SUR SADAN IS THE CULTURAL EPICENTRE OF AGRA. The auditorium hosts many of the city’s most significant cultural events, and stands in a compound along one of the main roads through the city centre. Potted plants, arrayed a few paces from each other, form a ring around the auditorium building, and manicured shrubs and small trees line the roads and walkways. On the morning of 10 July, every pot had a saffron flag planted in its soil, and every shrub and tree within easy reach had one dangling from its branches. The flags bore a circular logo of a flaming torch held aloft against a silhouette of the Indian subcontinent. Four bold letters above it announced “ABVP.”
Every year, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a student group affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, celebrates the anniversary of its founding, on 9 July 1949, as rashtriya chhatra diwas, or national students day. As part of this year’s anniversary proceedings, the ABVP’s Agra unit held a two-week plantation drive across the city. Sur Sadan had been chosen to mark its conclusion.
The compound teemed with young people: university and school students, and uniformed members of the National Service Scheme and the National Cadet Corps, both government-run volunteer programmes. Two ABVP volunteers stood at the auditorium doorway, putting tilak on the forehead of each entrant. I was welcomed with a smear of the vermillion powder too.
The hall was booming with slogans: “ABVP dynamite, ABVP dynamite,” “Laal chale bhai laal chale, Bharat Ma ke laal chale” (Forward, sons of Bharat Ma) and “Bharat ko phir vishwa guru banana hai, yahi pavan laksh hamara hai” (Our sacred goal is to make Bharat a teacher for the world once again). I settled into a seat in a section of the front row reserved for the media.
At around 10 am, Sunil Ambekar, the 49-year-old head of the ABVP—officially its national organising secretary, a position filled via appointment by the RSS—walked in. Wearing an off-white kurta and with his greying hair neatly side-parted, he moved down the front row, greeting those in attendance. I got a polite “Namaste” and a question about my well-being. I had contacted him earlier to ask for an interview, and he knew I was in Agra to report on his organisation.
Just as Ambekar moved on, a woman who looked to be in her mid thirties sat down next to me. She introduced herself as Poorti Chaturvedi. “Sunil Ambekar-ji told me that you are a journalist and you have arrived from Delhi,” she said. “He insisted that I should meet you and sit with you.”
Chaturvedi told me she was a veteran of the ABVP, and served on its national executive council for ten years before leaving the group, in 2009. Now she was employed in the botany department of Agra’s Ambedkar University, and working on what she called a “Northeast project,” the Anumantaram Kanya Kulam. “As you know, in the Northeast most people do not even consider themselves Indians,” she said. “They don’t know anything about India. So we bring some girls here and educate them about Indian culture—for example, our rituals, puja and practices like havan. Our focus is that they get to know what Indian culture really is. We want to ensure their proper cultural development.” Most of these girls, she explained, were brought to Agra when they were in the sixth class, and sent back home after finishing school. “In the meantime, they live here.”
I heard all of this against a background of loud chants of “vande mataram.” It was a lot to take in. Last year, an investigation in Outlook magazine by the journalist Neha Dixit alleged that groups linked to the RSS had taken 31 Adivasi girls away from their homes in the Northeast to indoctrinate them in Hindutva beliefs. The magazine’s editor, its publisher and Dixit had a criminal case filed against them for “inciting communal hatred.” Soon after that, the magazine’s editor was replaced.
Ambekar took the stage, accompanied by a local BJP MLA, the Agra district collector and regional ABVP functionaries, to address the by-now packed auditorium. He began by praising the plantation drive, and congratulated the Agra unit for its environmental concern. Then he evoked the memory of the Hindu revivalist Vivekananda, who, he said, had helped reestablish the “importance and greatness” of India when the British colonial government was trying to make Indian youth feel inferior about their culture and national identity. “He said we should have pride in our nation, and after that a lot of students started participating in our struggle for independence. Since then, people have been criticising young people’s participation in politics, saying that they create a nuisance. But ABVP always believed in the power of youth, and came up with the slogan ‘Youth power, nation power.’”
Next, he returned to the plantation drive. “We have to think about the environment, and everyone can see the ABVP is committed to protecting the environment. If the air, water and soil are polluted, then our minds and hearts also get polluted. Crimes against women are rising in cities because environmental pollution is having a negative effect on our everyday lives.”
The ABVP, Ambekar continued, is bringing nationalism back into the mainstream, even as a few other student organisations, with help from a section of teachers at various Indian universities, are working against the country. “But I would like to tell such students and teachers who want to break India that this country has changed now,” he said. “The ABVP has pledged to counter such anti-national forces. If any slogans were to be raised in the country now, it would only be ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’ and ‘vande mataram’”—both staples of the RSS and its affiliates.
Towards the end of the programme, I was handed a brochure. It said that the Parishad, as some of the ABVP’s members call it among themselves, had planted 8,000 plants across Agra for the drive—5,000 of them tulsi saplings. Afterwards, Ambekar held a brief press conference. I asked him why the Agra unit had preferred tulsi saplings. “For other plants, people make excuses that their terrace will start leaking or their floor will crack, but no one says no to planting a tulsi sapling,” he said. “We wanted to encourage people to have plants in their homes. Besides, tulsi has so many medicinal values. What is the problem with using tulsi? It should be seen as just a plant.” Only it is not. The tulsi plant has great religious value for Hindus, and is almost a universal symbol of Hinduism. All the ABVP members I heard speaking about the plantation drive referred to the plant with an honorific attached, as “tulsi-ji.” The ABVP, it seemed, had appropriated this symbol of Hinduism as a symbol of its Hindutva ideology—just as RSS-linked outfits have done with many other Hindu symbols too.
Agra was my first stop on two months of reporting on the ABVP. In that time, I visited university campuses in Delhi and in Varanasi, and spoke to dozens of the organisation’s volunteers and officers in person and over the phone. The more I learnt about the ABVP’s history, the more of its past and present leaders that I interviewed, and the more I saw of its current renaissance, the more it seemed to me that the tulsi-plantation drive was symbolic of the ABVP itself. The group could appear to be just another political student organisation, but it is not; and now it is being planted across more of India than ever before.
THE VETERAN RSS IDEOLOGUE and activist KN Govindacharya worked as an ABVP leader for over a decade, through some of the organisation’s most formative years, beginning in the mid 1970s. I met him in Delhi, at the home of a lawyer he has been close to for many years. I sat waiting in a room he uses regularly for meetings, amid stacks of law books and under the gaze of a portrait of the goddess Saraswati. Govindacharya arrived in a few minutes, greeted me warmly and began narrating the early history of the ABVP.
His telling began with the death of Mohandas Gandhi. “In the aftermath of Gandhi-ji’s assassination, the RSS was banned, starting in February 1948,” he said. The majority of the organisation’s cadre at the time was young, and “the Sangh wanted to find a way to organise and continue its meetings normally. So it started meeting under the name of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad.”
The ABVP was officially registered in July the following year. Just days after that, on 11 July 1949, the ban on the RSS was lifted. Suddenly “there was no immediate need for the ABVP,” Govindacharya said, and it was sidelined. But at some point in the early 1950s, “the Sangh’s senior leaders decided that they should begin developing the ABVP by at least organising proper annual conventions for it.” These continued for some years, but the group remained inconsequential. Then, in the late 1950s, it was put under the charge of Yashwant Rao Kelkar—an RSS worker who briefly left the organisation to finish his education, get married and take up a teaching job at a college in Mumbai, before returning to it.
