Shortly after masked assailants, allegedly belonging to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), created havoc on the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus in New Delhi on January 5, mauling students, ransacking hostels, and brandishing iron rods, the picture of a visually impaired student, who was one of those targeted, emerged on social media. Surya Prakash, a student pursuing MPhil in Sanskrit, was allegedly targeted because a picture of Dr B.R. Ambedkar was seen on the door of his room.
If Surya Prakash was attacked because he was a Dalit and identified himself with Ambedkar, Pervez and Mumtaz, pursuing courses in Persian, were targeted because of their religion. For Kashmiri Muslim students it was a double whammy; they were Muslim and also Kashmiri. That was reason enough to attack them, ransack their rooms, and break the doors and windows of their rooms. The rampage drove the students away. A day after the attack, many of the rooms belonging to Muslim and Dalit students were found locked. As admitted by one of the ABVP functionaries on television, the violence was targeted. Besides Dalits and Muslims, the goons focussed their energies on Left-leaning students and those belonging to the students’ union. Rooms belonging to students with ideological affiliation to the ABVP were not touched. The attackers, it seemed, were keen to carry forward the casteist and communal agenda of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) according to which a Muslim is the perpetual “other”, the Dalit is supposed to exist only at the sufferance of the twice born, and Left parties are an anathema to the idea of a Hindu Rashtra.
The ABVP takes a lot of pride in its association with the RSS. Always keen to dispel the impression that it is the student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ABVP, founded in 1948, makes it clear that it is the student wing of the RSS. Says the noted JNU historian Aditya Mukherjee: “They assert themselves as a wing of the RSS. They are very conscious about it, very clear. They draw their inspiration from their parent body. Their tactics have always been about muzzling and browbeating, not civil discourse. It is always about provocation. After all, they are a wing of the RSS.”
Prof. Rizwan Qaiser, who teaches history at Jamia Millia Islamia (this Central university campus was also witness to violence as part of the protests against the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act in December 2019) concurs with these views. “They will never show it on paper, but they are very much associated with the BJP. In terms of ideology and cadre support, however, they are dependent on the RSS. Many people will recall how they came to the fore during Anna Hazare’s [anti-corruption] agitation in 2011. The protest held at the Ramlila ground in Delhi, ranging from the crowd to banners, to the food, to even the Anna Hazare caps the protesters wore, were all funded by the RSS. And ABVP members acted as the organisation’s foot soldiers during the entire movement. They were everywhere. So much so that to the common man it seemed as if the Anna Hazare movement was a movement of India’s youth against the government.”
Qaiser draws an interesting parallel between the RSS and the ABVP. “The real agenda of the ABVP for the past many decades has been to project themselves as nationalists or hyper-nationalists, just as BJP leaders seek to do today. The rest of the people are not nationalists, they are compromised. It is the same ideology that the Hindu Mahasabha used to follow in the pre-1947 period claiming that they were true nationalists and the Congress stood compromised. The ABVP has been doing it for years now. For them, if you are not with them, you stand compromised. Clearly, there is not much difference between the ABVP and the RSS. Whosoever is in ABVP today is likely to be in RSS some day, if not now.”
Ajay Gudavarthy, Associate Professor in the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, expressed similar views. Gudavarthy, who has some ABVP members among his students, says, “They have links with the RSS. A lot of ABVP students have direct contact with the RSS. There is a pracharak who keeps guiding them on how to act at a particular time. They get their instructions from him. They meet him every fortnight. There is a complete hierarchy. But I do feel the ABVP members are at times just pushed into something. For instance, in JNU, they were in agreement with their students that the Vice Chancellor should be removed and the fee hike should be rolled back. But the RSS dissuaded them. The RSS targets JNU through the ABVP for ideological reasons. The very presence of the university makes them feel inferior. They provoke, but do not know how to resolve the issue. Some of my students who are ABVP members tell me that they raise questions with the RSS pracharak . In the fee rise case, too, they asked how the organisation can be popular on the campus when 60 per cent of the students cannot afford the new fee structure. But the RSS wants to change the character of the university by changing the fee structure so that the poor do not enter it. Many of the poor people today, however, are part of the RSS. The RSS guys do not know how to address this anomaly. When they do not know how to resolve a thing, they take to violence and criminality, as seen recently. I have never seen the ABVP engaged in dialogue, debate, discussion. They are usually combative. Some of it stems from their background. Many of them come from the landlord background since the colonial, even pre-colonial times. For decades, upper castes have joined the ABVP. Now, the Other Backward Classes [OBC] masculinity has also joined them.”
