After the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) helped orchestrate the Bharatiya Janata Party’s landslide win in the 2014 parliamentary election, and its subsequent victories in various state assembly polls, it turned its focus on another bastion for its ideology to penetrate — campuses.
Considered a stronghold of communist ideology, breaching the campuses for the RSS — the BJP’s mentor — has been a long-time objective. While the BJP contests political adversaries of all shades in the electoral sphere, the Sangh’s main opponent remains the communist ideology. And this is where the Sangh’s offshoot the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) emerged as a natural choice to take forward the fight against the Left ideology. The recent campus skirmishes involving ABVP are not a new phenomenon. The students’ wing of the RSS has since its inception been in the front lines of agitation moored by the Sangh. The Sangh, which runs a large chain of schools across the country, including at remote locations, sees campuses as potential areas to expand its reach. It depends on its ABVP foot soldiers to wean the youth from the so-called Left ethos.
“The Left-backed students’ bodies had been dominating the campuses across the country for long. With the growing numbers and victories in elections everywhere, the ABVP is challenging their domain. That is precisely what explains their (Left leaning groups) desperation, says Sunil Ambekar, national organising secretary of ABVP.
From the time it was established in 1949 as an arm of the then banned RSS, the ABVP has charted its journey on campuses covering the same ground as its parent—nationalism, character building and volunteerism. The only deviation from the RSS was its foray into electoral politics. “Over the years, the ABVP has remained rooted to the Sangh’s principles, even as it mirrors the BJP’s electoral ambitions,” says Jatin Mohanty a former ABVP member who is now a state secretary of the BJP in Odisha. So, what led to the ABVP morphing into an aspiring political unit?
Former ABVP leaders such as finance minister Arun Jaitley, sports minister Vijay Goel, transport minister Nitin Gadkari rising to prominence in the political firmament is seen to have stoked ambitions of the younger lot. “It is a more recent phenomenon. Like the BJP, the ABVP’s focus now is on winning elections and repeating the feat the next year. Earlier, the fight was more ideological than electoral,” says Mohanty who contested as an ABVP candidate in the Left fortress of Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Their affinity towards electoral politics notwithstanding, the ABVP’s trajectory of growth across campuses has been dotted with landmarks shaped by the Sangh ideology. Starting with their role during the Emergency, to their participation in the Ram Temple movement in Ayodhya, to the more recent resurgence of nationalism on campuses, the ABVP has largely stuck to the script.
“ABVP takes cue from the prevalent political situation. If it was again out on the streets during the Mandal agitation, it mobilised support for the Ram Temple in 1990s. While it raises issues of students’ relevance such as revisiting the four-year graduation programme that was introduced in Delhi University, it is not cut off from the contemporary politics,” said a former ABVP member.
Unlike the BJP, which has partnered coalitions with ideologies diverse from its own (the PDP in Jammu and Kashmir for instance), the ABVP has faithfully implemented at the macro levels the agenda shaped by the RSS. This is evident from the synchronisation of responses to events that unfolded at the Hyderabad Central University following the alleged suicide of a Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula; the unrest in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University where students affiliated to the Left were accused of raising anti-India slogans; and now Ramjas College in DU, where disagreement between the two sides over the choice of invitees for a lecture spilled into violence.
With the BJP in power at the Centre and in many states, and the Sangh in a stronger position, the ABVP too has seen an exponential rise in its numbers. From 11 lakh members in 2003, it now claims a membership of 32 lakh, of which a significant nine lakh were added post the 2014 victory.
What draws students to the ABVP, especially at a time when it has been roiled in controversies and seen as pursuing a dogma?
BJP leader and a former DUSU president Sudhanshu Mittal explains that the ABVP’s adherence to its core values has been a draw for those who believe in nationalism. “From the participation in JP Movement to the Emergency to taking up the Kashmir issue, all nationalistic and idealistic movements the ABVP has shown consistency on its fundamental issues. It is not guided by political expediencies.”
Academic and activist Kamal Mitra Chenoy, however attributes the rise of the ABVP to the “obsoleteness of the Left” and the inability of the Congress and Socialists to groom their offshoots.
“Left organisations are suffering from obsoleteness of Marxist ideology…it can’t attract (youth) anymore,” he says. The Sangh, differs and says it is popular because of the resurgence of nationalism among the youth.
“The youth have realised that the Left has been marginalised as far as electoral politics is concerned. Barring Tripura and Kerala, where the Left is in power, its numbers have reduced in Parliament as well as in a handful of state assemblies. On the campuses, too, its presence is getting limited to the faculty. Other students’ unions don’t sway sentiments the way ABVP does,” said a senior RSS functionary, not wishing to be named.
The student’s outfit, groomed by RSS , got its first political exposure when BJP came to power with Atal Behari Vajpayee as Prime Minister. But now it makes headlines for unflattering reasons.
Take the episode of violence at Madhav College in Ujjain during the student elections in 2009. Six ABVP students were accused of manhandling a professor who later died. All six were subsequently acquitted, but the case led to outrage and raised questions on the ABVP’s tendency towards aggression. RSS functionaries are quick to pin the blame on the “biased media narrative of the English press”. They allege that not only do the Left cadres push the ABVP counterparts into a confrontational position, but the reportage is prejudiced against the Right.
“The Left recognises its space is shrinking. It has taken a tactical stand of positioning itself as supporter of ‘liberal values’, so what is an ideological clash with the ABVP is presented as a fight for freedom of speech or rights for minorities,” says the RSS functionary. Chenoy, however sees the surge in violent outbursts as a manifestation of the state’s tacit support. “Vajpayee was a liberal within the framework of the Sangh. He kept them under check. Now with BJP in power, the police have been asked to go soft on the ABVP,” he says.