Kelkar built up the ABVP’s Mumbai unit, and established a state-level unit for Maharashtra. Sometime around 1962, Govindacharya said, “Kelkar felt that the ABVP should be expanded in other states as well.” Dattaji Didolkar, a full-time RSS worker, or pracharak, was brought in to help the effort. “By 1964, the ABVP was spread out across Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Then the thought of shaping a cadre-based national organisation came up. But they were still clueless about how to pursue this expansion.”
Moropant Pingle, a pracharak who had been instrumental in recruiting Kelkar to head the ABVP, “suggested that they should start from the Sangh Shiksha Varg”—summer training camps for RSS cadres. “Moropant proposed that both Kelkar and Didolkar should spent at least two days in each of the 15 or 16 camps being organised that year across the country,” and ask the local RSS head in every region “to give them at least one man for the ABVP.” The duo divided the work between them, and went on countrywide tours. By 1970, the ABVP had a loose national network.
Govindacharya was a senior pracharak in Patna in the early 1970s, a role that required coordinating with the ABVP in Bihar. By the middle of the decade, and through the Emergency, he was part of the ABVP’s national executive, and in direct charge of the organisation in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. He continued to work directly with the group, everywhere from Kerala to Kashmir, until 1988, when he joined the BJP.
“Initially, there were very few women in the ABVP,” Govindacharya said. “We were not sure whether we wanted female students to be part of the ABVP, or to work separately,” as with the RSS, which has a dedicated women’s wing. “But later on it was decided that, since boys and girls study together, they should also participate in the ABVP.” A code of conduct was put in place, to address “soft feelings” that might develop between male and female members. “The spirit of anonymity and collectiveness has to be maintained. Boys and girls must not indulge in exclusive individual friendships, and will not work together behind closed doors.”
Govindacharya pointed out how the ABVP’s early history set it apart from other political student groups. These others, he said, are all student wings of political parties, “with very limited autonomy.” The ABVP has never fallen under the structure of the RSS’s various organs in electoral politics, the latest of which is the Bharatiya Janata Party. The ABVP, even while being affiliated with the RSS, “has been developed as a self-sufficient and self-dependent organisation, with a spirit of cooperation towards other members of the same school of thought.” Govindacharya summarised this school of thought for me. “Bharat is one nation and one culture with a glorious past,” he said. “We take inspiration from the past to build a golden future on the basis of a scientific analysis of the present. We call this process ‘national reconstruction.’”
As the ABVP grew, it started taking on purnakaliks, or full-timers. In Govindacharya’s words, although these workers are not called pracharaks, “in spirit they will be pracharaks.”
The RSS, Govindacharya continued “was clear from the beginning that it is not going to fund the ABVP.” Early on, the organisation survived on small donations from its members. As the number of purnakaliks grew, it decided to also find one donor for each full-timer who could completely cover all the purnakalik’s expenses. Later, it started taking donations from the general public as well.
“The ABVP is an independent student organisation created for the reconstruction of the country,” Rajkumar Bhatia told me when we met in a Delhi suburb. Bhatia, who retired from a teaching career at Delhi University, spent over four decades in the ABVP and served as its national president. “It’s true that with the BJP in power the environment is more favourable for the ABVP than before, and there is no denying that the ABVP is a part of the RSS’s larger designs,” he said. But, he added, “it’s not necessary for an ABVP member to be a part of the RSS. There is scope for even disagreeing with the RSS. … We believe that when a student or an ABVP member becomes mature enough, he will gradually understand the relationship between the RSS and the ABVP.”
The ABVP constitution, he said, written in 1949 by the RSS ideologue Eknath Ranade, states “that this is an organisation for the glory of the country.” Once, he said, the country—“Bharat”—was a “vishwa guru,” a teacher for the world. It used to be said, he continued, that the country was very rich, that rivers of milk flowed through it—“yahan doodh ki nadiyan beheti thi”—and that it was a golden bird—“Bharat ek sone ki chidiya thi.” He insisted that “these were not mere metaphors,” but literally true. The ABVP, Bhatia said, wants to bring back those “achhe din,” those good days. “The ABVP’s constitution talks about all this. Also, patriotism and a sense of social responsibility are missing in people today. We want to bring patriotism back.”
Bhatia, like Govindacharya, linked the ABVP’s formation in the late 1940s to Gandhi’s assassination. Before that, he told me, the RSS was thinking of starting a youth organisation in a few years, but the ban that followed the assassination precipitated the need for a new facade, and the ABVP was it. I found this admission surprising. Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, was closely linked to the RSS, and the organisation spent decades publicly distancing itself from him. A cursory history of the ABVP on the organisation’s website does not mention Gandhi’s death, and begins with the ABVP’s official registration in 1949. So far as I could discover, no official history of the ABVP has yet been published. The organisation’s memory of itself relies almost entirely on the oral narratives of its veterans, giving it a good deal of malleability.
Shriniwas, currently one of the ABVP’s highest office-bearers, denied any connection between Gandhi’s murder and the ABVP’s formation when I met him. Bhatia told me the organisation appoints its leaders from among its own cadre after “internal discussion,” with “guidance” from the RSS if necessary. “We have just obtained some new records and official documents, which establish that the ban on the Sangh was not the reason behind the ABVP’s formation,” Shriniwas said. I asked what these documents were. He replied that they included newspaper clippings, among other things, but said he did not have them at hand. The RSS had long wanted to start a youth organisation, he explained, and “the first meeting to discuss the formation of the ABVP was held on 13 June 1948, at DAV College in Ambala. The ABVP’s logo and name, and the basic tenets of its constitution, were decided on that day.”
Other significant decisions were taken well ahead of the organisation’s registration too, Shriniwas told me, not least that the ABVP, in addition to students, would also take in teachers and academics. “The leftists have a trade-union kind of ‘constant struggle’ feeling in their organisations,” he said. “We did not want that. We wanted to build the ABVP as family of students, teachers and educationists.” It was also decided “that we will never lust for power. We were clear that we were here for nation-building, and nation-building is possible only by building national character in students. … The ABVP will be above party politics. We will participate in local, national and international issues of political importance, we will lead the debate in the country and we will intervene when required. But we will always keep the ABVP above party politics.”
THE ABVP GOT A BIG FILLIP, Shriniwas told me, with the Indo–Pakistani War of 1965. “There was a lot anxiety in the country due to the war, and by now the ABVP had a nationwide structure in place. A natural wave of patriotism spread across the country, and we entered the national public sphere then, at the right time.” In early 1966, “a very important meeting of the ABVP took place,” where the group formulated the slogan “Student power is not nuisance power, student power is national power.”
Also in 1966, the ABVP started what went on to be one of its most talked-about projects—Students’ Experiences in Interstate Living, or SEIL. This exchange programme, active to this day, sends students from the Northeast on tours to the rest of India, and vice versa, and has visiting students spend several days living with a local host family.
“It’s important that the people of the Northeast can connect with the rest of India and that the rest of India can connect with them,” Sunil Ambekar told me when we met in Delhi. SEIL began in the early years of the Northeast’s protracted insurgency, and continued through the decades of upheaval that followed. “If the Northeast is at risk, then the security of the whole country is at risk. That is why a project like SEIL, which is still on after five decades, can be considered the highest point in the journey of the ABVP.”
