Sunil Ambekar, National Organising Secretary of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, denies pressure from the Centre, claims the Left in India is different from in Nepal and China, calls for programmes with Chinese universities, insists the JNU incident was not about “curbing dissent”, and talks about the new education policy
SHYAMLAL YADAV: Has a BJP government at the Centre made a difference to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad’s work?
There has been no pressure or change in the ABVP. Two things are important: sangharsh (struggle) and samanvay (coordination). We have been doing both. Perhaps with this government we have more samanvay and less sangharsh, but the policy is the same.
SHYAMLAL YADAV: There are around 900 universities in the country. How many of these have an ABVP-led union?
All universities do not have a students’ union. Only around 50 universities have proper elections. We are working on it. The Madhya Pradesh government has announced that they will hold elections from this year. In Maharashtra, student elections will begin from the next academic year. I was looking at the statistics for 44 universities… Out of 44, we have won in 31 universities. We have won in many colleges as well. In places where there are no elections, we want them to happen. Even several Central universities do not hold elections. Student unions and politics still do not have enough acceptance. Sometimes the government, political parties — the Congress or BJP, it could be anyone — try and avoid student unions. Everyone needs to come together and put pressure, only then things are possible.
LIZ MATHEW: While addressing the new office-bearers of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM, the BJP’s youth wing), the BJP president asked them to reach out to youngsters and focus on campuses. But if the BJYM is reaching out to campuses, what is the ABVP’s role?
A political party cannot work on a campus with the party flag. The ABVP works to develop political awareness on the campus. If the BJYM comes on campus, they will come with an ideology. Political leaders can address people if they have been invited by the students’ union, but they should not go to campuses directly.
JYOTI MALHOTRA: You spoke about sangharsh and samanvay. Talking about the JNU controversy last year and the Ramjas College violence earlier this year, was it sangharsh or samanvay?
Both. Open debate is important and we have always strived for platforms where that can happen. Even today, there are so many debates going on in JNU… it is an open place. It is mostly samanvay but when someone speaks out against the nation, there will be sangharsh. However, that does not mean violence.
JYOTI MALHOTRA: But in the Ramjas case, there was violence.
I do not agree with that. It is important to look at the details. Whenever there is violence by someone else, we write ‘students’ union’ or the name of the college. But in case of the Ramjas incident, everyone attributed it to the ABVP. It is a misinterpretation. The conflict was started by students of Ramjas College. The Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU) was being referred to as the ABVP. It was made out to be ‘ABVP versus the rest’. It was a biased analysis. (In February this year, an invitation to JNU students Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid to address a seminar at Ramjas College triggered protests and violence on campus.) People said violence but there was no medical case. No television channel showed any bloodshed. There may have been a slight tiff but no violence. It was an exaggeration. Violence is what is happening in Chhattisgarh, where innocent people are being targeted.
SHYAMLAL YADAV: You said only 50 universities have unions. But now that the government at the Centre shares your ideology, why don’t you get a policy cleared for all universities to have one?
We do not have a common opinion on this. Why get into all this, is the general opinion in political circles. I appreciate the Maharashtra government for taking a stand and introducing elections through an Act. (In December 2016, the state government passed the Maharashtra Public Universities Act 2016, paving the way for student union elections.) Now we are approaching everyone to do the same. The government will not pass an order to hold elections, it is for the universities to decide.
LIZ MATHEW: In articles and editorials in the RSS mouthpiece Organiser, week after week, there is a call for eradicating the Left and Communists from campuses. As an organisation that works closely with the RSS, how do you plan to execute this?
In the RSS, all organisations work independently. We have the same ideology, we coordinate with each other, but functionally, all organisations are independent. About the eradication of the Left, in a democracy, eradication does not mean that you do not need the Left. It only means going beyond the political ideology of the Left. Mao (Zedong) did what he did in his country for nation-building. In Russia too, communism was for building Russia. In India, Maoism is unfolding in a different manner — it calls for breaking the nation and is leading to the destruction of national property.
In Nepal, the Left is a part of democracy and they are for the unity and integrity of Nepal. In India, mainstream political parties such as the CPI and CPM support the kind of activities that happened in JNU — where people raised slogans against the integrity of the nation. It is unfortunate and questionable. In a democracy, there are different ideologies and it should be like that. We are not against the Left. I had gone to China to have a dialogue with the Communist Party of China’s students’ union. There is no issue, no untouchability. But you can’t practise such things in the name of the Left, that is not allowed. And it is not me, even the common people say that this cannot be allowed in the name of freedom.
HARISH DAMODARAN: The standards in government universities have been dropping. Panjab University was one of the finest in the country but now all their funding has been cut. Why aren’t you raising the issue of the declining standards of excellence in education?
We have been working on such issues in every state. We will soon discuss the new education policy. We are working on the day-to-day-facilities in colleges. We have sought a new scheme for state universities that aren’t doing too well. If you look at our Facebook page, you will realise how much work we do at the university and college level. ABVP delegations have approached the Centre for research, funding etc. We have also been pushing for medical education — the health education policy should change. We are talking to all stakeholders at different levels, but there is so much backlog that you cannot expect changes to happen suddenly.
AMRITH LAL: You recently went to China. What kind of dialogue did you have with the Communist Party of China (CPC)?
