JNU row: Behind ABVP’s confidence, govt and growth

Over 9 lakh new members added to 22 lakh in 2014, first seat won in JNU union since Atal govt, victories in several state universities; leaders say TISS next stop.

Written by Deeptiman Tiwary | New Delhi | Updated: February 24, 2016 9:54:07 am
An ABVP protest in Kolkata against a Jadavpur University event triggered by what was happening at JNU. Partha Paul An ABVP protest in Kolkata against a Jadavpur University event triggered by what was happening at JNU. Partha Paul

In the standoff at JNU and during the controversy over Rohith Vemula’s death at Hyderabad Central University, a common feature has been the aggression of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a posture many attribute to the fact that a right-wing government is in power.

Much of the ABVP’s confidence has also been due to more than a decade of growth, capped by a resurgence at JNU. In the past 13 years, its membership across the country has nearly trebled, from 11 lakh to close to 32 lakh. It recently won one of the four seats in the students’ union, the first time since 2000 when it had won the union president’s seat during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure.

Before and after the new regime set in, other controversies involving the ABVP have included disruption of a PK screening in 2014, vandalism of a venue for a Kashmiri Film Festival in Hyderabad in 2013, a scuffle with FTII students in Pune and opposition to a beef festival in Osmania University in 2012.

“People say that our growth is due to the BJP being in power,” said RSS pracharak Sunil Ambekar, the ABVP’s national organising secretary. “But we have grown the most in the past 10 years when UPA was in power. We had just 11 lakh members in 2003.”

Between 2003 and 2013, the ABVP membership doubled to 22 lakh, growing one lakh a year. And in 2014, the year the current government came to power, the ABVP’s membership jumped over nine lakh to reach 31.75 lakh. Today, the organisation boasts more than 9,800 units in universities and colleges nationwide.

It also won all seats in Delhi University’s students’ union last year, apart from winning a majority of seats in universities in Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Chhattisgarh.

The Sangh origins

Although the ABVP maintains that it is independent of any political influence, it is a fact that its genesis is closely linked to the Sangh Parivar.

The ABVP was born in the aftermath of a ban imposed by the then home minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel on the RSS in February 1948, after one of its members assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. Facing an existential crisis, the RSS created several new organisations, including the ABVP to bring students to the Sangh fold at a time no one was willing to join the RSS.

It was not until the JP movement and the Emergency, however, that the ABVP grew to any significance nationally.

The umbilical cord with the Sangh is still intact. There is constant interaction between the RSS and the ABVP on organisational matters and issues to push for. In fact, most top posts at the national level in the ABVP are held by full-time RSS members or pracharaks, such as Ambekar.

RSS member Ranvijay Singh, a former office-bearer of the ABVP at JNU who now teaches at Central University of Jharkhand, says the relationship between the RSS and the ABVP, or between the BJP and the ABVP, is organic in nature and no one needs to tell the other what to do.

“At our time, the only thing we got RSS leaders to the campus for was motivational speeches. We got ideological direction and guidance on national issues. But it was we who decided what to fight for in the university,” he said. Whenever an issue was taken up by the Sangh nationally, Singh added, it was invariably pushed on the campus by the ABVP without being asked to do so. And vice versa.

The ABVP has often played a role in helping the BJP win elections. After 2010, it launched a campaign across campuses against corruption that ultimately became the focal point on which BJP fought the 2014 polls, and won. The president of its JNU unit, Alok Singh, who hails from Amethi, was election coordinator for Smriti Irani in her battle against Rahul Gandhi there in 2014.

Besides, the ABVP has given the BJP a number of leaders over the years. Senior ministers Arun Jaitley and J P Nadda are former ABVP members, as are Delhi BJP leaders Vijay Goel and Vijay Jolly.

When the ABVP agitation against student leader Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech began, the government was quick to react by slapping sedition charges on him and billing the event as one sponsored by Hafiz Saeed. “When the controversy broke on TV, we received calls from BJP leaders saying that we had become national leaders now. We were seen as having saved the party from the setback of Rohith Vemula’s death,” said an ABVP leader at JNU.