The ABVP’s next big step came with the Emergency, imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975. Shriniwas called it a devappati—a blessing in disguise. “It exposed the Congress, and it exposed Indira-ji, and it was a testing time for our country,” he told me. In the run-up to the Emergency, the independence hero and social activist Jayaprakash Narayan had been leading a student movement against corruption and misrule in Bihar. It was around Narayan and his movement—with the ABVP entrenched in it—that popular resistance coalesced after Indira seized absolute power. That resistance was vital to the Emergency being lifted in 1977.
All the ABVP leaders I interviewed claimed that the organisation played a huge role in fostering the movement—even though, they complained, it had never received due credit. According to Shriniwas, the ABVP was already at the forefront of student agitation before the Emergency, with demands that included lowering the legal voting age from 21 to 18, and starting a national nuclear-arms programme. Shriniwas was especially proud of the latter demand, and told me, “We were the first one in India to make this demand openly.”
Govindacharya told me that, during his time as a senior pracharak in Bihar in the first half of the 1970s, he and Ram Bahadur Rai, then a top ABVP leader in Patna and later a noted Hindi journalist, had been instrumental in Narayan’s rise to the leadership of the resistance. In 1974, Narayan, disillusioned with the country’s politics, was living largely in isolation in his village in Bihar. In March that year, Govindacharya said, he and Rai arrived in Narayan’s village and convinced him to lead the growing student movement. After the Emergency began, “I somehow escaped arrest and developed a working rapport with Jayaprakash-ji that continued until 1977.”
“Ram Bahadur Rai was the organising secretary of the ABVP then, and Govindacharya was the lead pracharak for the Patna division,” Rajkumar Bhatia told me. He also spoke of Patna University, a crucial site of student activism and resistance at the time. Lalu Prasad Yadav, the future chief minister of Bihar, “was the president of the student union of Patna University, but he was a socialist then,” Bhatia said. The two highest office-bearers of the union below him, Sushil Modi and Ravi Shankar Prasad, were both from the ABVP. “These people built the movement in Bihar,” Bhatia continued, but while Narayan and Yadav received considerable attention, the ABVP and its stalwarts never did.
Still, Bhatia said, the anti-Emergency movement “established the ABVP in India. The media and historians sidelined us, but we developed a base throughout India during this time.”
“It normally takes decades for countries to come out of a situation like this, but in India, due to resistance by forces like the RSS and the ABVP, we came out of Emergency very early,” Shriniwas said. “Since the ABVP works quietly, without individual names attached to the work, a large number of our members could evade arrest and help in the resistance.”
A number of today’s top BJP leaders were part of the ABVP during the JP Narayan movement and the Emergency, and have used this involvement to boost their credentials and careers. They include Arun Jaitley, the current minister of finance and corporate affairs, and M Venkaiah Naidu, presently the vice president. Many other BJP leaders have risen up from the ranks of the ABVP too: for instance, Nitin Gadkari, a former party president and now a cabinet minister; Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Devendra Fadnavis, both chief ministers; the cabinet ministers Ravi Shankar Prasad and Jagat Prakash Nadda; and Vijay Goel and Anant Kumar, currently ministers of state.
For a few years after the Emergency, the ABVP stepped away from student elections. According to Bhatia, “We realised that we first needed to streamline the organisation. But we came back to elections by 1982.”
In 1982, Shriniwas told me, the ABVP held its first vichar baithak, a conference for strategic planning and critical reflection that it has since held every four years. “We scan the changes in society, at the national and international level, and then decide how to act,” Shriniwas told me. The conference draws together several dozen ideologues and leaders from the RSS and its affiliates. “The vichar baithak was a milestone in our history,” Shriniwas said. “It gave us a structure and a mechanism for organising ourselves better, and for responding to the changing environment. This makes us the most relevant student organisation in India.”
With that, the ABVP’s projects began to hew particularly close to the RSS’s agenda. In the early 1980s, with several RSS affiliates stoking anxieties over a supposed tide of Bangladeshi infiltrators, the ABVP led a movement demanding action on the issue. As the Ram Janmabhoomi movement gathered momentum, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the ABVP backed it as well. “Ram has been an integral part of our culture for thousands of years,” Shriniwas told me. “So we took a stand in the movement.”
In the approach to the 1989 general election, the ABVP helped publicise the Bofors corruption scandal that was undermining the incumbent Congress administration under Rajiv Gandhi. “Rajiv Gandhi had this image of a modern, clean politician who was doing new things,” Shriniwas told me, “so it was not easy to say anything against him. VP Singh was the first man who had the courage to take on the mighty Gandhis. So once he made the allegations of corruption against Rajiv Gandhi, we stood behind him, campaigning against Bofors and organising student forces against the Congress. The result was that the Congress, which won the previous election with a historic mandate, lost terribly.” VP Singh replaced Rajiv as the prime minister at the head of a fractious coalition that briefly had the BJP’s support. That support ended within less than a year, after the government tried to rein in Ram Janmabhoomi activists, and Singh resigned.
One of Singh’s main initiatives while in office was to implement recommendations of the Mandal Commission, which had earlier advocated, among other things, reserved seats in educational institutions and the government for disadvantaged social groups, including oppressed castes. This sparked massive protests across much of the country, particularly on university campuses. The RSS was among the groups that vehemently opposed the recommendations. The political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot, in his book Religion, Caste and Politics in India, quotes an August 1990 issue of Organiser, the RSS’s English-language mouthpiece: “The havoc the politics of reservation is playing with the social fabric is unimaginable. It proves a premium for mediocrity and encourages brain drain and sharpens caste-divide.” He also quotes a May 1994 issue of Organiser: “There is today an urgent need to build up moral and spiritual forces to counter any fall-out from an unexpected Shudra revolution.”
Ambekar, however, claimed that the organisation never campaigned against the Mandal recommendations. “We have faced severe criticism for it, but the ABVP has always supported caste-based reservations,” he told me. “That’s our only official position on reservation.” Shriniwas claimed that when a “new divisive force arose in the form of the Mandal Commission,” the ABVP supported reservations, despite facing much criticism for it, because it did not want to see discord on campuses.
Around this time, Shriniwas told me, the ABVP also started a “Chalo Kashmir” movement to oppose the exodus of Hindus from the Kashmir Valley in the face of targeted violence by separatist militants. He claimed that at the height of the Kashmiri insurgency, in 1990, thousands of ABVP volunteers from all over India converged on the valley. “We were threatened and told that we will be bombed if we dared to move beyond Jammu,” Bhatia said. The volunteers carried on anyway, he claimed, and hoisted the Indian flag at Srinagar’s iconic Lal Chowk. The ABVP website, however, tells a different story. Under a list of “major events,” it says that a “Kashmir Bachao Andolan” in 1990 involved a nationwide closure of colleges and “a mammoth demonstration of more than ten thousand students at Jammu on Sept. 11.” A few days after that, it continues, “Prime Minister V.P.Singh was entrusted the National Flag, which he promised to hoist at Lal Chowk in Srinagar.”
Through the 1990s and into the new millennium, the ABVP continued its on-campus activism, particularly around provocative issues such as Kashmir and the ostensible invasion of illegal immigrants. In late 2008, Ambekar told me, ABVP volunteers travelled to Jalpaigudi, in West Bengal, to call for action against supposed “infiltrators” from nearby Bangladesh. Shriniwas told me that the ABVP benefitted greatly from its work on these issues, as it helped “expand our mass base and develop credibility among students.”