It wasn’t a dialogue with the party. We interacted with the international department of the CPC. We want the countries to grow together. We have common concerns regarding development and issues of our youth population. In some areas we can contribute, in many others China can. We felt that the issues of conflict between China and India can be discussed at the diplomatic level; we should talk to everyone so that there is headway. We know very little about China, their people, the academics there. The situation is the same there. We share old ties and should, at least, know each other. There should be programmes between universities and that is why I visited Peking University and Sichuan University. The universities should talk, professors and students must interact. We must understand each other. For that matter, we should even talk to Pakistan.
AMRITH LAL: What kind of discussion are you suggesting with Pakistan? The government says it will not talk to Pakistan.
My point is there should be people-to-people contact in every place. There will be ups and downs in diplomatic talks, the government has to respond to a situation, they have responsibilities. Dialogue can be initiated between academics, youth and people in general. It might lead to solutions.
AMRITH LAL: Will the ABVP be interested in sending a delegation to Pakistan?
Yes, of course. In fact, we had planned it once a few years ago but it didn’t come through.
LIZ MATHEW: An increasing number of students are joining the protests in Kashmir. What is the ABVP doing about this?
Kashmir is a sensitive subject. What we have started doing is working with students in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan who come from other states for an education. The ABVP is powerful in these states and we are focusing on building a relationship with such students. Recently in Rajasthan, a Kashmiri student had uploaded an anti-national post. The campus has around 300 students from Kashmir. They agitated against the student who uploaded the post and demanded his removal. This was done and we found that the the 300 students were satisfied with the decision. They are still studying there.
SHALINI NAIR: Why are protesters, such as the ones in JNU, labelled anti-national? Why is dissent equated with being anti-national?
The (JNU) incident was not about curbing dissent. It was not a seminar. It was a protest where they were raising slogans for India’s destruction. That is what was stopped. Since then, there have been several seminars at the institution, there have been protests as well. Have we stopped anything? Our only point of contention is that you cannot raise slogans about India’s destruction and in favour of the country’s enemies. Members of the Congress, Communists, the Sangh, Ambedkar, everyone helped shape the Indian Constitution. This is everyone’s nation. What happened at JNU was not dissent, it was indecency. You have the freedom to say what you want but your freedom ends when you cross the line. Freedom does not mean that you can do whatever you want.
MONOJIT MAJUMDAR: Though India exists as a unified nation-state, nationalism is a fluid ideology. It cannot exist in the same form everywhere; its meaning is bound to change. As you extend the reach of the ABVP to other parts of the country, what are the challenges you have been facing? For instance, in the Northeast, the youth may dress in a certain way, their eating habits are different.
What people should wear, or eat, is not a part of the ABVP’s agenda. I have travelled to Nagaland, Mizoram… Everyone who lives in this country belongs to Bharat Mata. We interact with everybody. We go to J&K as well. I visited schools and colleges there. There has never been a problem. We have to learn to isolate those who are trying to conspire against the country. This conspiracy did not start because of a group or because of us. This is a worldwide phenomenon and an age-old problem. To isolate it and attach it to a particular group is wrong. It is not even factual. Also, the way in which theories have been built around us leads to challenges. We are trying to fix the image that has been created of us at the ground level.
AMRITH LAL: How have the students in Uttar Pradesh responded to anti-Romeo squads?
There is a problem in the region. We had sent a women’s committee to the UP government. We spoke to many women students and asked them about possible solutions to the problem (of harassment of women). A lot of them said this is not the matter of a day. If we can curb the incidents that precede them, cases of sexual violence will decrease on their own. Incidents of eve-teasing precede crimes of sexual violence. If things can be curbed in the initial stages, there will be a change. Maybe, because the word (‘anti-Romeo squad’) is fancy, some people find it funny or difficult to accept. But the people of UP use it in this context (crimes against women) and that is how the name came about. When the machinery does its job, there are always some positives and negatives that emerge, but I think that the law should be implemented. I was in Singapore recently and I saw that women were out on the streets at all times of the day. Why can’t this happen in Delhi or Mumbai? If we have to take tough measures to ensure this, we will do it. We keep lobbying for a safe campus for women. Our entire cadre is devoted to making this happen.
MONOJIT MAJUMDAR: How much of a student’s time should be dedicated to studies and how much to politics?
I don’t know about the percentage because that is not how students think. I feel that they should not align themselves with a political party that requires them to be involved on a day-to-day basis. That will be time-consuming and it will distract them. But they should be aware of political developments, their analysis, culture, history… We need an intervention of this sort. For instance, whenever the government makes a new policy, universities should debate its positives and negatives. If we want the country to grow and if we want to see a change in our politics, then these conversations need to happen. If our youth is not engaged in such conversations, then there can’t be any change.
SHYAMLAL YADAV: What is going to happen with the new education policy?
We are constantly raising the subject, even publicly. I have gone to everyone, including the HRD Minister, for this. A committee has been formed recently. We feel they have gone slow (on the new education policy). Things should have happened much earlier. Why it hasn’t happened till now is something only they can answer. The first issue is that people still don’t have access to education. Even though the private sector has opened up, a large section of the population is below the poverty line and still not assimilated into State institutions. We want a policy for this. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan needs to be improved.
Secondly, when private players entered the airlines industry, we were able to enjoy relatively cheaper services. Why does this not happen in education? The reason for this, we think, is that this sector is not regulated properly. We need a Central Act for this, like the GST. We don’t need more regulators. We have enough. What we need is a system like CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility), where the government can seek help.
Thirdly, there is very little that is written about the country. It is important to motivate Indians to work for the nation. I often say in jest that we have read about Alexander and Napoleon in our books but to know about Bajirao, we need to watch a film, because the content is not available anywhere else. This hypocrisy has to stop. This should not happen at the level of the government but at the academic level.