At BHU, gender intersects ideological battle
Hindu nationalism is central to BHU’s political life, and BHU has had a lot to contribute to the political life of Hindu nationalism.Updated: May 17, 2019 07:05 IST
Sakshi Singh was right there when Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived at the main gate of the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) on 25 April to kick off his 7-km road show and election campaign for the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat. She stood just a few metres to his left as he went up a flower-studded staircase to garland the bust of Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, the founder of BHU. Wearing a white T-shirt which said “NaMo again” and a saffron-and-green wristband, Singh joined her voice with thousands of people circling the statue enclosure: Modi, Modi, Modi… Forty other young women wearing the same T-shirt and standing behind her chanted the same word. Singh hadn’t quite expected so many of them to come out and face the crowds and the heat.
“I had requested the organisation for 100 shirts to distribute in MMV, but when I collected them and posted a status update about it, I received 200 requests. I got some more T-shirts and gave out at least 175 on my own in this so-called Leftist centre,” she said. The organisation she refers to is Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and MMV stands for Mahila Maha Vidyalaya, a women’s college in the BHU with its own hostel inside the campus. The MMV is known, inside and outside the campus, as an island of opposition to the complete hold of the Sangh over BHU (which explains Singh’s Leftist remark). When people in BHU say Sangh they usually mean the Hindu right-wing establishment RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad), BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and ABVP…
In BHU, people do bring up Sangh a lot, except in MMV.
On 21 April, just four days before Modi’s arrival, nearly 50 female students of the BHU marched through Varanasi asking for an end to oppression and patriarchy. The walk was organised by the Joint Action Committee, an alliance of progressive students committed to social justice, equality and democratic space, which is seen as a leftist group by those affiliated or attracted to the sangh. “Girl students are a little more rational,” said Amrita Singh, a PhD student. “In some hostels, the Left and the Samajwadi ideologies continue to survive,” she said. Left can also mean supporters of the Congress party in BHU speak.
“They only organised the walk with one agenda, to dampen the mood in Banaras before Modi’s filing of his nomination for the seat,” said Singh.
Hindu nationalism is central to BHU’s political life, and BHU has had a lot to contribute to the political life of Hindu nationalism. It was set up in 1916 by Malviya, a scholar of Hinduism and a proponent of nation-building, and counts among its early influencers MS Golwalkar, the second Sarsanghchalak of the RSS. At the time of admission, students receive a booklet containing information they would find useful in negotiating life at BHU. It begins with a message from Pandit Malviya stressing “learning”, “patriotism”, and “self-sacrifice” as building blocks of a man’s worthiness.
“If Jawaharlal Nehru University is a symbol of un- Indianness, the Banaras Hindu University is a symbol of Indianness. If you look at the BHU’s constitution, it talks about Indianness,” RSS leader Manmohan Vaidya reminded everyone in 2018.
“Madan Mohan Malviya built this campus on the foundation of Hindu nationalism,” said Abhay Pratap, co-convenor of the ABVP’s campus unit. “Once a student enters this campus bachhe ke andar desh ke liye bhavna aa jaati hai (he or she starts thinking about the nation). They start going to RSS’s shakhas in the university. Then they are attracted to the student organisation that is following its ideology, which is ABVP.”
That’s what happened to Pratap in 2015 when he came to BHU from Gorakhpur to study political science. “The ABVP’s nation-first ideology attracted me.” The ABVP, he said, is also the only student group with enough campus currency — 80 office bearers and thousands of supporters — to get “work done.” “We question the administration, and the government, on student issues, from admission fee to unfair suspension. At times we have protested against Modi government also, about the CBSE paper leak or the CLAT entrance,” he said. CBSE stands for Cental Board of Secondary Education; CLAT is short for Common Law Admission Test, in which some glitches arose.
Mostly, though, the ABVP in BHU promotes and benefits from the national rise of the BJP and Narendra Modi. “After 2014, the (number of) RSS shakhas in the campus multiplied. Thanks to Modi ji, ABVP’s orbit also expanded. More and more boys were attending these shakhas, more and more were joining the ABVP,” Pratap said. Currently, he said, “we fully dominate the campus.”