The ABVP held its 2010 vichar baithak in Ranchi. Shriniwas was among the participants. Much of the planning done at the conference was centred on the next general election, in 2014. It was decided that the ABVP’s pre-election strategy, like that of myriad RSS-affiliated groups, would focus heavily on allegations that the incumbent Congress government, under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, was complicit in corruption. Shriniwas described how, at the time, Singh was seen as a quiet, upright leader. “But we said that he cannot escape responsibility for the widespread corruption in the country,” he said. “We organised young people to dismantle the mister-clean image of Manmohan Singh.” He recited one of the ABVP’s slogans for this, which pointed to the Congress’s senior leadership and a “black storm” of corruption: “Manmohan, Rahul, Sonia Gandhi, bhrastachar ki kali andhi.”
Shriniwas claimed that the ABVP brought more than two million students out to the streets for anti-corruption demonstrations against the government. The media, he said, was fixated on other anti-corruption protests, particularly ones in Delhi, and “did not cover us, but when the time came voters showed everyone that they are standing on our side.”
The BJP won the 2014 election with the first single-party majority in three decades. The ABVP got its share of rewards. Some of the group’s functionaries were absorbed into the party. Sunil Bansal, who was at the forefront of the ABVP’s anti-corruption demonstrations, is now the BJP’s general secretary for Uttar Pradesh, and was among those entrusted with running the party’s successful legislative-assembly campaign in the state earlier this year. The ABVP claimed that, with the help of a concerted membership drive, its numbers shot up. According to figures announced by the organisation in 2015, it recruited roughly a million new members in the year immediately after the BJP’s victory, to record a total membership of 3.2 million. It also claimed a presence at 20,000 of the 35,000 accredited colleges in the country.
THE BJP’S SWEEPING WIN in 2014, and the tide of Hindutva that accompanied it, put the ABVP in an unprecedented position. Besides its soaring popularity, the organisation now enjoyed the backing of state power on the national level to a degree unmatched even under the first BJP-led government, between 1998 and 2004, when a relatively less belligerent nationalism and a more broad-based coalition politics prevailed. It also found itself with popular discourse firmly on its side, and with the media, increasingly aligned with the ruling powers, largely sympathetic to it.
All of this gave the ABVP, so long confined to a role beyond the limelight, extraordinary licence to exercise its politics. And the results of that have since been clear to see.
In January 2016, the Dalit student Rohith Vemula hanged himself in a hostel room at the University of Hyderabad, where he had been pursuing a PhD. Vemula and four other Dalit students, all members of an Ambedkarite student group, had recently been barred from their hostels over an incident tracing back to a confrontation with the campus chapter of the ABVP. In August 2015, ABVP members at Delhi University had forcibly stopped a public screening of an investigative documentary on anti-Muslim violence in the Uttar Pradesh district of Muzaffarnagar in 2013. Vemula and his fellows organised a demonstration against the ABVP’s actions. The previous month, they had already drawn the ABVP’s ire when, in keeping with the Ambedkarite opposition to capital punishment, they protested the execution of Yakub Memon, convicted of involvement in the 1993 Mumbai bombings. Now, the head of the ABVP at the University of Hyderabad, Nandanam Susheel Kumar, described them as “goons” on Facebook. This led to a confrontation, in which Kumar claimed to have been physically assaulted. Vemula and his companions disputed the claim. Kumar’s family, which included several local BJP politicians, escalated complaints up a chain of BJP leaders that culminated in the minister of human-resource development. Under mounting political pressure, the university administration punished the five Dalit students.
Vemula’s suicide—and his treatment by the ABVP, the BJP and the university administration in the lead-up to it—caused outrage across the country, especially on campuses. Amid the heightened tensions, in February, students at Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University organised a protest against what they called the “judicial killings” of two executed men: Afzal Guru, convicted of involvement in the 2001 attack on the parliament, and Maqbool Bhat, a Kashmiri militant. The ABVP objected to the event, leading the JNU administration to revoke permission for it on short notice. The organisers went ahead regardless, leading to clashes. The ABVP later admitted that its activists had been present. In the aftermath, videos appearing to show protestors chanting what were termed “anti-national” slogans were circulated online, and on television. Three students were arrested on charges of sedition: the head of the university’s student union, from the student wing of the Communist Party of India, who spoke at the event; and two of the organisers, both former members of a radical leftist student group. They were later released on bail. Several of the videos that had escalated the controversy were discovered to have been doctored. An investigation by the university concluded that the contentious slogans at the event had been raised by unspecified “outsiders.” By then, the incident had already polarised the public, and many of the university’s students and professors, as well as their supporters, had been widely vilified as “anti-nationals.” Once again, the ABVP was at the centre of the controversy.
“Events like the suicide of Rohith Vemula should not happen on any campus,” Ambekar told me. “But only one incident of violence happened” on the Hyderabad campus, he continued, “and it was when Rohith Vemula went with his friends and beat the ABVP activist.” The university administration had subsequently taken “minimal” action against “the suspected students.” In Ambekar’s view, “the events at JNU in February clarified the Rohith Vemula case.” The students at Hyderabad had organised “not for the welfare of Dalits,” but to support “the terrorist Yakub Memon.”
The controversies in Hyderabad and Delhi drew greater scrutiny to the ABVP’s activities elsewhere. In the preceding year alone, ABVP activists had, among other things, vandalised a statue of the Catholic priest and educator Don Bosco in Guwahati, assaulted a leader of a rival student organisation in the town of Sikar, Rajasthan, been accused of assaulting the principal of a government college in Shimla, and been suspected of spurring the administration of the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai to “derecognise” a group called the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle. Shortly before Vemula’s suicide, a lecturer at Banaras Hindu University was dismissed after being accused of “anti-national” activity. He later wrote that the university’s decision was “based on rumours floated and sustained by the Sangh Parivar,” and described “irregularities going on in the BHU in terms of regular appointments of unqualified people associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) as faculty members and admission of undeserving students associated with the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).” During the controversy over Vemula’s death, the ABVP forced the cancellation of a seminar on “democracy, media and freedom of expression” organised by the student union at Allahabad University.
The level of controversy the ABVP’s actions achieved might have been new, but the organisation’s methods were not. In one notorious incident, in 2006, six ABVP volunteers were charged with the murder of a professor at a college in Ujjain, in Madhya Pradesh, after he cancelled a student election. All six were later acquitted. The professor’s family accused Madhya Pradesh’s BJP government of deliberately botching its investigation of the murder so as to shield the accused. In 2008, ABVP members stormed the history department at Delhi University while campaigning to have the essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas,” on the many existing versions of the epic, dropped from the curriculum. After further ABVP protests, in 2011 the university administration acceded.
In February this year, Delhi University witnessed another violent confrontation, and again the ABVP played a major part. A literary society at Ramjas College, which forms part of the university, invited two students closely involved in the 2016 controversy at JNU—including Umar Khalid, one of the three students arrested—to speak at a seminar on the “culture of protest.” The university’s student union, then dominated by the ABVP, objected, and the university administration cancelled the invitations. When students and faculty members gathered for a protest march, the campus became a battleground. At least 30 people were reported injured, and several journalists covering the event were roughed up. Eyewitnesses attributed the large majority of the violence to ABVP activists, and accused the police of having sided with them.
Two ABVP members enrolled at the university were subsequently arrested for assaulting a fellow student. In a press release, the ABVP said it had suspended them, and urged strict punishment.
The ABVP filed numerous police complaints accusing students and faculty members of “anti-national” activity. These were backed up by a petition filed by a Delhi-based BJP activist. In August, investigators submitted a report to a court stating that they could not confirm the authenticity of some of the videos submitted to them as evidence, and noted that these looked doctored.
