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Monday, Nov 18, 2019

27 years after first Lodha woman graduate’s suicide, TMC to revamp her village

The BJP which achieved its fastest electoral growth in Bengal’s tribal belt, sees this as a strategy by the TMC to use Kotal’s memory to win back the confidence of Lodha, Shabar and Santhal tribes who comprise a sizeable a chunk of the population in the region.

india Updated: Oct 20, 2019 16:29 IST
Tanmay Chatterjee
Tanmay Chatterjee
Hindustan Times, Kolkata
Chuni Kotal was  the first woman to graduate from the Lodha tribe in Bengal.
Chuni Kotal was the first woman to graduate from the Lodha tribe in Bengal.(Sourced)
         

Chuni Kotal, the first woman to graduate from the Lodha tribe which the British had branded as criminals, left Bengal shocked and outraged in 1992 when she committed suicide to escape alleged social discrimination and insult.

Amid wide protests and criticism, the erstwhile Left Front government was forced to set up an inquiry commission. The truth never really emerged but Kotal, who graduated in anthropology from Vidyasagar University in Midnapore district in 1985, became an icon forever.

Twenty-seven years later, Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) has decided to turn Goaldihi, Kotal’s home in West Midnapore’s Salboni community block, into a model village.

“We have selected three villages in different areas of the district for this project. While two have historic connection, this is the only tribal village. We plan to build roads and provide amenities available in urban areas. Our aim is to ensure that nobody is deprived,” said Rashmi Kamal, district magistrate, West Midnapore. “If villagers want anything to be built in the memory of Kotal, we will do that. But it will be done in consultation with local people,” she added.

Other than Goaldihi, the other two villages to be developed are Birsingha where the 19th-century social reformer and educationist Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar was born and Mohobani, the home of armed revolutionary Kshudiram Bose, Bengal’s youngest martyr in the freedom movement.

Kotal’s brother Shankar who is critically ill, said, “It will be the fulfilment of a long-cherished dream. We will be happy if the government builds a hostel for tribal students. We had set up one but it had to be shut down due to financial constraints.”

The Trinamool Congress insists that there is no politics involved in the decision to adopt the village into a model one.

“There is no electoral politics here. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is paying homage to Bengal’s greatest children and restoring places that are associated with them. This is purely a government project,” said a Trinamool Congress Parliament member who did not wish to be named.

The BJP which achieved its fastest electoral growth in Bengal’s tribal belt, including Salboni, sees this as a strategy by the TMC to use Kotal’s memory to win back the confidence of Lodha, Shabar and Santhal tribes who comprise a sizeable a chunk of the population in the region.

The BJP which won 18 of Bengal’s 42 Lok Sabha seats last summer poses a serious challenge to the TMC which is in a consolidation mode ahead of the 2021 assembly elections.

“It has been numerically established that the Lodhas, Shabars and other tribes living in West Midnapore, Jhargram, Bankura and Purulia districts have shifted their allegiance to the BJP. This has become a headache for Mamata Banerjee prior to the 2021 assembly polls. In Salboni block we secured 40 per cent votes in the recent elections,” said Kshudiram Tudu, BJP Bengal unit’s tribal morcha president.

“The state government has failed to provide any alternative means of livelihood for tribal people, especially the educated youths in backward areas. The scenario is no different in the tribal belts of north Bengal,” he added.

The BJP is not alone in reading motives into the government’s decision to turn Goaldihi into a model village.

“The project may be related to development but one cannot oversee the political connotation,” said political commentator and columnist Suvashis Maitra who visited Goaldihi several times to investigate Chuni Kotal’s death on behalf of a newspaper.

After Kotal’s death, Jnanpith and Magsaysay award winner Mahasweta Devi, who worked for tribal people all her life, wrote several articles that raised questions on casteism in Bengal and caused huge embarrassment for the ruling Marxists.