Ambekar agrees that a favourable government at the Centre helps, but argues that the organisation has had to change its tactics to arrive here: “While we continue to push for our nationalist agenda that lays stress on India’s glorious past, its great culture and national reconstruction, we have quit opposing Valentine’s Day, taken to social media and become more inclusive with increasing representations from various castes and groups and focused on women.”

Ambekar agrees that a favourable government at the Centre helps, but argues that the organisation has had to change its tactics to arrive here: “While we continue to push for our nationalist agenda that lays stress on India’s glorious past, its great culture and national reconstruction, we have quit opposing Valentine’s Day, taken to social media and become more inclusive with increasing representations from various castes and groups and focused on women.”

He adds that the ABVP is also strong in universities in Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat even as it has begun to reach out to premier technical institutes such as the IITs through its Think India campaign.

In the past few elections that the ABVP has won in universities, it has gone to its voters with issues of “country’s unity and integrity, opposition to urban Naxalism, intelligentsia supporting anti-national elements and pushing for indigenisation of syllabus with studies on Vivekanada and Shankarachrya”, apart from local university issues.

“We have won seats because of the sincerity of our members about issues affecting students. That has brought people closer to our ideology as well,” says Ambekar.

Yet, the ABVP continues to struggle in Haryana, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal and the Northeast. The ABVP’s longest and most difficult struggle, however, remains at JNU.

The JNU challenge

It was only in 1990-91 that the ABVP won a seat in JNU elections. Its best performance came five years into economic liberalisation and the Ram Mandir movement — in 1996, it won three of the four seats (barring the president’s) and 26 of 32 councillor seats.

In 2000, Sandeep Mahapatra became the first ABVP president of JNUSU. Since then there has been a constant decline for the organisation at JNU with its membership once declining to just 200. It blames its decline on a split in its own ranks and the coming together of various Left parties.

Mahapatra, who came from Odisha’s Kalahandi to study international relations at JNU and has been associated with the RSS since childhood, said the university is a difficult place to exercise right-wing politics. “When I came, the Left held complete sway. We were treated as untouchables. People would not even shake hands with us. This was more so in social sciences. We had supporters in schools of languages and pure sciences, but even they would not openly come out,” said Mahapatra, who now owns a law firm and holds the post of general secretary in RSS’s Adhivakta Parishad in Delhi.

In fact, the ABVP’s biggest cultural achievement in so many years at JNU has been yearly celebration of Durga Puja. “There was great opposition by the Left in 1999. They said religious activity could not be allowed on campus. So we asked them to stop iftaar too. As the tussle went on for three years, support for us kept growing, thanks to a sizeable number of Bengali students. It is now celebrated with much fanfare every year,” said a former ABVP member.

Saurabh Sharma, who won the joint secretary’s post for ABVP in JNUSU in 2015, says he became a Sangh convert out of resentment for the university’s attitude towards religious practices. “I grew up in an environment where daily prayers and religious talks were a norm. This was ridiculed here. People said there was no God. I could not understand. That was when the ABVP people held my hand,” said Sharma, who was the first to write to the VC and university security to stop the programme that led to sedition charges against Kanhaiya.

Alok Singh, the ABVP’s JNU unit president, came in 2010 from Banaras Hindu University. He said beyond the condescending attitude of the Left, his organisation has also had to combat misinformation. “We have been painted as a patriarchal destructive force. Women didn’t come near us until recently as the Left had told them that we won’t allow them to wear shorts or roam around in the night. We have had to work hard to dispel such notions,” said Singh, who believes that the latest controversy has come as a boon as fence-sitters are now gravitating towards the ABVP.

“We will continue to agitate against anti-national activities on campus. Our next stop will be Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. It is an even bigger hub of Maoists than the JNU,” a senior ABVP leader said.

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