Saffron wave in Assam: Ekal Vidyalayas helped BJP, RSS establish strong roots in Assam's tribal areas, tea estates
The traditional bastions of the Congress in Assam’s rural areas are being shaken and smeared with a saffron hue.
The tribal population in Assam, including the tea tribes, constitutes around 33 percent of Assam’s population.
The indoctrination is subtle, which begins from the classroom and extends to local and religious events.
The rapid growth of Ekal Vidyalayas is a stark reflection of the limitations of the government schemes.
The traditional bastions of the Congress in Assam’s rural areas are being shaken and smeared with a saffron hue, which also explains the BJP’s phenomenal success in the general elections.
Among the many strategies adopted by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to penetrate Assam’s rural areas are the Ekal Vidyalayas, or single-teacher schools, which have now mushroomed across a majority of the districts in the state. Barring some exceptions, all these schools have been set up in areas inhabited by tribal communities.
“About 70 percent of all Ekal Vidyalayas (in Assam) are in the tea belt and the rest in areas inhabited by tribal communities like Karbi, Dimasa, Mising, Rabha and Bodo. Plans have been firmed up to set up schools in new areas of the state,” said Karna Gaur, prabhat pramukh of the schools in the North East.
The tribal population in Assam, including the tea tribes, constitutes around 33 percent of Assam’s population. The tea tribes play a deciding role in four Lok Sabha constituencies in the state – Jorhat, Dibrugarh, Lakhimpur and Tezpur – which have all been won by BJP and have a sizeable vote share in another two seats out of a total of 14 in the state.
However, their literacy rates and incomes levels are among the lowest in the state. So, Ekal Vidyalayas pitched in to fill the gap by providing education and books free of cost to the children from impoverished families. Teachers who are appointed from the village hold classes for three hours in the evening after the government-run schools shut down.
Children in the age group of 6–14 years are allowed to attend the schools whose curriculum is a combination of five aspects called ‘Pancha Mukhi’ - primary education, arogya siksha (health education), gram bikash siksha (village development), jagaran siksha (awareness) and sanskar mukhi (social responsibility). The focus is on primary education where the teachers follow the curriculum of the government schools.
“It is like helping the students with extra classes on the lessons taught in the government schools. This has proved to be of great benefit to them since many of them are first generation learners in their families,” said Utpala Bordoloi, supervisor of thirty Ekal Vidyalayas in Nagaon and Morigaon districts. She said that teachers are paid a stipend of Rs 1,000 every month while the expenditure of the schools is borne by a large network of donors.
The daily schedule of Ekal Vidyalayas begins with deep prajalan or lighting of the lamp, followed by the reciting of Sanskrit mantras invoking the blessings of Gods and Goddesses. After classes for two hours, students are taught five yoga asanas considered appropriate for minors and then allowed to participate in games. They go home after attendance and subhokamana mantra.
At Baragog village, located about 50 km east of Guwahati, students trooped out of the classroom saying, “Jai Shri Ram”. Two girls who had forgotten the norm were promptly reminded by the teacher not to repeat the mistake.
Beyond the classroom
The indoctrination is subtle, which begins from the classroom and extends to local and religious events. And the teachers of the Ekal Vidyalayas have a cardinal role to play in all these programmes.
Baragog, inhabited by tea tribes and lower caste Bengalis, has two Ekal Vidyalayas with 48 students. The residents are either daily wagers at Amsoi Tea Estate or farmers cultivating rice and vegetables in the adjacent fields.
The focus of ‘Pancha Mukhi’ is also on educating all inhabitants of the village on health and hygiene, village development, awareness and social responsibility.
“It is mandatory for Ekal Vidyalayas to plant saplings to raise awareness about the need to increase the green cover in our region. We also hold meetings every week to discuss several issues with the people,” said Hima Tanti who teaches at one of the schools. She added that construction of water filters using indigenous methods and safe disposal of garbage have been widely accepted in the village.
Tanti and her colleague Ujjala Das are also members of the Satsang Committee that organises kirtans and bhajans every week at designated spots in the village. Besides teaching in the schools, it is their responsibility to ensure a large turnout at these programmes where the Ganesh Vandana and Hanuman Chalisa are regularly recited. Apart from these weekly programmes, Janmasthami and Yoga Day are celebrated every year in the village.
Rapid expansion in Assam
The rapid growth of Ekal Vidyalayas is a stark reflection of the limitations of the government schemes and their inability to cover low-income and marginalised groups effectively in Assam and other states in the region. The gaps that exist have offered ample scope to private organisations to step in and fill the void.
In doing so, the RSS was treading a path already taken by Christian missionaries that began almost one-and-a-half centuries ago. Still, there was a big vacuum to be filled up which was beyond the means of the missionaries.
An RSS functionary in Delhi who did not wish to be named said that one of the goals of Ekal Vidyalayas was also to check further inroads by Christian missionaries among the tribal and marginalised communities in the country. Since its launch in Jharkhand in 1986, the movement has established a presence in Nepal and 22 states in India, engaging 83,289 teachers and more than two million children. All these schools are administered by an organisation called Friends of Tribal Society.
In Assam, the first Ekal Vidyalaya was set up at Doomdooma in Tinsukia in 1998 which went up to more than a hundred within five years. Growth was slow in the first ten years with the language proving to be the biggest barrier. “Our main challenge was overcoming the problem of language because children from all communities speak and learn in their own mother tongues,” informed Gaur. “So we decided to teach in their language and provided our own books in Hindi during the initial years.”
The strategy proved to be a success and by the end of 2018, as many as 4,650 such schools were established in 22 districts out of a total of thirty-three in the state. Buoyed by the encouraging response, the RSS has firmed up an ambitious plan to cover more areas in the state. The focus will be on Dhubri, Nalbari and South Salmara in western Assam which also have a sizeable Muslim population.
The progress has been relatively ‘sluggish’ in the rest of the northeastern states. So far, 1,650 Ekal Vidyalayas have been established in Tripura, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh but efforts are on to expand in the other states of the region as well.
(Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Guwahati, Assam.)
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