This domination makes the campus a very conservative space, say students who refer to themselves as politically neutral. “When new boys come from the interiors... they see girls, they see short clothes, and they can’t handle it. And when these girls educate themselves, start thinking, start speaking up, the boys can’t digest it. This frustration enters their politics. That contributes to ABVP’s domination here,” says Sisendra Sisodia. “The multiple layers of RSS, ABVP and BJP gives them clout at ideological, political and students’ affairs level. So what do you think the campus politics will be: conservative or progressive?” he asked.
“BHU is in a transition period, from hostel timings to education curriculum,” said Sisodia. “Earlier there was only arts, science and IIT. Now there is women’s studies, skill development, professional courses. Students ki demand hai. Time ki demand hai (Students are demanding this. The times are demanding this.)
At such a time, he said, “there should be no space for discriminatory policies in a campus, whatever the situation outside.”
Pratap insists ABVP is changing with a changing campus. “Five- six years ago people who were with ABVP believed that non-veg should be stopped in all hostels. We supported the women’s demand for equality in mess. Today we are campaigning for a 24-hour canteen. On this Women’s Day ABVP organised a seminar on ‘women’s role in shaping 21st century’,” Pratap said.
“The women in BHU are not interested in jumla-bazi (slogans),” said Amrita Singh who has played an active role in the women’s protests. For most part, ABVP’s image of being male-dominated and conservative has alienated the women. In recent years, BHU has repeatedly made national headlines for its female students’ agitations for “azaadi” — to extend their curfew hour, to be allowed “non-veg” in their canteen, to wear “western” clothes, to be allowed same flexibility in mess fees as the male students. “Every day the girls fight a little towards further freedom,” said Amrita Singh. The ABVP hasn’t exactly been an ally. “The concept of azaadi is facinating for the women, but Banaras ka mahaul aisa nahin hai ki ladkiyan late night bahar nikal sakein (Banaras doesn’t have the kind of atmosphere in which women can go out late at night)” said Pratap. “Their curfew has been extended to 10pm after protests but now they are demanding that there be no regulation on their comings and goings, like in the boys’ hostels. But the Sangh only supports what is possible and what is practical,” he added.
And, as Sakshi Singh exemplifies, the ABVP’s reach has extended to the women in BHU too.
In 2018, after a violent face-off between female students and ABVP’s men, Singh “became totally active in the ABVP. I began to organise events, from self-defence workshops to science debates, for women. My motto was to pull women free from the clutches of leftist-feminists. I said to them we don’t have to independent, we can be inter-dependent. Leftist-feminists continue to be more in number but now at least 13-14 girls in MMV are with ABVP and many more support us, BJP and Modi,” she added.
Aparna Singh is not so sure. “The girls are listening to everyone’s speeches, they are watching everyone’s videos — Modi’s, Kanhaiya Kumar’s, Mahagathbandhan’s. The mood in women’s hostels is increasingly anti-BJP,” she said. “We are studying political science, sociology, Satre, Marx. The haze lifts. There is new democratic awareness. Surprising numbers of women students have taken leave to go home and vote this time. We also know how difficult it is for women to clear a space for themselves in a masculine society in which the discourse is about 56-inch chests and Pilibhit’s tigers,” she said.
Earlier in 2019, Sakshi Singh was made a National Executive Committee member of the ABVP. For months she has worked hard to improve BJP’s electoral chances, from organising voter awareness camps to nukkad nataks (street plays). She has been up there and out there with the men but at times she feels “frustrated”. On 25 April, she and her team of ABVP’s women members walked two km to Assi Ghat “side by side” with Modi’s caravan, but they couldn’t go any further. There were just too many men. “There was so much pushing and shoving.We could go that far only because our own men were surrounding us. But I was in no condition to carry on. I was feeling harassed.”
In spite of the “challenges” she faces “as a woman, especially in such situations” Sakshi Singh is going to stick with the ABVP. And when she casts her first vote in Varanasi on 19 May, it will be for Narendra Modi.