As the Emergency ended and India headed for elections in 1977, the opposition – including the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the predecessor of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – came together to form the Janata party. There was an effort to merge their student wings, and it was expected that the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) – given its association with Jan Sangh - would join.
But the outfit said no, for it claimed that it was not a wing of any party and would not run according to ‘party command’. It maintained its distinct identity. Eventually, over the question of dual membership – could members of Janata Party also be members of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – the Janata split, and BJP was born in 1980. The ABVP stayed immune to the churning.
The incident perhaps illustrates an important fact about the student group.
ABVP is not a wing of the BJP. Its loyalties are entirely to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the larger ideological project of the Sangh. Given that BJP also is a part of the same parivar, the connections are obvious. But ABVP reports straight to Nagpur, not Ashoka Road.
The ‘Parishad’, as ABVP insiders call it, has become central to India’s recent public debates, in the wake of the Rohith Vemula suicide and the Kanhaiya Kumar arrest. What is the history of the group? What are its beliefs?
The ABVP precedes the Jana Sangh, and was formally registered in 1949 to organize students. Its initial demands hovered around declaring Hindi as the national language, writing the constitution in Hindi, declaring Vande Matram as the national song.
In an apartment in Delhi’s Ashok Vihar, Raj Kumar Bhatia explained his 42-year long long association with the ‘Parishad’, as most ABVP activists call it. Bhatia joined DU as an undergraduate in 1964, went on to do his masters, and taught in a DU college – in parallel, he became the Delhi secretary of the Parishad, and eventually its national general secretary and president in the 90s.
Bhatia told HT that ABVP’s real growth happened after 1967 for three reasons.
“One, the Sangh decided to pay more attention and give it an organizational impetus. Two, the group actively began participating in student union elections. For instance, we started winning in Delhi University Students Union in 1971. And three, this was the time of student movements all over the world. ABVP was active in the anti-corruption and anti price rise movements in Gujarat and Bihar in 1974, which eventually led to the anti Emergency struggle.”
For a few years, between 1977 and 1981, ABVP did not participate in union elections. The group’s international engagement grew in the 80s. In the Parishad pantheon, two men in particular – Yashwantrao Kelkar and Madandas Devi – are given credit for its growth and expansion, but Bhatia says that the emphasis is always on ‘teamwork’.
Like any student organisation, ABVP’s primary challenge is being a permanent organisation for a floating population – since students enter and pass out. To ensure continuity, it organizes regular ideological training camps. Office bearers say the Parishad now has 32 lakh members, with 5000 city units, 9000 campus units, and it works in some capacity in 20,000 out of the country’s 35,000 colleges.
Its relationship with the RSS leadership is navigated through the national organizing secretary – currently Sunil Ambekar. Ambekar presents Parishad reports to the RSS’ decision making body annually. The post was previously held by Dattatreya Hosbale, currently the joint general secretary of the Sangh and someone billed to rise higher up. Anbekar told HT that while the group is inspired by the Sangh and part of the parivar, there is functional freedom in day-to-day affairs.
As a part of the larger parivar, there is movement of personnel from the ABVP to other parts, including the BJP. This explains how the top echelons of the party and the cabinet today is dominated by those who cut their teeth in the ABVP. For instance, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, for instance, was a top ABVP leader during his student years, and headed the Delhi University Students Union (DUSU) in 1974. When asked if the Parishad serves as a recruiting ground for BJP, an official said, “Our aim is ideological. Any benefit to the party is incidental.”
An early slogan of ABVP was that the student is a ‘citizen of today’ – and thus he needs to be engaged with larger national issues, and have political thought.
A key form in which the student community engages with larger politics is on the issue of ‘nationalism’. A glance at ABVP’s activities over the last few decades reveal its focus - hoisting the national flag in Kashmir or a campaign against ‘foreign infiltration’ with the slogan ‘Save Assam today to save India tomorrow’.
But critics allege that the entire problem lies in the ABVP’s conception of nationalism; that it is steeped in Hindu symbols; it paints minorities as sources of anti national activities. The Parishad of course denies the charges.
For instance, if it is an attempt to organize students, why is it almost entirely Hindu students? Bhatia claims that there are some Muslims too, but admits, “Because of politics, Muslims are mentally indoctrinated in a way that they are scared to come to us, or are actively discouraged to do so. I feel that politics in this country solely revolves around this Muslim vote.” He adds that while they may be ‘weak’ on Muslim participation, all other sections are represented.
The other critique - particularly in the wake of Hyderabad and JNU - is the ABVP’s lack of tolerance for alternative viewpoints. A former activist who used to write pamphlets for the group in JNU recalls how some of his seniors had then told him he was wasting his time writing pamphlets - instead, he should tear down left pamphlets. Is it the case that since JNU has been dominated the left, the ABVP would rather attack and undermine the institution than debate ideas constructively and expand its space?
Ajit Kumar, who spent almost a decade and a half in ABVP and remains a sympathiser, rejects the charge. He says, “It is the left which has been most ideologically intolerant. In West Bengal, for decades, we were not able to even organise seminars and activities. We have always been politically flexible - our only stand is there can be no compromise with national unity and integrity.”
Sunil Ambekar, the powerful organising secretary of the parishad, reiterated the point in a recent interview and claimed that democratic rights were being ‘misused’ in the name of ‘freedom, human rights, feminism, secularism and freedom of expression.’
When pointed out that while ABVP had been a part of the democratic struggle during the Emergency but was now seen as wanting to curtail democratic rights, Ambekar said, “How are rights being curtailed? Even under a Modi government, the SC opens at night for Yakub...even after such anti national slogans, there is such a debate and it finds space on the media. I sometimes feel there are excessive rights. People have been misusing these rights and this has to be stopped.”
Proximity to the state
But at the core of both the Hyderabad and JNU incident is the perception that ABVP has used its proximity to the ruling party to intervene in campus issues. The letters from cabinet ministers putting pressure in the case of Rohith Vemula are in the public domain. The manner in which Delhi MP Mahesh Girri and then Home Minister Rajnath Singh intervened in the JNU case is also cited.
Ambekar claims that in the case of Hyderabad, it was court intervention rather than letters by cabinet ministers that prompted the university administration to act. In the case of JNU, he claims that they followed the correct procedure - and first went to the university and then the police rather than the political leadership.
The Sangh appears to believe that the recent controversy in JNU has benefited them, both ideologically and politically. Post Hyderabad, there was a perception that Dalits had been victimised by the ABVP; post JNU, the message that they hope will percolate is that the university was a den of ‘anti national’ activists who ABVP countered. An activist said that RSS had created a political alternative in the country despite three bans and the criticism does not deter them. Polarisation, in some ways, suits them - though it is debatable whether this scale of liberal and left opposition, with international solidarity, was anticipated.
But why is it that ABVP’s role has become so central now? What is different in the current NDA regime that wasn’t present in the last NDA regime?
Bhatia, the veteran ABVP activist, says there is a more ‘vigorous ideological battle’ being fought. And this is because, he says, the BJP has a majority and PM Narendra Modi is an ‘ideologically-driven leader’.
If this is correct, we will hear more of the Parishad - footsoldiers in this ideological battle - in the months and years to come.