‘They were called grunts, and many of them, however grudgingly, were proud of the name. They were the infantrymen, the foot soldiers of the war’
- Bernard Edelman
In the present scenario, Edelman’s description of an American soldier can very well be used to sketch an outline of a Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) worker – if you replace grunts with ‘bhakts’ and war with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s cause (BJP).
Since the Narendra Modi-led government came to power at the Centre in May 2014, continuous attempts have been made to curb the voices from its rival political and ideological factions.
While different instruments of suppression – employed by the UPA government as well to contain the voice of dissent – are being employed by the present government, a rather new and unusual development has engulfed educational campuses across the nation.
ABVP, an all-India student organisation affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), now appears to be on a mission to muffle voices of dissent against the government and its policies.
Each time the opposition political outfits have threatened to make life difficult for the right-wing factions, the ABVP has successfully managed to detract their movement by putting them through the nationalist vs anti-national litmus test.
This becomes even more significant in the present scenario, as the Indian democracy is facing a serious drought of worthy opposition to the ruling party and its ideology. At such times, it becomes all the more important for universities to become spaces of free-thinking, that cultivate an atmosphere of critical thinking.
BJP clearly understands the power of student movements in India, for a number of its ministers – including Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, HRD Minister Prakash Javdekar and I&B Minister Venkaiah Naidu – have themselves emerged out of anti-emergency student movements. This government is very well aware of what a united students’ movement is capable of.
ABVP's role in national politics
Now let us put try and understand ABVP’s role in the grand scheme of things for BJP and its political agenda.
On 17 January, 2016, when Rohith Vemula, a PhD scholar from University of Hyderabad, committed suicide, the whole of the Opposition was united in its fight against the ruling BJP. Many factions of the political class and students of various universities blamed the BJP government for what they called was an ‘institutional murder’.
Five days after the incident, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was speaking at a convocation at Ambedkar University in Lucknow, three students raised slogans at the event to protest against the government's alleged involvement in Vemula's suicide.
Suddenly, the government found itself on a sticky wicket as the political temperature was soaring just before the Budget Session. How would the government face a united Opposition ahead of the Budget, especially since it was in minority in the Upper House?
Skip to 9 February, 2016, a day that opened the 'nationalist vs anti-national' debate wide open, after students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) were charged with sedition, at an event protesting the ‘judicial killing’ of Afzal Guru. It was the third year in a row that such an event was held within the university. But, this was seen as an opportune moment by ABVP, who then swung into action and turned the incident into a nation-wide debate.
We need not disseminate much into the matter, as the issue is still sub-judice. This whole episode gave BJP a new lease of life. The Opposition took the JNU bait and the Vemula incident was drowned in the vociferous 'anti-national' debate.
A nation ready to talk about SC/ST atrocities in educational institutions was now suddenly debating the intricacies of nationalism. This was exactly what the BJP was hoping for. Hyper nationalism is a familiar territory for the right-wing party and it launched an offensive against anyone in opposition by simply terming them as anti-national.
This nationalist, anti-national binary provided the perfect platform to the then minister of Human Resources Development Smriti Irani, who lambasted the Opposition in Parliament.
The violent clashes that broke outside Delhi University's Ramjas College recently are no different than the JNU row. It helped set the tone for BJP in the remaining phases of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. It must be noted here that ABVP didn’t play it as a protest against the JNU anti-nationals. If that were the case, then it would have tried to stop Kanhaiya Kumar and Anirban Bhattacharya from speaking at different events as well.
Interestingly, these two students have not been at the receiving end of ABVP's protests, while Umar Khalid, another student who faced sedition charges last year, was the central point of ABVP's Ramjas protest. One can only assume his ‘Muslim' name is the reason behind this discrepancy.
To keep its communal credentials intact among right-wing Hindu voters, the BJP needed to send across a strong message. Such a narrative – ABVP's protest against Khalid – helps the BJP consolidate its communal vote bank.
The Gurmehar Kaur dispute
Soon after the Ramjas incident became a hot topic for the media, the discussion took a rather ugly turn when a Lady Shri Ram College student, Gurmehar Kaur, became the central pivot of the debate.
Gurmehar, daughter of a Kargil martyr, had openly spoken against ABVP's violence on social media. Soon after a video shared by her went viral, Gurmehar was targeted on social media by ABVP supporters, with some even threatening her with rape, murder for her 'anti-national' views.
The Left, progressive and liberal voices quickly showed support for the student, asserting that they ‘stand with Gurmehar'. But their support was quickly remoulded as 'anti-Indian', which is exactly what BJP and ABVP had wanted. For the last one year or so, starting with the JNU incident, the ABVP has cleverly devised such debates for the benefit of its masters.
While liberal progressives are claiming that they have unmasked the hollow claims of ABVP-BJP’s respect for martyrs, what they don’t realise is that by bringing the incident into popular debate, the BJP has successfully brought back memories of Kargil. It must be noted that the Kargil victory had helped propel Atal Bihari Vajpayee to power.
Last year saw another incident of import - the mysterious disappearance of Najeeb Ahmad, a MSc student from JNU. Najeeb disappeared from campus on 15 October soon after he was beaten up by some ABVP members. Delhi Police is still clueless and have been unable to locate the student, even as the Delhi High Court has taken matters in its own hands.
The Students Islamic Organisation (SIO) and other student bodies have been organising countrywide protests against the police inaction in the case and over the impunity given to ABVP members after the attack.
But the Ramjas incident seems to have diluted if not diverted the centrality of Najeeb’s disappearance. A wide-scale student movement has now been silenced in the aftermath of the Ramjas fiasco.
From BJP’s perspective, this incident is as important as the JNU row, as it has once again shifted the focus along the communal and nationalistic lines that the party is comfortable with. The Opposition should understand the way it is again being coaxed and baited by the BJP through its foot soldiers – the ABVP cadre.
The author is a research scholar at JNU, New Delhi
Published Date: Mar 01, 2017 13:38 PM | Updated Date: Mar 01, 2017 13:38 PM