It is the honours degree in Santhali that draws Shitabali Murmu from 17 km away. The 17-year-old of Bandwan in Purulia district doesn’t mind getting up at dawn, to clean the one-room hut she shares with her sister, cook, eat and get ready by 9 am, to be in time for the bus to college. “If I miss, I either wait an hour for another bus, or cycle all the way.”
It was the air-conditioned rooms that drew Lokenath Mondol of Bandwan village. “I have never been inside an AC room before,” says the 18-year-old, the first in his family of farmers to go to college.
It is the automatic water purifier-cum-cooler in the main building that fascinates Bijoy Ansari. Talking about the queue snaking down a corridor to catch a glimpse of it when it was first set up, the 20-year-old first-year Bengali honours student says, “We have filters at home, this is something we have never used.”
In Junglemahal, an area that was more known as a Naxal hotbed from 2000 to 2011, their destination is the same — Government General Degree College, Manbazar II, Purulia. Inaugurated on July 24, 2015, it is the area’s only government degree college.
Nestled against a rugged hill, on a 21-acre campus, the fully government-aided college has sparkling clean corridors, rooms smelling of fresh paint, signboards clearly stating “do not spit here” in Bengali and English, a teaching staff of 14, and 162 students.
Belonging to the Santhal tribe, which is the most prominent in the area, Shitabali is the first in her family to go to college. She used to worry constantly about what she would do after school, she says. Even discounting the Naxal problem, Junglemahal encompasses three of the most backward districts of West Bengal — Paschim Medinipur, Purulia and Bankura. “Commuting to Jhargram, which has a government-aided college, was daunting because it’s more than 70 km away,” Shitabali says.
She admits being sceptical about the Manbazar college at first. “But I decided to enrol because it offers an honours degree in Santhali.”
“Even a few years ago, the idea of a college opening in this area would have raised eyebrows… We would wonder which professor would risk his or her life to come here,” says popular Santhali writer Mahadev Hansda.
Looking at the large grounds spread outside his ground-floor office, principal Abhishek Sarkar is confident student strength will rise. “We have about 280 seats in arts and science. The science department offers degrees in physics, chemistry, mathematics and geology, and the arts department in history, political science, Santhali, Bengali and English.”
Sarkar admits that recruiting professors has been a problem, particularly convincing them that Junglemahlal was safe. “People from the city have a strange perception about the area. Even during the worst phase — 2009-2011 — when there were a few civilian deaths, things weren’t as bad as the media made them out to be. Now that the Maoist issue isn’t a raging topic, people are less resistant,” says the principal.
Anudev Mondol, 28, heads the geology department and is an alumni of Jadavpur University of Kolkata. “This is my first job, so my parents were a little scared. But being a geologist, I was excited about exploring the area,” says Mondol.
While the Santhali department is yet to find a permanent professor, it is the college’s most vibrant section.
“The good thing is that the department will encourage a new eco-system around it. There will be renewed interest in Santhali literature which will, in turn, stir interest in Santhali culture. It will encourage Santhali youth to be more proud of their culture,” says Anjan Karmakar, a part-time lecturer in the department.
The remote location of the college is an issue for students. Others have been asking for a canteen. Sarkar says they are in talks with officials to increase the number of buses on the route. “We will soon set up a canteen. We also hope to build hostels for girls who commute for hours.”
Walking one of these days from the bus stop to the college with her classmates, Shitabali’s mind is on other things. As the boundary wall of the college peeks from behind a steep rise, the song on their lips is “deewani mastani”, from Bajirao Mastani.