The Ramjas College clashes, like the earlier controversy at JNU, served to polarise the population and vilify many students and faculty members at one of India’s premier universities. They also made one young man, then the head of the university’s ABVP chapter and student union, the most recognisable face of the newly invigorated ABVP.
I MET SATENDER AWANA on an evening in June, at the Delhi University campus in the north of the capital. The tall, slender 25-year-old was dressed in a black shirt and black trousers, and he welcomed me into the office of the Delhi University Students’ Union.
Awana joined the university in 2011, as an undergraduate at Bhagat Singh College. In his first year, as an independent candidate, he was elected the vice president of his college’s student union. His interest in the ABVP developed slowly from there, he said, and he began attending the organisation’s meetings. “I joined the ABVP because I felt that its members were different—honest and good people,” Awana told me. He made that choice despite his father, Rishipal Gujjar, being a politician with the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh.
“When I joined Delhi University, I met people from across party lines,” Awana said. At the office of the National Students’ Union of India, the student wing of the Congress, he saw “huge air conditioners and great infrastructure,” but also that “everything would happen according to the wishes of top Congress leaders.” At the ABVP office, “I saw that everybody was sitting on the floor, and they were talking about big ideas, like working for the glory of the country.” There were also discussions about Kashmir as an integral part of India. “They told us from day one that the ABVP is not here to make us leaders, but to encourage us to become true nationalists and good citizens.”
In contrast to the Congress’s control of the NSUI, Awana said, “the BJP or RSS never interfered with the ABVP.” And, he added, “the NSUI guys fill up their election posters with huge faces of Rahul Gandhi, but no ABVP poster ever has any BJP face on it.” In other student organisations, he continued, “the parent political party has a lot of say in deciding who will get the ticket to contest an election,” and the “recommendations of top leaders play a big role.” But in the ABVP, “the maximum will be that someone from the BJP will politely enquire about the possibility of a person being a candidate, and if the top leaders at the ABVP say no, the matter is closed then and there.”
In 2015, as a law student, Awana was elected the student-union president. One of his campaign slogans was reportedly “Fortuner me rawana, Satender Awana”—a reference to him driving around in an expensive SUV. The ABVP won all four top union seats that year. This was a repeat of its performance in 2014, when it achieved that feat for the first time in almost two decades.
Awana said that the ABVP was obeying popular demand when it took a stand on the Ramjas College seminar. The main issue, he told me, was the invitation to Umar Khalid. “He is facing charges of sedition in court, why should he be invited for a seminar on the ‘culture of protest’? No one understood that the majority of the common students of Ramjas did not want the event to take place.”
According to Awana, he had no part in the first complaint to the administration, which he said came from members of the student government. But when the administration turned them away, he said, “they approached me. Some students were scared of the teachers who were involved in the event, and feared rustication if they took an open stand.”
Awana described a meeting with the college administration. “I am saying this to the media for the first time,” he said. “I asked them who will take responsibility for those people who, emotionally, do not want Umar Khalid speaking at Ramjas. In case something happens, you will all say that the ABVP is responsible. First the principal expressed helplessness, but I explained that he should weigh the situation and the consequences that might follow if Umar Khalid is allowed to speak. Later he understood, and cancelled the invitation.”
The protests that followed, in Awana’s eyes, unfairly singled out the ABVP. “They targeted neither the college administration, nor the university’s vice chancellor. … They all had posters against the ABVP ready, along with their dhaplis”—tambourines. “Even if the principal did it under the pressure of the ABVP, that is not our fault. But they targeted us, and started shouting ‘Bastar mange azadi, Kashmir mange azadi’”—Bastar wants liberty, Kashmir wants liberty.
When the ABVP acted against the protestors, Awana told me, the principal of Ramjas College tried to convince him and his fellows that it was not correct to stop others from speaking their minds. “I told him to look at the anti-India slogans that these people have been shouting,” he said. If they were proven not to have shouted them, he continued, “the ABVP is ready to give them a written apology. But until then, they should not be allowed to speak.”
Awana accused Shehla Rashid, the second student invited from JNU, of trying to force her way onto the campus and speak even without the administration’s permission. “They call us fascist but actually they are fascist. They were forcing themselves inside the Ramjas campus and were not listening to anyone, not even the police. They wanted to build a narrative in the media and to portray us as violent dictators who do not believe in the constitution.”
I heard complaints about a bias against the ABVP in the media—the English-language media in particular—from many of the organisation’s members. Saket Bahuguna, the ABVP’s national media convener, told me that, with the Ramjas incident, since videos of “anti-national sloganeering” by the protestors only came out on the day after the confrontation, “in the meantime, very cleverly, the left built a narrative in the media saying that ABVP goons beat up students.” The front page of the Delhi edition of The Hindu carried a photograph of the Ramjas violence with a caption stating that students marching in protest to a police station near the campus “were attacked by ABVP members, who broke through a human chain formed by police.” But the person pictured with a swinging fist at the centre of the image was the head of the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The newspaper later deleted the caption online. This incident was brought up in over a dozen of my interviews as evidence of a media conspiracy against the ABVP. “It has become fashionable to portray the ABVP as beating others,” Awana told me. “Leftists have come into the media, and they bring their sympathies.”
Awana appeared on numerous television programmes after the events at Ramjas College to explain the ABVP’s position. In March, an old video of him berating the dean of Delhi University’s law faculty went viral. The dean, in keeping with the university’s rules, had refused to allow students with low attendance to sit for exams. In the video, Awana, with a sidekick beside him and police officers standing nearby, tells her, “Aap rashtrapati hai? Victoria hai? … Agar tu soch rahi hai tu akalmand hai toh sare akalmand hai. Buddhi mat lagaiyo jyada.” (Are you the president? Are you Queen Victoria? … If you think that you’re smart, all of us here are smart. Don’t think too much.) He insists that all students, regardless of attendance, will get to take exams. “Ya toh apna bhavishya kharab karke jayegi, ya jahan pahunchegi wahan kharab ho jayegi. Dhamki samajh liyo isko chahe kuch samajh liyo.” (Either you will destroy your future here, or it will be destroyed wherever you end up. You can consider that a threat or whatever you like.)
Awana’s time as the president of the student union was also marked by another notorious incident. In January 2016, Awana and a few other ABVP members hounded a reporter and a cameraman off the Delhi University campus. The journalists had been interviewing students for a story on attitudes towards sexual consent. Awana and his companions abused them, accused them of spreading immorality, and roughed up the cameraman.
Awana’s tenure ended in 2016. In that year’s election, the ABVP retained the post of president, and lost one of the top four seats to a rival group.
EVEN SOME PROMINENT veterans of the ABVP—themselves far from pacifist in their student days—have been taken aback by the organisation’s present incarnation.
“The ABVP is a front organisation of the RSS, and is completely controlled by the Sangh,” Sri Ram Khanna, a former ABVP member and president of the Delhi University Students’ Union, told me. “This is the only truth.”
Khanna said that it took him some years in the organisation “to fully realise the depth of their bond.” In 1971, he was elected the president of the student union at the Sri Ram College of Commerce. The next year, Khanna was elected the president of the university student union. Several of the ABVP leaders I spoke to remembered his victory as the organisation’s first major breakthrough in campus politics on the national stage.
