A day after India celebrated 70 years of being an independent nation, the Indian chapter of the NGO Amnesty International was slapped with sedition charges by Bengaluru Police for merely organizing a panel discussion in the city. The event “Broken Families,” organized by columnist Aakar Patel-chaired NGO, aimed to initiate a discussion about and amongst the Kashmiri people who have lost members of their families to alleged killings by the armed forces in the region.
Media reports suggest tension during the discussion which included senior journalist Seema Mustafa, president of Bengaluru Kashmiri Pandits’ Association RK Mattoo, and mother of Shahzad Khan – who was killed in the Machil encounter in 2010. A day after the indoor panel discussion, Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarti Parishad (ABVP), the student ideologue of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), took to the streets and protested the “anti-national” event organized by Amnesty, and filed a complaint with the Bengaluru Police, demanding they arrest the organizers for “threatening the security of the nation by organizing riotous event.” The city police file an FIR, promising swift action. The ABVP are still protesting, in front of various city colleges, and Amnesty will remain closed indefinitely, for now.
Rewind the calendar to the first week of August. Over 300 students, led by ABVP leader at Puducherry University staged a protest in front of the Student Welfare Dean’s office to ban the distribution of student-run magazine ‘Wider Stand,’ by burning copies of the same. The government-run institution succumbed to pressure from the Lieutenant Governor Kiran Bedi, and over 3000 copies of the magazines were kept in a sealed room. Angered by the restriction imposed on free speech, the Student Federation of India (SFI), along with the student council of Puducherry University staged a protest walk. 300-odd mob of ABVP activists allegedly attacked the protest walk. Some copies of the magazine were distributed as a sign of rebellion, but action against the ABVP activists? None were taken.
These two events are not just two standalones in the ABVP series. The right-wing student group has played a central role, influencing the storyline in many such episodes. From the suicide of Dalit-scholar Rohit Vemula, the disruption of the screening of TISS documentary ‘Caste on Menu’, voicing their concern to derecognize the Ambedkar Study Group in IIT-Madras, branding journalist Siddharth Varadarajan as a “Naxalite” and threatening violence if he was allowed to enter the Allahabad University, to the infamous Jawaharlal Nehru University row – the student saffron outfit has been the face of these controversies, instigating and intensifying them either directly or indirectly.
It was not until after the Bharatiya Janata Party assumed power in 2014, that the ABVP gained its position as an assertive student body, calling shots and setting agenda in universities across the country. As the self-appointed defender of the Narendra Modi government, the ABVP is the first to identify and brand “anti-nationals,” in one context or the other, and has been instrumental in restraining freedom of speech and expression in any form, if it challenged the ideologies of the parent body RSS.
Set up in 1949 to challenge the Leftist ideologies, today with over thirty-three lakh students, the ABVP is the largest student wing in India. The Sangh’s strategic approach has ensured that the body remains one of the very few that is politically backed, and has its wings spread across the academically-rich institutes of the country.
While ABVP started projecting itself as an assertive body after Modi took charge as the Prime Minister, the group has often been accused of resorting to violent practices to send across their messages. Experiences drawn from past incidents such as the assault of Professor Sabharwal in Ujjain show that filing a case against the ABVP does not work. Professor Sabharwal, the Vice Chancellor of the University was beaten up by the ABVP leaders after he appealed to the students to rasie funds for the flood hit victims.
Incidentally, reports suggest that the student body is the richest in India, with money flowing to the organisation not only through RSS-backed fund raisers but also directly in the form of donations. With the kind of money and muscle power that the ABVP yields, it is imperative that they play a crucial role in the decision making process of the respective universities and setting the agenda for discourse in the nation.
While one might expect a typical student group to raise and discuss issues pertaining to quality of education, and student amenities, the ABVP leaders “loses no opportunity to raise issues related to terrorism, illegal immigration from Bangladesh, national security, Chinese intrusion, ‘love jehad’, live-in relationships,” reads a Outlook report.
The organisation was successful in convincing the Delhi University to drop A.K. Ramanujam’s 300 Ramayanas from its B.A. text last year, and took to the streets of Jammu to protest the “imposition” of Urdu as a requirement for the appointment of tasildars in the state. Is the student wing, in the name of ideology curbing exchange of ideas? Does
The ABVP is no longer just another student organsiation. They have not only started dictating terms about educational discourse, but have also started curbing the freedom of thought and expression, and this ably backed by the ‘democratically’ elected government. With the university elections around the corner, especially the high profile Delhi University Student Union election slated to be held in September, one cannot help but wonder how threatening a stronger ABVP would be.