Campus conundrums




It was Rohith Vemula’s suicide earlier this year at the University of Hyderabad (UoH) that mobilised students across the country to protest against the efforts by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led central government to force its unofficially linked students’ wing — the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi  Parishad’s— entry in university campuses across India. Three months after his suicide, the UoH is again in the news with its Vice Chancellor Professor P Appa Rao resuming duties at the university. Prof Rao had gone on two months leave after he faced a barrage of criticism for his role in the suspension of five Dalit scholars that resulted in Vemula’s suicide.

After his return last week, students and teachers of the UoH protested, which led to a police crackdown. In the resulting melee, two faculty members and 27 students were booked under the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act. The latest UoH controversy has once again led many to allege the BJP government’s role in pressuring and interfering with the university administration.

Union Minister for Labour Bandaru Dattatreya, taking advantage of his position, lost no time in scrambling to the support of the ABVP and turned an internal matter of student politics into an anti-national act. He repeatedly urged the university authorities to take action against the PhD scholar
Rohith Vemula and his friends for their alleged anti-national activities. Vemula committed suicide after he and his friends were barred by the university from almost all public spaces on the campus. Critics allege that not nly did Dattatreya pressure the university administration, he also asked his colleague Smriti Irani who handles the Union Human Resources Development Ministry to urge action, which eventually led to Vemula’s suspension.

While the BJP and the ABVP would like to deny the symbiotic relationship within the Sangh Parivar, the history of the ABVP suggests that it flourished precisely at a time when the BJP became a mainstream political party.

The ABVP was officially started a year after independence in 1948 with the objective of ‘national
reconstruction’. Founded by a group of students and teachers, ABVP gradually spread its network
to several educational institutes across India. Its association with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak
Sangh (RSS) and the ‘unofficial and often unacknowledged’ ties with the BJP in the 1970s, gave the
organisation the requisite political vision and guidance.

However, in the post-Mandal era and the Ayodhya-Ram Mandir politics of the 1980s, as the BJP became the mainstream national party, the organisation’s dreams too received a national boost. As the BJP entrenched itself in many states, the ABVP too began knocking on the doors of the many educational
institutions’ campuses.

Realising the enormous strength that the young students brought in terms of their ideas and perspectives, the RSS-BJP optimised the use of ABVP cadres for their political objectives. For
many dedicated cadres, the path of progression traversed from the ABVP to the Bharatiya Janata
Yuva Morcha to the BJP. In the process, many of the issues which would have ideally remained
within the campuses, spilled out in the mainstream political arena — issues ranging from the
higher educational subsidies, to the autonomy of the central universities.

The election of the first BJP government led by Atal Behari Vajpayee in the late 1990s gave the
much needed push. It was in the year 2001 that the ABVP made its debut in the prestigious Jawaharlal
Nehru University (JNU) campus, which was at the forefront last month of ‘nationalist vs antinationalist’
debate. Dominated by the left-wing student organisations — Students Federation of India (SFI) and the All India Students Association (AISA) — JNU has been premier intellectual hub of the country and therefore a critical milestone for the ABVP, which despite its growing campus strength yearned for intellectual recognition. Its initial success in the campus- the organisation won the President’s post in the JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU) election in 2000-01 impressed many but also set the stage for a protracted battle with the left leaning student organisations.

Over the years, this rivalry persisted but the fall of the Communist government in West Bengal in 2011 and the ascension of the Modi government in 2014, gave the ABVP a shot in the arm to push its agenda in the JNU and other campuses. At present, the organisation has the post of the Joint Secretary in the JNUSU.

Commenting on the ABVP’s strategy, a JNU PhD student told Tehelka, “In a democratic and secular country like India, RSS wants to turn it into a Hindu Rashtra. This is not possible until you don’t take the young generation along. Institutions such as the Hyderabad University and JNU where there are
democratic discussions and fearless thinking…are the places where attempts are being made to muzzle
the students’ movement and install ABVP  in these campuses.”

