the Ekal schools, this included respecting the nation, the national flag and Bharat Mata, daily Saraswati Vandana, offering daily salutations to parents, lessons in India’s history and culture and Hindu traditions, and health and hygiene tips. According to local residents I spoke to, Hindu festivals such Guru Purnima and Raksha Bandhan were mandatory events that all students had to attend. They said that “dress as Krishna” is a common contest held on the occasion of Janmashtami in these schools, and “Jai Shri Ram” was integral to its atmosphere.

Similar to the Ekal Abhiyan model, every Kendra had a matri mandali. Many of these, however, were weekly affairs and involved religious discussions, reading the Gita and Ramayan, and practicing yoga. Volunteers of the VVP told me that the Arogya Bharati and National Medicos Organisation, both of which are RSS organisations dealing with healthcare, conducted several free health check-up camps. According to the volunteers, at this point, self-help groups were formed in neighbouring villages, Banguri in particular, to extend their influence. 

The number of VVP’s projects increased at such speed that from three projects in 2011, the NGO had 21 projects in January 2016—six Sanskar Kendra, five Pathdan Kendra, one computer-training centre, sewing-training centre, drawing-training centre and dance-training centre each, three free dispensaries, and three self-help groups. These were all in the villages of Ichhapur, Pathsheora, Hetedoba, Amlouka, Nildanga and Banguri. According to  Chatterjee, as of August 2020, the VVP had 43 projects running in 11 villages. This included 17 Sanskar Kendras with 350 students and 36 teachers.

Chiranjit Dhibar, a VVP volunteer, said that during the Covid-19 induced lockdown, the VVP supplied weekly ration to over 300 families living across these villages. He said the ration was sourced from donations from traders, the Akhil Bharatiya Rashtriya Shaikshik Mahasangha, or ABRSM, which is the RSS’s teachers’ wing, and swayamsevaks of the RSS’s nearby Shivaji shakha—the smallest organisational unit of the Sangh. A schoolteacher, Dhibar called himself “a proud swayamsevak.” He also serves as a state-level leader of the ABRSM. The VVP’s social media page also shows that the organisation holds events in coordination with the local Lion’s Club, Rotary Club and CSR projects of the Durgapur Steel Plant.

While Dhibar claimed that the VVP’s interventions were all based on “social good,” Chatterjee told me that the VVP’s project in the Durgapur area had a clear objective when they started. “In tribal-dominated villages, Christian missionaries were conducting rampant conversions into Christianity using education and social work as a tool.” He added, “However, since we started increasing influence in the tribal villages, their growth has stopped.”

Munmun Ghosh, secretary of the Sewa Bharati’s Bengal chapter, formally called Samaj Seba Bharati, told me that the VVP was only one of about a dozen such NGOs affiliated to the RSB, “which were doing similar work in Bengal.” She added, “There is Swadesh Bikash Kendra in Asansol-Raniganj area in the same district, Kanthi Matangini Seva Bharati in East Midnapore, Lok Seva Parishad at Khirpai, West Midnapore, and Baruipur Seba Bharati in South 24 Parganas.”

Similar to the Ekal Abhiyan and the RSB’s interventions, Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram’s education initiative also focussed on young children, specifically pre-primary students. The VKA’s institutions are called Shishu Shiksha Kendra. Being the Sangh’s tribal affairs wing, its activities were concentrated in Adivasi-dominated villages. The VKA started opening SSKs in the state in 2001 but their initiative started gaining momentum in 2009.

According to a functionary of the VKA, who did not want to be identified, they first convince local residents to send their children for free coaching, even before they enrol in a primary school. They often get the contacts of residents in such villages through the students of government schools who reside in the VKA-run hostels. I identified at least 15 such hostels spread across the state—Salbari, near Siliguri in Darjeeling district, Kalimpong in north Bengal, one each in Jhalda, Balarampur, Bagmundi, Bandwan, Kumari and Purulia town, in Purulia district, and one each in Birbhum, in Mallarpur district, Belpahari, in West Midnapore district, Jhilimili, in Bankura district and Gosaba, in South 24-Parganas district. 

The functionary told me that once the villagers agree to send their children, a local resident, generally a woman is then entrusted with teaching the alphabet, basic words, good practices in health and hygiene, moral values and history. If the residents send their children regularly, a gram sabha, or village committee, is formed to ensure that the centre endures. In many cases, a Satsang Kendra, for adults, usually involving religious songs and tales, is also set up. The functionary said that these are conducted weekly. He added that kathakars, who are trained either by the VHP or the SHSS, also tell stories about the glory and heroics of India’s Hindu kings. A free health check-up camp is usually conducted once in a year.

