How the ABVP Brought the State into JNU

ABVP members take out protest march against the anti-national activities in JNU on 12 February. Ravi Choudhary/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
03 March, 2016

Last month, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) became the latest educational institution after Hyderabad Central University, and the Film and Television Institute of India to take a stand against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s right-wing politics. Against the backdrop of student dissent that has been brewing across the country for over a year now, JNU has emerged as a centre for the debate on nationalism. On 12 February 2016, the president of the JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU), Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested under the sections 124A and 120B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which refer to sedition and criminal conspiracy respectively. Kumar was arrested for allegedly shouting “anti-national” slogans at an event that was held in JNU on 9 February. As a number of JNU students confirmed, this event, condemning the hanging of Mohammad Afzal—convicted for his alleged role in the 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian parliament—was an annual affair at the university, and was fairly routine. However, this time, the JNU authorities—at the behest of the Akhil Bharati Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a student organisation affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—withdrew the permission for the event a little before the scheduled time.

Kumar was not the only student to be arrested. Two of the event’s organisers, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, were also charged with sedition. They surrendered themselves to police custody on 23 February. Meanwhile, Kumar was finally released on bail by the Delhi High Court last evening, after having to furnish an undertaking which stated that he would not participate “actively or passively in any activity which may be termed as anti-national,” and that “as President of JNU Student’s Union, he will make all efforts within his power to control anti-national activities in the campus.”

According to the former JNUSU president, Lenin Kumar, such events and the ABVP’s response are not a recent phenomenon. Yet—spurred by the unprecedented media attention and the active interest taken by the government—this was the first time since the Emergency that the police had entered the campus and arrested students. For students at JNU, these arrests signified that the ABVP—in league with the JNU administration, which allowed the police to enter the campus—had broken the traditional intra-campus deadlock and gotten its way at the cost of the institution by resorting to external force.

Many of the students and faculty agreed that JNU had faced a lot of negative press over the past year, and that most of it could be attributed to news leaks or propaganda disseminated through social media. Saurabh Sharma, an ABVP member and the joint secretary of JNUSU—who helped ABVP enter the JNUSU panel after 14 years with his victory last year—told me that he had invited the press on 9 February. The visitors’ register, a log book that is maintained by the security guards at JNU, indicated that two television journalists from Asian News International (ANI) and Zee News had entered the campus through Sharma’s reference that day. Both these channels were among the several that ran clips of a mob shouting “anti-national” slogans at the event on 9 February. The authenticity of these clips has since been called into question. Ten days later, on 19 February, Vishwa Deepak, a producer at Zee News, resigned from the channel citing its coverage of the protests at JNU. Deepak asked, in a scathing letter, “Are we the mouthpieces of the BJP or the RSS that we will do whatever they say?”

“I’m just spreading information. Whatever issues come up in campus, I want that everyone should know about them,” Sharma told me when I asked him about why he had invited the media on 9 February. Sharma usually sends such information and regular updates to the press through a common group on WhatsApp, an instant messaging service. On 9 February, at 3:45 pm, he had sent out a message inviting people to protest against the “cultural evening to commemorate terrorist Afjal guru [sic]” that was to be held on the campus at 5 pm. Later, at 4.08 pm, Sharma sent another message stating that he had submitted a letter to the university administration, asking it to stop the programme from taking place.

Ishan Anand, a PhD scholar at JNU, and a member of the leftist Democratic Students Federation (DSF), contested for the presidential post in 2013. He said, “What [Sharma] is doing with JNU is extremely shocking. Now that he’s an office bearer of JNU, he represents the entire student community, not just ABVP, but he has been behaving like an RSS spokesperson and implementing their agenda.”

“What the ABVP does is, they raise some issues and the administration takes immediate action—or they act like agents of BJP and RSS. This is a pattern seen all over the country,” Nivedita Menon, a political science professor at JNU told me. She accused the ABVP of working with the BJP government to clamp down on contrarian views with the goal of undermining and taking over educational institutions across the country.

The pattern that Menon spoke of linked the present JNU crisis to similar standoffs that took place last year between various student groups and the government. These started with the fortnight-long ban on the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle by the Indian Institute of Technology Madras authorities in mid 2015; the almost five-month long strike from June to October 2015 by the students of the Film Television Institute of India Pune; the student protests against the October 2015 decision by University Grants Commission to scrap non-National Eligibility Test fellowships; and the controversy surrounding the death of Rohith Vemula from Hyderabad Central University on 17 January 2016.