As compared to the JNU, the Delhi University (DU), the largest central University, was an easy battle
where abvp crossed swords with the Congress-affiliated National Students’ Union of India (NSUI). While
its fortunes kept shifting in election after election, the ABVP’s hold over the campus remains complete
and it also serves as an important platform for the larger battle between the Congress and the BJP.
And the party hasn’t lost sight of that. Commenting on the ABVP’s win last year in the DU Students’ Union election — where it grabbed the President, Vice-President, Secretary and Joint Secretary posts — BJP President Amit Shah said, ‘This victory represents the thinking of the youth of India and it reflects how the youth of the country have lapped up the ongoing projects and gave their support to these projects, run by the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, keeping youth in the mind.’

Every year thousands of students from all across India, line up India’s top Universities in search
of higher education and therefore these universities constitute the microcosm of India. What gives
these campuses a distinct age, is them being located in the capital, their students have displayed
a dynamic political awareness. Campus-level elections are crucial therefore to mobilise these students
and an important indicator of the prevailing political mood.

This is where the heady combativeness of mainstream politics is getting mixed up with campus politics. Students are getting stirred up by controversial issues such as the beef ban controversy, the Kashmir issue, capital punishment, among others. They are getting intermixed with the dynamics of the campus politics and resulting in intense political battles. For instance, clashes between the ABVP and the SFI at Sree Kala Varma College in Kerala over the beef festival that the SFI organised on the campus created a huge controversy across India. Another instance was the ABVP students disrupting the screening of Aamir Khan’s movie ‘PK’ allegedly for hurting the Hindu religious sentiments.

In the case of JNU, where the students had organised a protest demonstration on Afzal Guru’s
death anniversary and where allegedly anti-India slogans were raised, students contend that
the Delhi Police acted in haste in arresting the JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar, after the local
BJP MP, Mahesh Giri registered an FIR against the students allegedly involved in anti-national protests.

However, since the police action in JNU and UoH has snowballed into a major row, protests against the
government and the ABVP have galvanised the student community across India.

Kavita Krishnan, a politburo member of the Communist Partyof India talking about the ABVP’s campus politics says, “This is childish behaviour by the ABVP and government of the day. They are trying to isolate and brand Left student activists as anti-nationals which is clearly not working. You have thousands of people saying, we are with Vemula and we are with Kanhaiya and others.”

Vasundhara Sirnate of The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, Chennai taking a historical view of the student mobilisation by the political parties says, “Political parties have always recruited students on the university campuses. For instance, students were mobilised during the Mandal agitation. Before that Chimanbhai Patel, the Gujarat Chief Minister had a huge student-led anti corruption movement against him that was backed by the political parties who opposed him. So parties always mobilise students. They provide campaign support and organisational skills for parties.”

Sirnate’s views are echoed on the ground, where since the last few years, major political parties have
mobilised students for election campaigning. In last year’s Delhi Assembly elections, bjp’s abvp,
Congress’ NSUI and Aam Aadmi Party’s Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Samiti were actively engaged in
campaigning on various fronts. Prior to that, in the Lok Sabha elections, the RSS-BJP had mobilised
ABVP cadres to campaign for Modi.  At that time, the JNUSU and the left student organisations had also
sent in their cadres to campaign for Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, something which did not
go down well with the RSS, the BJP and the ABVP.

However, ABVP completely denies its links to the BJP. “ABVP is not linked to any political party.
Media links it to the BJP which is wrong. Ideologically, our way of working may be same but we don’t
tell students whom to vote for. Students get inspired by leaders such as Modiji, who has done a lot of
work and has taken initiatives like the ‘Make in India’. That’s why they support which is what happened
in the last election, in which Modiji became the Prime Minister,” said Rohit Chahal, former National
Secretary of the ABVP.

As the BJP braces for the upcoming assembly elections in West Bengal and Assam later this year and Uttar Pradesh next year, the ABVP’s campus politics and the mileage that it derives from the polarisation of voters. Is party counting on this student organisation to capture the young students’ mind space?

Commenting on BJP-ABVP links, Sirnate said, “The ABVP members are foot soldiers of the BJP. Like any other student group that is linked to the parties, it pushes its agenda and has been doing so for a long
time. However, now that the BJP is in power, it can do so more violently since there is some guaranteed
immunity from prosecution. To be fair, even the Left and the Congress student groups have their agenda, but it is never like this.”