The fight for DU: Campus politics and the larger national discourse

The fight for DU: Campus politics and the larger national discourse

The violence at Ramjas College last month has revealed cracks beneath the surface of the country’s premier university. Mallica Joshi and Aranya Shankar look at the world of campus politics, and find parallels to the larger national discourse

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ABVP-led DUSU took out a ‘Tiranga’ march to counter protests by ‘Left parties’ (Source: Express Photo by Praveen Khanna)

“We won’t let DU become JNU”. For two weeks now, this has been the constant refrain of members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a student organisation affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Ever since the row over an invitation to JNU student Umar Khalid erupted at Ramjas College on February 21 and 22, ABVP members have been quick to turn the violence that followed into a debate between two universities and two ideologies. Making “nationalism” the centre of their argument, ABVP leaders told The Indian Express, will help the party become stronger in the coming years. Not that it doesn’t wield considerable influence already. Over the last five years, the ABVP has become as strong in Delhi University as the Left parties, especially the All India Students’ Association (AISA), are in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).


A turnaround

It was in 2013 when the ABVP staged a comeback of sorts in DU and claimed three of the four Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU) seats. The following year, ABVP won all four posts — a feat it managed to achieve after a long wait of 18 years. In 2015, it retained all four positions, but in 2016, it lost one post to the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI) — the student wing of the Indian National Congress. However, the NSUI seems to have an edge when it comes to certain colleges in DU. Apart from the DUSU polls, each college has individual elections to its college panel. These are not contested in the name of active student parties, though the candidates are usually supported by ABVP, NSUI, SFI or AISA. As of now, most colleges have panel members supported by NSUI as compared to ABVP.

But how has the ABVP managed to hold on to the support of a majority of over 150,000 students from Delhi University colleges scattered across the city? According to teachers who have been witness to the rise and fall of several student parties in DU over the years, ABVP’s ascension is linked to a dedicated outfit working overtime to make sure the student body remains relevant as well as a weakening of the organisational abilities of the Congress.

“Both the NSUI and the ABVP are not managed by student leaders but by senior members of the Congress and the RSS, respectively. The ABVP goes one step further — it has lifelong members who are not students. There was a time when NSUI was at its peak in DU. Ticket distribution, events and elections were all controlled by Congress leaders such as Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar and H K L Bhagat. Later, Ajay Maken and Arvinder Singh Lovely took over. Six-seven years ago, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and a few other senior leaders decided that they wanted an academically inclined candidate to contest elections to try and change the discourse. They narrowed down a couple of candidates, who eventually decided not to enter student politics. Since then, the party’s interest and hold on NSUI has been slipping,” said a political science teacher, who did not wish to be named.


He added, “This happened at a time when the ABVP was gaining power in DU. We must not forget that PM Narendra Modi’s first public speech in Delhi was at Shri Ram College of Commerce in February, 2013. The organisational structure of the ABVP is such that it has an office in North Campus, near Patel Chest Institute. This is where many of its permanent members stay, away from families. This ground connect is a big reason for their success in DU in recent times.”

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The cancellation of a seminar led to clashes on Ramjas College on February 22. (Source: Express Photo by Renuka Puri)

The big guns

All ABVP student members acknowledge this “big role” played by permanent members. “All guidance comes from the seniors. We connect with the students, and make sure we are present to help and support them in all DU colleges. We also organise events — all under the guidance of senior leaders,” said Priyanka Chhawri, DUSU vice-president and ABVP member. “Students usually stay in DU for three to five years. Many of them don’t continue in student politics after they leave. A few move on to the BJP youth wing. What remains constant is the core team, which works from behind the scenes. They live like sanyasis — they leave their families behind and dedicate their lives to the organisation, much like the RSS,” said Saket Bahuguna, ABVP’s national media convener, who is a permanent member but also a PhD student — a rare combination. According to official estimates, close to 60,000 DU students have taken up ABVP membership.

The success of a student party is often attributed to the amount of money it spends on student polls. According to the Lyngdoh Committee guidelines, a candidate can spend Rs 5,000 during polls. But it’s an open secret that lavish parties, visits to water parks, and free movie tickets are distributed to students during elections. While members of both ABVP and NSUI have been accused of breaking the code, more fingers have been raised at the ABVP in the recent past.

History of violence

The ABVP has also struggled to shake off its negative image. Despite their vehement denial, ABVP members were blamed by students and teachers for the violence at Ramjas College. “ABVP is seen by many students as a party that is not scared of anyone, even teachers. Many members have been seen threatening university officials and teachers in the past. No one has forgotten the violence in the university over the inclusion of A K Ramanujan’s essay, 300 Ramayanas, in the syllabus. The head of department was roughed up and rooms in the department were vandalised. It has consistently and violently protested against invitations to speakers such as Arundhati Roy and Romila Thapar in the name of nationalism,” said a teacher at the Department of English.

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(Source: Express Photo by Abhinav Saha)

The ABVP, however, wears the several disruptions it has caused in colleges over the past few years as a badge. The student body has objected to the content of plays, movies and speeches organised in the university, and forced colleges to cancel events that it perceived to be anti-national. “We declare openly that any anti-national activity will not be tolerated in DU. The integrity and sovereignty of the country cannot be questioned. We stand to oppose the Leftist conspiracy to weaken the country. Some things are non-negotiable,” said Bahuguna. He added, however, that the party does not condone violence.