His tenure is remembered for the longest student strike in the university’s history. “We used to protest and take up student issues from across Delhi,” Khanna said. Some students of the Delhi College of Engineering were complaining of being intentionally failed. In November 1972, Khanna led a Delhi University Students’ Union protest on the issue in front of Delhi’s old secretariat. “I was very young, around 21, without any experience in controlling crowds. The rally turned into a mob, and everything went out of my hands. Students were throwing chairs and tables at the vice chancellor’s office.” Khanna said he did not participate in the destruction of property, but he and four others were rusticated for their roles in the protest. The ABVP called a university-wide strike demanding that the rustications be withdrawn. The ruling Congress, Khanna said, wanted to teach the ABVP a lesson, and pressured the administration to stand firm. The ABVP refused to back down too. The strike shut down the university’s campus in north Delhi for a month and a half, he told me. It was eventually defused with a compromise, but the suspended students lost an academic year anyway.
Khanna remained with the ABVP through the Emergency, but in 1980 he quit the organisation and left politics for good. He went on to work as a professor at Delhi University, and today runs a consumer-rights magazine. “I lost an academic year, and after the Emergency it took me three years to find a job,” he told me. “No one gave me any work because of my ABVP background. So, overall, I lost four years of my life for working in the ABVP.”
By the time he left the ABVP, Khanna said, he “felt uncomfortable with their idea of India.” When the Ram Janmabhoomi movement culminated in the demolition of Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid by Hindutva activists in 1992, he added, “I felt that I did the right thing by leaving them ten years earlier. Somehow I could see the Ram Mandir movement coming.” He noted that “they hate the constitution, because it’s secular and democratic,” and that the ABVP still uses the “old unified map of India.”
The issue of the map, and the Ram Mandir, also came up in my interview with Saket Bahuguna. “The nation is an ideological concept for the Sangh,” he said. “We believe the nation is a cultural entity that transcends boundaries. In keeping with that, the Sangh includes the whole of Pakistan, parts of Tibet including Manasarovar, and Bangladesh in the map of India. That does not mean we want to occupy these lands, by any means. This map has no political meanings.”
The movement to build a temple to Ram on the site of the Babri Masjid, Bahuguna told me, “can be conservative for a few people, but for us it’s very progressive. It’s an act of establishing the identity of my country, and I take great pride in it.” Awana told me, “It’s sad that we haven’t yet been able to build the Ram Mandir in our own country.” He compared the situation to not being able to build a room in your own house. “If you cannot build a room for Ram in your own house, then how can it be your own house?”
Bahuguna added, “It might be fashionable in England to talk about Scotland’s freedom. In the United States, people sometimes wear the flag of their country on their underwear, or have it on doormats. But this cannot happen in India. We have different sensibilities. In India, to talk about breaking this country into pieces is blasphemous. It’s blasphemous by our constitution as well.” Leftist groups might invoke Ambedkar, “but Ambedkar made the constitution of this country, and he would have been very angry at these people if he had been alive today.” The left, Bahuguna continued, was trying to separate Hindus into Dalits and members of dominant castes. By contrast, “the ABVP is working for the unity of all Hindus—and in this I include Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists.”
Khanna’s contributions to the ABVP included mentoring two members who went on to achieve national celebrity. First among them was Arun Jaitley, the current minister of finance and corporate affairs, who was one of Khanna’s juniors. “I took him in my team and slowly inducted him into the ABVP,” Khanna said. “We worked hard to convince the top leadership to give him the presidential ticket in 1973.” The second, who was also part of Khanna’s team, was Prabhu Chawla—the president of the ABVP’s Delhi University unit during Khanna’s presidency, and now the editorial director at the New Indian Express after a long career at India Today magazine.
“Jaitley was brought in to present a more liberal and sophisticated face of the ABVP,” Chawla told me. Jaitley did not receive the ABVP’s nomination for president in 1973, but the next year he did, and won the election. “I remember we all worked very hard during his campaign. I would drive while he would ride pillion on my small scooter, and we would roam the university asking for votes.” It is now established lore that the 1974 Delhi University election is the only one that Jaitley, who has since contested and lost numerous elections for government office, ever won in his life—and that, Chawla added, “on the scooter of Prabhu Chawla.”
Chawla joined the ABVP, he told me, because its members and leaders “were down-to-earth, simple people,” whereas the left typically drew its leadership from the dominant-caste elite. In the 1970s, he said, the ABVP’s “nationalistic take on Kashmir helped it to gain followers across universities.”
During the long strike under Khanna’s presidency, Chawla recalled, “we were very aggressive and rebellious, we literally brought the whole city to a standstill for months.” But, he said, “During those years, the ABVP never came across as a Hindutva or hyper-nationalistic organisation. We were all more anti-left than hyper-Hindu, because we believed the left was anti-democratic.” The left, he added, was also different at the time. “Yes, they would shout and protest about the suppression of the proletariat, would talk about equal wages, class conflict and whatnot. But we would never hear any anti-India slogans on campuses. The leftist student groups were cynical about the establishment, but they were not cynical about India like they are today.”
The ABVP, Chawla continued, “would beat the hell out of the hypocritical explanations and ideas put forward by the left in colleges.” But, “outside campus, we would sit and have chai, we would smile, shake hands. We were friends also. It was not acidic like today.”
Of course, there are many ABVP veterans who remain firmly behind the organisation. Rakesh Sinha, a Delhi University professor and RSS stalwart, and lately also a popular television pundit, vehemently defended the ABVP’s conduct in the Ramjas and JNU controversies. “The intellectual elites might be with the left, but the masses are with the ABVP,” he told me. “This is an important juncture, where the ABVP’s influence has grown and it has made nationalism a part of the mainstream discourse.”
Sinha said that Umar Khalid, who was invited to speak at the Ramjas College event, “represents the anti-India sentiments of Kashmiri separatists. So ABVP’s action was completely justified. I condemn the violence. The violence was wrong, and the ABVP was wrongly blamed for the violence by the media.”
Sinha joined Delhi University as a student in the mid 1980s, and went on to serve as one of the ABVP’s top leaders there. The story of his career in the organisation offers an example of the kind of determination that allowed the ABVP to survive and grow during its lean early years. While aged just 14, and studying in the eighth grade at Netarhat Vidyalaya in what is now Jharkhand, Sinha decided to start an ABVP chapter at his school. He wrote to the ABVP in Patna, asking for a pack of membership receipts. “Since Netarhat is a very prestigious and highly disciplined school, ABVP leaders in Patna were apprehensive that some action might be taken against me if I opened an ABVP unit there,” Sinha told me. “They did not send me the receipts.” So Sinha wrote to Sushil Modi, then in charge of the ABVP in Patna. Still, he did not get the membership receipts. “Then I wrote back to them accusing them of being influenced by the communists. After this they finally sent me a book of 250 membership receipts, and I was able to start an ABVP unit in Netarhat.”
Sinha later started a signature campaign at the school to demand that the library subscribe to the RSS mouthpieces Panchjanya and Organiser. In 1979, not yet 16 years old, he travelled through what was then still Bihar to collect signatures and thumbprints from some 6,000 people in opposition to the state’s decision to make Urdu its official second language.
At Delhi University, Sinha said, he was discriminated against. “The professors would make me run around from the political-science department to the history department, but no one would take me despite my qualifications because my spoken English was not that polished.” When the time came for hostel assignments, Sinha was not given a room “because English marks were accepted for hostel allotments, but not Sanskrit marks.” He wrote a piece in Panchjanya to complain, which was republished by a Hindi daily. The matter was then raised as a question in parliament. After that, “the warden came looking for me to give me my hostel room.”