As per a senior organiser of VKA, who wanted to remain anonymous, in 2011, the VKA ran about one hundred SSKs in the state, and as of August 2020, that number had increased to nearly eight hundred such centres across the state. Ashis Kumar Das, the VKA’s in-charge for North Bengal, told me, “We try to raise the basic awareness level in those impoverished and backward villages. Residents do not even know of their entitlements from the government. We help them in availing their entitlements.” When I asked him why they were focussing on such young children, who often need specialised care, he said, “We try to ensure every child goes to the formal primary schools and is capable of picking up from their teachers there.”

However, Lakshmi Kanta Hansda, a member of the Adivasi community and a leader of the Bharatiya Adivasi Ekta Manch, an organisation which deals with Adivasi communities’ rights, had a different take on the VKA’s activities. According to Hansda, the VKA’s centres for children are a disguise for religious indoctrination. He said that the VKA’s activities, which are so overtly religious, are in line with the Ekal Abhiyan model. He told me that the VKA’s “primary interest” was to bring the Adivasi people, many of who are followers of Sari-Sarna—the religion of the Santhal Adivasi communities in the region—into the folds of mainstream Hindu society. He said the Sangh’s organisations are attempting to achieve this by “popularising Saraswati Puja, Durga Puja, Janmashtami and other Hindu religious festivals.” Hansda added, “They want to ensure that during the Census the Adivasi people enlist themselves as Hindus instead of followers of Sari and Sarna.” Hansda and his organisation have been demanding that the Census should introduce a separate section under the category of religion for the followers of Sari-Sarna.

The Sangh Parivar’s extensive activities in the region have not gone unnoticed. According to Ujjwal Mandal, a resident of the Ichhapur gram panchayat and a local TMC leader, the VVP expanded its footprint based purely on social work “but has transformed into a political organisation over the past three-four years.” Mandal served as the pradhan of the Ichhapur gram panchayat between 2013 and 2018, and has been the deputy chief of the panchayat since 2018. “It was a genuine social-work organisation. Some years ago, we too helped them in getting space for the schools,” he said. He added, “But since 2016-17, it is entirely political, with all its volunteers doubling as members of the RSS and the BJP.” Mandal said that “their office at Ichhapur village is nothing but an extension of 6, Muralidhar Sen Lane”—the address of the BJP’s state unit office in Kolkata.

TMC leaders alleged that it was around the Ekal schools that the BJP gained a foothold in West Bengal’s Adivasi-dominated areas. On 9 January 2018, the chief minister Mamata Banerjee had first spoken against the Ekal schools and branded them as “an NGO belonging to the BJP.” Soon after, in March 2018, the district administration in Dakshin Dinajpur sent notices to 27 Ekal schools for closure. The FTS moved the Calcutta High Court and got a verdict in their favour, in November 2018. The state government has not yet appealed against the ruling.

Manoj Chatterjee, who personally looks after the activities of the VVP, did not deny the organisation’s link to the RSS. “We do not hide that we are associated with the RSS. Most of our volunteers are swayamsevaks. Often, those who get associated with us through these projects get inspired to become swayamsevaks. But we do not engage in politics, even though some of our volunteers may have personal political inclinations,” he claimed.

Chatterjee told me that he had noticed a change in the attitude of the TMC-run panchayats towards their organisation. “Earlier, they used to cooperate in giving us permission for the use of land and electricity for our projects. Now, they have started competing with us. Recently, when we proposed to set up a water reservoir in a village and sought the panchayat’s permission for land, they denied permission and promptly carried out the same project through the panchayat.”  

Then in 2019, the police stalled a number of Adivasi mass-marriage programmes, which the VHP and the SHSS had organised in the districts of Malda and Alipurduar. Banerjee alleged that the RSS was trying to use these events to convert Adivasis into Hinduism. According to a senior bureaucrat in the state government who did not want to be identified, the administration changed tack after the legal setback of November 2018. “The administration decided to focus on delivery of service from the government’s end – the panchayats, primary and high schools, and Integrated Child Development Services,” the bureaucrat said.

However, the growth of Ekal Abhiyan in West Bengal has not been stymied by the administrations non-cooperation. According to the FTS’s own numbers, from 3,573 schools in December 2018, the FTS was running over 4,600 schools as of August 2020.

The Ekal Abhiyan’s volunteers, too, do not talk of politics publicly. I spoke to a young man in his early twenties, who was an acharya at an Ekal school in the Bazargaon II gram panchayat area of Karandighi block. He did not want to be named, but he identified as an active swayamsevak. He told me that he was not interested in politics but he attended RSS events whenever he could. His neighbours later told me that he campaigned for the BJP. But the young man said to me, “We don’t preach politics, but we preach Hindutva.”