On the day that Left parties and students organised a massive protest march against the ABVP recently, the student body declared publicly that no one will be stopped from protesting. In the evening, however, two of its members were caught on camera attacking two JNU students outside SGTB Khalsa College with belts and bricks. The two were arrested and released on bail, and ABVP was forced the suspend them. One of the suspended members is the students’ union president at Sri Venkateswara College.

ABVP’s state president, Avneesh Mittal, a teacher at DU’s Bhaskaracharya College of Applied Studies, said the organisation supports democratic opposition on issues. “If necessary, however, we are ready for a sangharsh. We try to stay within democratic means of protest but some issues are very sensitive,” he said. Mittal believes that the media is also partly responsible for giving ABVP the tag of a “violent party”. “Our violent face is highlighted but isn’t what the others do violent as well? Look at what happens in other campuses, like in Kerala,” he said.

The opposition

Opposing student organisations said ABVP has used the “patriotism and religion card” to its advantage. “The narrative of Indian politics affects our campus politics. Since 2014, when there was talk that the BJP would be coming to power, the ABVP also felt empowered. When it comes to students, there are two things which the ABVP focuses on — patriotism and religion. The ABVP tries to pull out people who are inclined towards nationalism and religion, and they play this card very smartly,” said NSUI national general secretary Leni Jadhav. Others talk about political patronage and influence, money and muscle power, and caste politics as factors that have led to the ABVP’s strengthening.

AISA’s DU president Kawalpreet Kaur said, “The government at the Centre has a major role to play in the elections. Since the BJP has been strong at the Centre, the ABVP has been in power. Before that, it was the NSUI. ABVP leaders in DUSU also come from influential families with connections with the BJP. Caste politics is another factor. More than ABVP and NSUI, it’s usually a tussle between the Jat panel and the Gujjar panel. Votes usually get polarised according to this. Money and muscle power make a big difference, they spend crores to win elections, to organise parties. Moreover, DU is a very wide campus, where colleges are situated in far-off parts of Delhi. Organisations like ours can’t reach them with our politics since we operate on a very meagre budget. The voting percentage is also very low. But things are finally changing, and it can be seen in the steady growth of AISA in DUSU elections.”

NSUI’s Jadhav added, “I also think it is about vigilant voters. How many students actually come out to vote because they want a strong leader? In other universities such as JNU, the voting pattern is different. But here we are still stuck doing politics of Jat versus Gujjar.”


March 17, 2015: DUSU joint secretary writes to SGTB Khalsa College principal asking him to ban the college street theatre group ‘Ankur Society’ for organising an “anti-Hindu”drama called ‘Welcome to the Machine’.

August 1, 2015: ABVP-led DUSU disrupts screening of documentary ‘Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai’ by director Nakul Singh Sawhney at Kirori Mal College for being anti-Hindu, and showing PM Modi and Jats in a bad light. They also allegedly rough up teachers.

March 18, 2016: A play by Sangwari theatre group titled, ‘JNU ka Sach’ was allegedly disrupted by ABVP activists who shouted ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’. Retired JNU Professor Chaman Lal also alleged that ABVP disrupted his lecture on Bhagat Singh at the Arts Faculty. While ABVP said contents of the play were “offensive”, they denied disrupting the performance.

April 8, 2016: ABVP disrupts seminar on ‘Ambedkar on Caste and Social Justice’ at Deshbandhu College and asks organisers to chant ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’ if they want the event to go on. ABVP leader Rajat Chaudhary defends his actions saying, ‘Bharat me rehte hain, Bharat Mata ki jai kyun nahi bol sakte?”

August 2, 2016: Another seminar on ‘Annihilation of Caste’ at Deshbandhu College is disrupted by ABVP, over demands to chant ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’.

October 27, 2016: Left-wing AISA’s public meeting on ‘Idea of University’ at Arts Faculty allegedly disrupted by ABVP members, with stones and soap bars allegedly being hurled at participants. ABVP denied the allegations and claimed AISA disrupted their event.

February 21, 2017: Ramjas College cancels seminar on ‘Cultures of Protest’ in which JNU student Umar Khalid — arrested last year for sedition — was invited, after ABVP protests against inviting “anti-nationals”. Violent clashes follow the next day outside the college premises.


Unlike the scenario in DUSU, most colleges have panel members supported by NSUI as compared to ABVP. College elections are contested on micro issues, and the manifesto has a huge role to play in who wins. Some colleges, such as St Stephen’s College and Lady Shri Ram College for Women, don’t have candidates supported by any party.

Colleges where ABVP members/supported candidates occupy key positions

— Ramjas College
— Bhagini Nivedita College, Kair
— PGDAV College (evening)
— Sri Venkateswara College
— Shyamlal College (evening)
— Sri Aurobindo College
— Deshbandhu College

Colleges where NSUI members/supported candidates occupy key positions


— Hindu College
— Hansraj College
— Shri Ram College of Commerce
— Kirori Mal College
— SGTB Khalsa College
— Miranda House
— Atma Ram Sanatan Dharm College
— Motilal Nehru College
— Aryabhatta College
— Dyal Singh College
— Dyal Singh College (evening)
— Ramanujan College
— Shaheed Bhagat Singh College
— College of Vocational Studies
— Shivaji College
— Shyama Prasad Mukherji College
— Swami Shradhanand College
— Aditi Mahavidyalaya
— Laxmi Bai College
— Zakir Husain Delhi College
— Zakir Husain Delhi College (evening)
— Shyamlal College (Morning)

(Source: ABVP and NSUI)