Saket Bahuguna’s mood turns foul as he sifts through the day’s newspapers. The coverage in the wake of the fracas at Delhi’s Ramjas College has been overwhelmingly negative and the national media convenor of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) cannot suppress his dismay.
“Reports portray us as a bunch of goondas out to beat everyone up. Why is this being projected as a student versus ABVP fight? Aren’t we students ourselves,” asked Bahuguna, a research scholar at Delhi University.
Given the recent chain of events at various campuses across the country — from Hyderabad to Delhi’s JNU and Ramjas last week where ABVP members kicked up more than a ruckus over the presence of ‘anti-national’ speakers at a seminar — Bahuguna finds himself fighting a losing perception battle.
ABVP, the students’ body of the RSS, is accused of strong-arm tactics and attempting to suppress dissent forcibly. Its members have allegedly run riot and targeted members of rival groups, portraying anyone who disagrees with them as “anti-national”.
But no matter the derision that the outfit evokes in urban drawing rooms, ABVP is actually on a roll across the country, especially after the BJP rode to power at the Centre in 2014. Its objective of ‘nation building’ is appealing to new audiences and its member-strength has grown exponentially. The organisation’s footprint has also expanded from remote Leh in the north to far-flung Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the south.
“We are a force that no one can ignore,” said Sunil Ambekar, the national organising secretary of the outfit.
ABVP has 32 lakh members, compared to 11 lakh it had in 2003. In 2014, the year Narendra Modi became prime minister, its membership jumped by a whopping nine lakh. It recruited the maximum members that year in Karnataka, 5.8 lakh, followed by Telangana and Madhya Pradesh.
It has also spread its network with over 5,300 urban units and presence in 20,000 of the 35,000 colleges countrywide. In terms of members, it has almost caught up with the other big players in students’ politics: NSUI of the Congress with 40 lakh and CPI’s AISF with 35 lakh members. CPIM’s SFI has 15 lakh members.
Buoyed by their rapid growth, ABVP leaders brush aside the controversies. “We are open to any debate, but we cannot compromise with nationalism, culture and mythology,” said Ambekar. An RSS pracharak, he is a full-timer with ABVP, travelling 25 days in a month. He was in Delhi over the last weekend for two days, before visiting West Bengal for a training programme for college teachers.
As for the bad press, ABVP leaders said it is all the handiwork of Leftist organisations dominating the discourses on campuses.
“Unfortunately the Left is the established thought in the academic world, We are out to challenge it,” argued Dr Vivek Nigam, an ABVP old-timer teaching at Allahabad University.
“We remember the times when JNU leftists painted us as patriarchal. There was a general bias towards us as we were less in number,” pointed out Amit Singh, now a teacher at Delhi’s Atma Ram College.
“Now that they know we are increasing in numbers, they resort to negative publicity and exaggerate small incidents to harm us,” he added.
According to Shreerang Kulkarni, the outfit’s spokesman, the bad publicity is the Left’s desperate ploy to checkmate its growing presence.