“The tipping point came after the Patiala House incident and the propagation of #ShutdownJNU,” Pradeep Narwal told me, referring to his resignation from the post of joint secretary of ABVP-JNU on 17 February. That day, Narwal, along with two of his friends, Ankit Hans and Rahul Yadav, resigned from ABVP-JNU through an open letter, stating a “difference of opinion over the current JNU incident and long standing difference of opinion with MANUSMRITI [Smriti Irani] and Rohith Vemula incident [sic].” As he spoke to me in his hostel room on 18 February, Narwal summarised, “ABVP is abusing the institution where we all live and the platform that it has given to us. They don’t mind losing JNU if they think they can win the larger battle outside, with the support of the government. ” He hinted that there would be more resignations soon, although they might not be made public.

Before Sharma, the last time the ABVP managed to win a seat on the JNUSU panel was in 2000—when Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s BJP-government was in power. Sandeep Mahapatra became the ABVP’s first, and as of now, only JNUSU president. A former ABVP activist, who completed his PhD from JNU around ten years ago, told me on the condition of anonymity, “ABVP comes up as and when the BJP is coming to power. So, the last time it saw a steady rise was around 1996, when Vajpayee’s 13-day government came in.” That year, the ABVP won three out of the four seats in the JNUSU panel. Soon after, the party’s candidates won the seats for the posts of the general secretary and the joint secretary in 1997 and 1999 respectively. These victories preceded Mahapatra’s triumph in 2000.

However, between 2001 and 2014, the ABVP could not win a single post because of factionalism and internal contradictions coming to fore. “ABVP was either split internally, or by an external force like Youth for Equality (YFE), who competed for the non-left votebank in JNU,” the former activist explained, before adding, “But this time, as soon as the Modi government came into power, ABVP’s vote share has suddenly jumped. So, it’s possible that it may do well in the coming three-four years, unless of course the present crisis rubs off very badly on them.”

Gaurav Kumar Jha, an ABVP activist who contested for the president’s post last year, and who claimed to be a third-generation ABVP-RSS member, spoke to me last month about the present resurgence of ABVP. “Things were in a bad shape when I came to JNU in 2012, but we started mobilisation and worked hard on pamphleteering, which is how things majorly work here,” he said. Jha agreed that the Modi wave of 2014 had attracted a large chunk of freshers towards ABVP, and that the results were visible in the 2015 elections. Later, Jha added me to a WhatsApp list of his own, similar to Sharma’s, and through which he started sending me updates about ABVP activities.

Shiv Shakti Nath Bakshi, a former ABVP-JNU activist from 1998-2007, and the present head of BJP’s journals and publication department, explained, “After 2001, the campus became completely polarised. While ABVP didn’t win after that [until 2015], its vote share had increased, and it began to emerge as the organisation with the biggest cadre base.” As a result, the various left-leaning parties of JNU had to come together, and the question of nationalism became a polarising issue. Referring to the present standoff, he added with a chuckle that “of course, the BJP and other parties are trying to encash it.”

Nonetheless, Bakshi, like Jha and all the other ABVP members I met, insisted that the ABVP and the BJP are not associated with each other. He told me, as many others had, that the former was affiliated to the RSS, and that it was formed well before the BJP in 1949. “ABVP is not dependent on BJP for funding, support, or directions. But of course, since they both take inspiration from the [RSS], coordination among them is there, as and when required,” Bakshi concluded.

According to an article that was published by the Economic Times on 23 February, this coordination may result in ties that are far more entrenched than Bakshi seemed to let on.  Echoing the claims of various JNU students and teachers I had spoken to, the article alleged that the ABVP had the ear of the BJP-led government since several key BJP politicians—such as Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Finance and Information and Broadcasting Minister Arun Jaitley, Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh, Parliamentary Affairs Minister M Venkaiah Naidu, Surface Transport and Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari, Minister of Chemicals and Fertilizers Ananth Kumar, Health Minister JP Nadda, Oil Minister Dharmendra Pradhan and Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar—have been former ABVP members. In addition, several political appointees serving under BJP ministers such as Smriti Irani, Thaawar Chand Gehlot, Jayant Sinha and Sanjeev Balyan have an ABVP background as well. This is also true for the current BJP president, Amit Shah and his team of secretaries such as Kailash Vijayvargiya, Bhupender Yadav and Murlidhar Rao; BJP’s national secretary Shrikant Sharma; and the party spokesperson Anil Baluni.

I asked Sharma how he felt about the fact that it was his message that resulted in the state machinery and the national media taking special interest in what are considered to be routine affairs at JNU. He replied, “If the nation disintegrates, will the campus remain? The authorities need to take notice, and they did, and I think it was correct.” Sharma added, “We don’t want JNU to shutdown, only make it better.”