New Delhi: Last Sunday, when over 50 masked assailants armed with sticks and stones laid siege to the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), fingers quickly began to be pointed at the RSS’ student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).
While the investigation is under way, even its name being mentioned is a massive shift for the Right-wing student body, which has always played fiddle to Left-aligned organisations on the campus.
In the 51 years of its existence, JNU has been a Left bastion, with its student elections consistently being dominated by organisations backed by parties such as the CPM and the CPI(ML).
For long, the ABVP had negligible presence on the campus, barring a few electoral gains. Since the Modi government first assumed power in 2014, however, the RSS-backed student body has begun making its presence felt, especially with the government beginning to take an interest in the politics of the university.
ThePrint looks at the ABVP’s rise and popularity in the premier educational institute.
The making of a Left citadel
Established in 1969, JNU has always been considered a bastion of the Left. In his book JNU: The Making of a University, Rakesh Batabyal notes that the first “two batches of students played quite a significant role in setting the tone of the university”.
The schools of languages and international studies were the first to host batches, and its students were considered largely “apolitical”.
It was after the School of Social Sciences (SSS) was established in 1970 that the Left began — almost immediately — to dominate the institution. “Suddenly, the university was full of scholars who were widely known for their disciplinary excellence and many for their political radicalism,” Batabyal writes. “Unlike the SIS (international studies) students, the SSS teachers and their first batches of students came to a brand new institution and were in a mood to start fresh experiments and express the mood of the times.”
Several of the appointed faculty were from Presidency College in Kolkata, considered a hub of intellectualism.
“Once students are admitted to JNU, they are exposed to many ideas, and usually they decide their politics after deliberating what each party stands for,” said Dhananjay Kumar, a former member of the JNU Students Union. “Students are attracted to the ideas of the Left because they can situate their socio-political backgrounds in the ideologies of the Left.”
By the early 1970s, there was intense political rivalry between the Left-aligned student organisations, and being elected to JNUSU became a competitive exercise. The union’s structure and electoral process are dictated by the university’s constitution.
The elections are conducted annually and solely by the student body with no intervention from the administration. The union has a central panel, featuring a president, vice-president, general secretary, and joint secretary. Councillors, who represent JNU’s 12 schools in 31 seats, are also elected to the union.
A study by the Economic and Political Weekly found that student election results have consistently crowned Left-aligned presidents. From 1974 to 2018, it notes, “…the CPI(Marxist)’s student wing, the Students Federation of India (SFI), won the seat of president in the university’s annual student union elections 22 times. The All India Students’ Association (AISA), the student outfit of the Communist Party of India Marxist–Leninist (CPI [ML]) follows with 11 mandates. Candidates from independent socialist platforms have won eight times.”
A late bloomer
The ABVP was formed in 1949, but its presence in JNU through the 70s and 80s was minimal.
“There were a few ABVP supporters on the campus in the ’80s, but that number grew to become more substantial in the ’90s,” Sandeep Mahapatra, the ABVP’s first JNUSU president, told ThePrint. “People wanted an alternative to the Left, and students’ attraction to the party happened organically. There was always an undercurrent, and the ABVP finally provided that platform.”
Before the ABVP, the Left was offered competition by the Free Thinkers and the smaller Samajwadi Yuvjan Sabha. “Free Thinkers provided a platform for the right-wing types, which included people who were liberal. Anyone who opposed the Left groups ended up as a Free Thinker,” explained a former ABVP member. “The nationwide rise of the BJP also led many (Free) Thinkers to make the switch to the ABVP.”
The ABVP won its first councillor seat in 1983 but that was its only electoral success in JNU until 1991, when the RSS’ student wing won not only multiple councillor seats but also clinched the joint secretary post.
By the late 90s, the Free Thinkers had practically dissolved and the void was filled by the ABVP, making it the first hardline right party to oppose the Left establishment on the campus.
A couple of factors propelled the ABVP’s rise — the university’s own expansion in terms of enrolments, and the BJP’s rise to prominence during L.K. Advani’s rath yatra in 1990.
By 1996, the ABVP won three central panel seats: vice-president, joint secretary, and general secretary, missing the post of president by a mere four votes.
The ABVP broke a massive ceiling in 2000, when Mahapatra won the presidential seat by a small margin. It happened during the tenure of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government at the Centre.
The former ABVP member quoted above recalled that students who voted for the organisation had families who voted for the BJP in the general elections. The ABVP activists drew greatly from the Schools of Languages, Science, and International Studies, which were previously considered to be ‘apolitical’.
Its performance veered off before it once again won a joint secretary seat in 2015, a year after the Modi government came to power.
ABVP under Modi
Since the Modi government came to power in 2014, JNU has seen several changes to its administration. The most important was the appointment of M. Jagadesh Kumar, an IIT Delhi professor with links to the RSS, as the university’s vice-chancellor in 2016.
In the same year, JNU found itself at the centre of a controversy when students protested against the death sentence handed to terror convict Afzal Guru. The BJP accused the students — including student union president Kanhiya Kumar — of raising “anti-India” slogans, based on videos that were later discovered to be doctored. The row had led to Kumar’s arrest on charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy.
The former ABVP member from JNU quoted above said the character of the student body has also changed.
“The ABVP of the early days fashioned itself as a non-conformist organisation, opposed to the Left establishment. There may have been scuffles, but there was always respect between parties on campus,” said the former ABVP member. “The problem is now, the ABVP is acting as an instrument of the establishment.”
The former member further said the key difference between the ABVP of the 1990s and its current form is that the Vajpayee government of that time never interfered in the functioning of the university or the party.
“At that time, the Vajpayee let the campus be, so the ABVP wasn’t seen as doing the government’s bidding. There was no fear of police and armed violence, but that changed in 2016,” the ex-member said. “The Modi government has shown a clear interest in interfering with JNU, and the ABVP is acting with the administration to further its interests. Given the kind of unprecedented violence, it seems doubtful that the ABVP will rise to popularity again.”
Mahapatra, however, dismissed this, saying the ABVP is only likely to grow on the campus. “In the age of social media, people are more aware of which organisation is actually working for students and which are just doing lip service. There is nothing left of the Left in JNU in my opinion, it is trying to stay alive by coming together against an enemy. They know for a fact that their time is running out.”