Sinha was very much in an ideological minority at his hostel. When he opposed the unfortunate tradition of ragging first-year students, he recalled, the abuses thrown at him included “Deoras ki aulad” and “Vajpayee ke nati”—a “spawn” of Madhukar Dattatraya Deoras, the head of the RSS at the time, and a “grandchild” of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the BJP leader and future prime minister.
In his second year at university, Sinha ran the Hindu College magazine. He “wrote a piece on secularism, and quoted the RSS,” and was confronted by angry students from a communist group. “I said that I have given the RSS’s point of view, I have not criticised the communists,” Sinha said. The students responded to his piece by submitting one of their own, but “they wrote a critique of the RSS, so I did not publish it in the magazine.” The disgruntled students clashed with the ABVP, and Sinha was thrown out of his hostel. He went on a hunger strike to protest. It ended with a compromise that allowed Sinha back into the hostel, but barred him from participating in elections.
Sinha went on to write a master’s thesis. In his thesis defense, he said, he was asked just one question: “What is the difference between me and Nathuram Godse?” Despite a sterling academic record, Sinha told me, “I was humiliated through three dozen interviews for teaching jobs.”
Sinha’s loyalty to the RSS never wavered. He later wrote a biography of KB Hedgewar, the RSS’s founder.
He dismissed the accusation that the ABVP was suppressing freedom of speech on campuses as “the reinforcement of an old leftist narrative.” Earlier, he said, “they used to call us fascists in their literature, now they are saying it on the roads. They are doing this because they are not able to counter the narrative of nationalism which is dominant in the country today.”
I REACHED BANARAS HINDU UNIVERSITY, in Varanasi, early on 15 August, Independence Day. In the morning light, clusters of young men drove along the wide, well-kept avenues of the campus on motorbikes, waving the national flag and saffron banners side by side, often with tricolour or saffron headbands to match. They gathered at intersections to thrust the flags up in the air and chant “vande mataram.” This went on into late afternoon, and the chants punctuated my interview tapes for the day.
BHU is one of the oldest seats of the ABVP, as well as of the RSS. In the words of Koushal Kishor Mishra, a professor of political science at the university and a “proud” supporter of the Sangh, the “roots of all this” go back to the very founding of the institution, in 1916, by the educationist and Congress leader Madan Mohan Malviya. “All the old Indian institutions of higher learning … were systematically destroyed by foreign invaders,” Mishra told me. “No one thought of how Indians will receive higher education, not even the British.” But Malviya “had the vision to believe that India would be free, and that we would need universities for the task of nation-building.” BHU was the result of his vision.
I saw framed posters of Malviya everywhere I went on the BHU campus—from every departmental and professorial office to every shop and photocopy kiosk.
According to Mishra, “the pure waters of the Ganga” were on Malviya’s mind “while deciding the final venue” of the university. Initial proposals called for the naming the institution “Banaras Vishwavidalaya” or “Kashi Vishwavidalaya,” he continued, but Malviya “said that this country belongs to Hindus, so there should be ‘Hindu’ in the name of the university. … Those who live here, in Hind, are all Aryans, and they are not outsiders. Malviya-ji knew this, and that is why he named our university Kashi Hindu Vishwavidyalaya.” Malviya, Mishra told me, “was a friend of Hedgewar, and would often attend Sangh events.” When the university was formed, Hedgewar told Malviya that “since the Sangh is not a political organisation and works towards inculcating nationalism in students, it should be given some space at BHU. Malviya-ji agreed,” and a “Sangh Bhawan” was erected on the campus.
The record of student politics in BHU is patchy, with exceedingly little documentation. By the best information I could get—from interviews with the university’s professors, students and graduates—it all began with the formation of a student parliament. The election for a student-body president was held in 1952, but it involved an indirect vote, with candidates nominated by each class selecting the winner. By 1957, the student parliament had morphed into the Banaras Hindu University Students’ Union, and on-campus politics boomed as a direct election for it was held that year.
In 1965, several interviewees claimed, the ABVP led student opposition to a bill before the national parliament proposing to drop the word “Hindu” from the university’s name. “That was the first movement in which I participated as an ABVP volunteer,” Ram Bahadur Rai, a prominent ABVP activist between 1965 and 1979, who went on to have a long career in journalism, said. Rai currently heads the board of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in Delhi, where we met. “The face of this movement was the ABVP, but the actual force behind the rallies was the RSS,” he said. “The movement became so popular that student leaders from across party lines came forward to support it,” including followers of the socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia, who were a formidable part of politics at BHU.
Mishra remembered this as the “Hindu Bachao” movement, and said “Lohia and his socialists were protesting with us. … This tells us that Lohia’s socialism was a nationalist socialism. He was anti-communal and supported secularism, but the Ganga and the Ramayana were at the centre of his secular politics.” The movement, he added, “gave birth to important socialist student leaders of that time.”
Also in the 1960s, several ABVP veterans told me, the organisation rallied to demand that Hindi be declared the national language. “This whole movement in northern India was actually led by Ram Manohar Lohia,” Rai said, but the ABVP “led a movement in BHU. … In this way, we became a student organisation on the level of Lohiya’s SYS”—Samajwadi Yuvjan Sabha—“and we started representing the politics of the opposition among students.”
Rai described another student agitation, in the early 1970s, that led to him leaving the university. The university’s vice chancellor at the time, he said, “was a leftist.” The ABVP “demanded his resignation because he was trying to establish a communist agenda in BHU. We started a movement, and 46 of us were rusticated immediately.” According to Rai, 44 of these students apologised and were allowed back. He was not one of them.
A rare written account of these events, written by the journalist NK Singh and published in the Economic and Political Weekly in March 1973, put forward much more detail about politics in BHU at the time. Singh wrote:
After two months of closure, the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) reopened on February 5. The campus, India’s largest, was closed sine die on December 2, 1972, after some 20 days of widespread violence, arson, looting, and assault on students and teachers. In fact, periodic closures have become a habit at BHU. The latest one was the fourth indefinite closure to have taken place in the last four years. … Indeed, a political tug of war is very much in evidence. The Vice-Chancellor, K L Shrimali—one time Congress Minister—the University authorities, faculty members, and citizens of Banaras belonging to the CPI and Congress, have all openly blamed the RSS and its students wing, the Vidyarthi Parishad, for the current state of affairs on the campus. The VC charge-sheeted 34 students for alleged indulgence in violence and later expelled some of them; a majority of the 34 belong to the RSS-controlled Vidyarthi Parishad and Samajbadi Yuvjan Sabha (SYS).
Singh described the background against which “the current agitation needs to be seen”:
Nearly four years ago, in 1968-69, the highly politicized campus of BHU had been in similar turmoil on account of the RSS; but with a difference. At that time it was the progressive students who were unitedly fighting against the pro-RSS VC, Amarchand Joshi. … In 1968-69, the students were fighting for demolition of RSS Bhawan on the campus. Today, the main covert reason for the pique of the RSS boys is said to be precisely the move of the VC to demolish the RSS office.
There is no escaping to the fact that, whatever its self-appointed role, the RSS is the main subject of controversy on the trouble-torn campus. And BHU is known to be the strongest base of the RSS-patronised Vidyarthi Parishad. The RSS maintains an office, and conducts 14 shakhas on the premises of the University. … In 1948, after Gandhi’s assassination, the RSS was asked to vacate the building; but in 1950, they managed to get permission to reoccupy it.