Hence, the violence inflicted on Muslim and Dalit students in JNU. Gudavarthy says: “The ABVP’s anti-Muslim narrative, like that of the parent body, is a compulsive narrative. With an alternative movement gaining ground across the country, they have to create an enemy, hatch some conspiracy. Their politics caters to only the elite social structure. To camouflage it, they have to target Muslims. The Muslim card is a compulsion. They employ the Muslim narrative in a contextual manner. Same is the case of Dalit politics. It stems from a pathological mindset, the upper-caste dominant narrative unable to cope with the changing social narrative. They cannot digest diversity and plurality. It challenges their very being. Women in public space irritate them. Different languages in public space irritate them. Muslims, Dalits, anybody who is not like them irritate them.”
Talking of JNU, the ABVP has never had a strong presence on the campus. Prof. Mukherjee says, “Until 10 years ago, they had no influence in JNU. It has not changed much now either. They have had to import goons for violence.”
According to Prof. Qaiser, “the ABVP never had a formal presence on the campus. When I studied there in the 1970s and 1980s, there was no mention of the ABVP. Many people of that ideology were there informally, but joined other bodies. Much later one discovered, ‘oh, he turned out to be from the ABVP’. They were never encouraged in the past. Now they enjoy a free run. Fortunately, there are not many takers for that ideology on the campus today also.”
Yet, there is one crucial difference. Over the years, the ABVP has transformed itself from being a marginal presence to a central one. In the past, the body sought legitimacy through association with others; today it seeks to confer legitimacy on many a young, aspirational student, giving them hope of becoming a Central Minister, like Arun Jaitley, the late Finance Minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Cabinet.
Qaiser says: “The ABVP would ride piggyback on any movement in the past. They populated the Jayaprakash Narayan movement in the 1970s and attained legitimacy. Now, they are unleashing a horse on their own. In 1975, they were like fringe elements. Now, they call the shots. They draw inspiration from the top. They are just running amok.”
After the Emergency, the ABVP came into limelight towards the end of the 1980s during the anti-Mandal agitation. “They were opposed to Mandal. Their opposition, however, was not based on principles of equity or equality of opportunity for all, but on a casteist agenda of keeping a section down. They were, like the RSS, carrying forward the Manuvad agenda,” says Prof. Mukherjee.
Incidentally, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the ABVP was not the only body affiliated to the RSS to gain legitimacy. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad gained prominence and Bajrang Dal members gained popularity by sending the BJP leader L.K. Advani a cup of their blood as he set out on his rath yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya. As Dhirendra Jha writes in Shadow Armies: Fringe Organizations and Foot Soldiers of Hindutva , they “also welcomed him by applying tilak of blood on his forehead…. After the BJP formed a government in Uttar Pradesh in 1991, it was the Bajrang Dal which directly participated in skirmishes on the Ayodhya issue while the prominent constituents of the Sangh Parivar—the RSS, the BJP and even the VHP—shunned any public posturing. This was a well-considered strategy where an affiliate organisation lower down the hierarchy was deployed to keep an issue alive for future exploitation while the more important fronts remained relatively quiet to prevent any embarrassment for the BJP government.”
The Bajrang Dal’s strategy of the 1980s and the early 1990s is being practised by the ABVP today. Even as the ABVP cadre unleashed violence on the JNU campus, and about a year earlier in September 2019 in Jadavpur University, where, too, ABVP volunteers committed arson at the university gate and ransacked rooms, besides indulging in violence in Delhi University, Bengaluru and elsewhere, the RSS stayed mum, and the BJP government at the Centre maintained a studied silence. All this is part of the time-tested strategy, seen and experienced in the past. The ABVP, like the Bajrang Dal, drinks from the fount of the RSS.