New Delhi: The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-backed student organisation that’s arguably the largest in the democratic world, celebrates its 72nd anniversary on 9 July.
Its impact on Indian politics can be gauged from the fact that almost two-thirds of BJP leaders who hold ministerial posts at the Centre as well as in the states, cut their teeth in public life as ABVP activists.
The notable names on this list are Union Home Minister Amit Shah, BJP president J.P. Nadda, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, other Union ministers Dharmendra Pradhan, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Giriraj Singh, Ashwini Choubey, and Piyush Goyal; chief ministers Jai Ram Thakur (Himachal Pradesh), Shivraj Singh Chouhan (Madhya Pradesh), Biplab Mohan Deb (Tripura) and Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar.
The ABVP has around 3 million members at the moment. Its numbers had jumped to 3.2 million members in 2015 from 2.2 million the previous year, probably a result of the Narendra Modi government came to power and many of its former leaders becoming ministers, as the BJP attained a full majority in the Lok Sabha for the first time. Since then, the membership has stabilised at around 3 million.
The ABVP was founded by a group of students and teachers in 1948, though it was registered officially on 9 July 1949. Its primary aim was to build a nationalist movement in campuses, which were influenced by Communism at the time.
This was three years before the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the ideological mentee of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, came into existence. The BJS would go on to merge into the Janata Party in 1977, and re-formed as the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1980.
Former RSS pracharak Yashwant Rao Kelkar, who taught at Mumbai University, was considered the ABVP’s guiding spirit, and is largely credited with shaping it starting in the 1950s.
The ABVP was set up with support from the RSS and guided by its pracharaks in initial years, but later on, students who had not been part of the RSS also started joining it in large numbers. Currently, the organisation has presence in more than 4,500 cities and towns. The organisation continues to expand rapidly.
ABVP’s unique model
The ABVP evolved a unique model that was unlike most other student organisations in India — it has gone beyond just setting up units in college campuses. It has formed units of students at the district level across the country, which helps it reach students enrolled in correspondence courses as well.
In addition to this vertical expansion, the organisation is also expanding horizontally — it realised a couple of decades ago that specific groups of students have specific issues, and hence started constituting special fora for technical, medical and management institutions.
Thus, for research students, it has a forum called ‘Shodh’; through another forum named ‘Think India’, it connects with students at NITs, IITs, National Law Institute etc. For medical and dental students, its forum is called ‘Medivision’, while for agricultural universities and institutes, there is ‘Agrivision’. For art and culture students, it provides a platform called ‘Rashtriya Kala Manch’.
To connect students with social work, the ABVP runs ‘Students for Sewa’, under which a group activists is encouraged to adopt a slum or any other backward habitat. Students work actively on the ground.
One of the oldest programmes that helped ABVP gain a foothold in the Northeast and integrate students was ‘Students’ Experience in Inter-State Living (SEIL)’. The programme was started in 1965-66, and entailed students from North-eastern states travelling to other states and vice-versa. The students stayed at the homes of local ABVP workers and were treated as part of the family, not guests. A key architect of this flagship programme was P.B. Acharya, who went on to be governor of Nagaland from 2014-19.
Most notably, during the Emergency (1975-77), the ABVP was at the forefront of the pro-democracy movement, and more than 10,000 of its activists were jailed. Many of them became prominent political leaders, ministers and chief ministers, as listed above.
Reinventing ABVP for Covid lockdown
Once educational institutions were closed as part of the nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, the ABVP decided to reinvent itself by initially carrying out relief and rehabilitation work, and then taking constant feedback from students to share with the Prime Minister’s Office.
The ABVP collected and donated Rs 2.86 crore to the PM CARES fund, and distributed more than 58 lakh masks, 30 lakh food packets and 31.7 lakh ration kits. It helped send more than 17,000 students home — a substantial number were from North-eastern states and tribal areas in the country. Around 59,000 ABVP activists worked actively on the ground, and the organisation also ran 477 kitchens for more than 100 days, including one in Pithoragarh, Uttarakhand, for 700 Nepali labourers who had got stuck there.
On 11-12 May, in a unique exercise, 56,000 ABVP activists personally called 8.86 lakh students across the country to take feedback about the way they would like the government to handle issues related to education, such as whether the examination should be held in person or online.
The feedback was largely not in favour of online examinations, and the feedback was reportedly shared with the Prime Minister’s Office too.
(The writer is associated with the RSS. He is research director at a Delhi-based think-tank, Vichar Vinimay Trust, and has authored two books on the RSS.)
(An earlier version of this article incorrectly named Union minister Giriraj Singh as Giriraj Kishore. The error is regretted.)
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.