When, in 1968-69, there was a massive anti-RSS agitation in the University, demanding inter alia demolition of RSS Bhawan, the government had appointed a commission of inquiry … The Commission not only recommended demolition of the RSS building but also suggested a ban on RSS shakhas on the premises of the campus.
Since 1970, Singh wrote, the university had witnessed a steady escalation of violence. In March that year, “A student was stabbed; the VC suspended two students; RSS leaders led violent demonstrations on the campus which finally led to the closure of the university.” In August 1971, “RSS storm-troopers assaulted yet another student. The VC again expelled about a dozen RSS and anti-social students.” After “the RSS and its allies were trounced” in a 1971 election, the new student-union president was murdered, “and it is an RSS stalwart … who is standing trial in court.” Following an inquiry, “29 RSS and SYS boys were either expelled or rusticated from the university.” In 1972, “A Harijan student was beaten up for daring to fight the election of the hostel union.”
The article also said that in “a further attempt to stir up students, the RSS started propaganda that the Central Government was considering introduction of a bill in Parliament with a view to depriving the university of its traditional ‘Hindu’ character.” These attempts failed, it added, but “RSS students in collaboration with expelled students and other outsiders” continued to hold unauthorised meetings on campus and disrupt the university’s work.
In conclusion, the article stated, “An analysis of the events does lead one to believe that BHU is part of a larger political plan.” Since the Jan Sangh, the RSS’s political front at the time, “was trounced in the 1972 Assembly elections, it has been trying to create trouble using one pretext or another even creating a pretext where none exists. … The Delhi University where the union is in the hand of RSS-controlled Vidyarthi Parishad, is one such example. … The agitation is stoked up. Normalcy is disrupted, and the RSS gains strength in the process.”
Utpal Pathak, a veteran Varanasi journalist, also told me that BHU became part of a larger political game at the time. “In the early 1970s, organised crime was at a peak in Uttar Pradesh,” he said over coffee at a BHU canteen. “Student politics at BHU became trapped in the politicisation of crime and criminalisation of politics. In the fight for political domination, control over BHU was seen as crucial for control over a very large territory … because students could be used as point people to influence their caste groups and turn election results in their native districts and villages.”
During the Emergency, BHU, like universities across the country, saw a crackdown on student politics that put many activists in prison and drove others underground. The Sangh Bhawan was finally demolished.
By the late 1980s and through the 1990s, Pathak said, “the BHU campus was completely immersed in organised crime. Student hostels became refuges for criminals on the run. Large stashes of weapons used to be recovered from university premises. … Murders started to happen routinely, and political parties started patronising organised crime on the campus in order to garner votes.”
The turmoil led to multiple suspensions of student elections at BHU. The last ban came in 1997, and continues to this day. But heated political activism continues on the campus. Mishra told me that the university’s 14 shakhas continue to operate.
Despite the ABVP’s prominence at the university, a present student who asked not to be named told me, the organisation has always struggled for popularity at BHU. “The student union was largely ruled by socialists,” he told me. The ABVP, and the Congress’s student wing, he said, “do not want the student-union elections to start again,” because they know that if they do “the socialists will rule.”
Pathak reinforced this. “The ABVP has seen bad times on this campus because the socialists have given them tough competition,” he said. “They were almost dying here when the communal sparks in the early 1990s—the Ram Mandir, and the protests against the Mandal Commission—gave them a new life. The ABVP unit of BHU was active in the Ram Mandir movement. They were even involved in mobilising volunteers and directing them towards Ayodhya.”
One of the ABVP’s leaders at BHU through this period was Bhupendra Pratap Singh, who now teaches at the university. In 1994, he was elected the general secretary of the university’s student union.
Contradicting Govindacharya and Shriniwas’s claims that the organisation always supported reservations, Singh told me that during the Mandal Commission protests “BHU was burning, and we at the ABVP fought tooth and nail against the recommendations.” When Prime Minister VP Singh and one of his ministers, Sharad Yadav, visited the campus to defend reservations, “we threw stones at them and hurt them,” Singh said. “We were immediately arrested, but still our anti-reservation movement went on strong.” In October 1990, Rajiv Goswami, a student in Delhi, set himself on fire to protest the Mandal recommendations, setting off a wave of self-immolations across the county. “After him, the next two self-immolations happened in BHU,” Singh said.
ON 21 SEPTEMBER, on the BHU campus, a female student on her way back to her hostel after dark was groped by three men. When she complained to her hostel warden, the student later said, she was berated for being out late. The next morning, a large protest, comprised mostly of female students, gathered at the university’s main gate to demand action to improve women’s safety and address gender discrimination. The demonstrators complained of rampant sexual harassment. The protest continued into a second and then a third day, when it was violently dispersed by the police. With that, BHU’s treatment of female students became national news.
On my August visit to the university, I met Mineshi Mishra, an undergraduate student in her final year, and an unofficial leader of her fellow female undergraduates. She told me women on the campus felt unsafe, and listed numerous restrictive practices, including early curfews and a lack of internet access, that applied to female hostels but not male ones. The administration was discriminatory, she told me, even when it came to food. “Non-vegetarian food is served in boys’ hostels, but is not allowed for girls’ hostels,” she said.
I called Mishra in late September. She and some of her friends from BHU were in Delhi, to seek an appointment with the prime minister or any high official. “We just want to talk to them and tell them our problems,” Mishra said. “We tried talking to the dean of social welfare, to the warden, to the proctor and to the vice chancellor. But no one listened to us.” Even in Delhi, she continued, nobody had been willing to listen. When she and her friends tried protesting, they were detained by the police.
A few days after the women’s protest at BHU was dispersed, the ABVP held a demonstration against the police’s heavy-handedness. Ghanshyam Sahi, the head of the ABVP’s BHU unit, had told me in August that the “security of girls cannot be compromised.” Mishra, however, had told me that the ABVP “never stood by us. Contrary to supporting us, they were the one who were trolling us the most on social media.” She added that the ABVP behaves like the establishment on the campus. In September, she told me that at the time of the women’s protest, the ABVP “only tried to dilute the cause by dismissing it.” In my reporting for this story, it was only at the Agra event that I encountered a few women active in the ABVP. None of them had significant influence in the organisation. Of the 21 current “national office bearers” named on the ABVP website, only two are women.
In the 2017 election at Delhi University, the ABVP’s streak of winning the president’s seat was broken by its Congress-linked rival. Even so, the ABVP retained two of the four top posts. At JNU, where it last won a major student-union seat in 2015, the ABVP was frozen out of the top four spots by an alliance of leftist groups, just as it was last year. But the ABVP garnered the largest number of votes of any single student organisation.
One of the ABVP’s electoral candidates at JNU this year, for a councillor’s post, was a student named Ankit Roy. In October 2016, Najeeb Ahmed, a 27-year-old graduate student at the university, went missing from his hostel room, reportedly following a confrontation with three ABVP members. Roy was allegedly among the three involved. Six months of investigation by the police resulted in no progress, and no trace of Ahmed. This May, the case was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation.
In Varanasi, Bhupendra Pratap Singh had told me that, with the political climate as it was, the ABVP would no longer need to teach students to be nationalists as it had through its history. “Modi-ji ke raj me toh BHU kya, poore Bharat me har baccha paida hi nationalist hoga,” he said—Under Modi’s rule, forget about BHU, every child everywhere in Bharat will be born a nationalist.
Priyanka Dubey is a staff writer at The Caravan.