Last September, something unusual happened. The right-wing student body Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad managed to sneak into the left bastion of the Jawaharlal Nehru University’s student body by winning one seat out of four. The last time the ABVP won a seat was 14 years ago. But the win wasn’t totally unexpected, given that the Bharatiya Janata Party – the ABVP’s ideological parent – had ridden the Narendra Modi wave to win the general elections of 2014.

That event in JNU was no blip. On January 20, its leaders sat on an indefinite hunger strike outside the residence of the Allahabad University Vice Chancellor RL Hangloo to demand the cancellation of a seminar where journalist Siddharth Varadarajan was invited as chief speaker. Claiming that Varadarajan had written “pro-Naxal and anti national” pieces and that the “controversial man” had a communal mindset, they managed to get the venue changed and “held him hostage” in the vice-chancellor’s office for half an hour by shouting slogans outside until the police intervened and he had to be escorted off to safety.

While it is common for major universities in India to see protests from all sides of the political spectrum, it’s the ABVP’s penchant for violence and exerting influence due to its proximity to the ruling party in Delhi that makes it one of the most important case studies of student politics in the country.

The group figures prominently in the current agitation at Hyderabad University over the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula, who was accused of being “anti-national” and, along with four other scholars, beating up ABVP leader Nandanam Susheel Kumar. The five accused were suspended from the university. Kumar’s mother asked the Hyderabad High Court to ensure that the authorities offered her son adequate security, and Union Minister Bandaru Dattatreya took up the matter with Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani.

On Wednesday, however, Cyberabad Police and the University of Hyderabad admitted in the court that the injury claims by the ABVP leader were exaggerated and that he had suffered only minor wounds in the scuffle that broke out in August between members of ABVP and Ambedkar Students Association on the campus.

Violence and vandalism

Apart from its burst of energy in JNU, the ABVP has also managed in less than a year to grab some of the most important positions in student councils in Delhi University, Calcutta University, Allahabad University, among other small and large campuses around the country.

So what makes the saffron organisation appealing to students?

The ABVP was formed in 1948, 33 years before the BJP was established. But it was formally registered only in the summer of 1949 when a group of students and teachers got together to form an association with the avowed aim of nation building. The idea, says Rakesh Sinha, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue and columnist who fought (and lost) on an ABVP ticket in Delhi University elections three decades ago, was to provide an alternative to the leftist discourse that dominated at that time.

“ABVP has always been the nationalistic voice in the student politics of this country which has helped people see beyond themselves and contribute to the cause of nation building,” Sinha said. “The organisation is trying to put back our ideology in the mainstream because RSS and the whole right-wing have been sidelined from the discourse which is taken up by the leftist ideologues.”

Sinha’s observation about the ABVP’s aims is reflected on the organisation’s website. To become a member, candidates must treat the nation as supreme. There’s much emphasis in the organisation on “character”. The ABVP makes no effort to hide its “patriotic nationalism” that seeks to tackle “anti-national elements” with “fervent pride”.

Be it rallying students in universities against a documentary for being “anti-national” or attacking popular television anchors and blackening their faces for producing something “immoral” because it does not conform to what it considers are the values of Indian society, the ABVP often finds itself at the intersection of political activism and vandalism.

Campus censors

The ABVP’s opposition to a documentary about the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 was widely reported. Last August, screenings at Delhi University colleges were stopped by ABVP activists who labelled the film “anti-national”. They managed to persuade some colleges to order a review before permission was given to screen the film.

Rohit Chahal, former National Secretary of the student body, however, claimed that the action had been taken in the interests of students who were “disturbed” and had approached the organisation. The ABVP was forced to act to ensure that the “campus atmosphere stayed calm”, he said.

“Why don’t they screen movies on subjects like environment and female foeticide?” Chahal asked. “Those who want to show violence on screen have an agenda and we will not let the campus atmosphere turned vicious because a few people like this sort of provocation.”

“This sort of provocation,” ABVP maintains, is the root cause of various charges of vandalism and violence against it.

In 2011, a professor in Madhya Pradesh’s Khandwa district died of shock after witnessing ABVP activists beating a fellow teacher.

In 2010, the proctor of Rajasthan University was manhandled because he did not allow ABVP activists to meet the vice chancellor. The same year, Gujarat University vice-chancellor was harassed in his home about a fee hike. Four years before, Professor HS Sabharwal died the day after being attacked by ABVP activists in Ujjain, in Madhya Pradesh.

“What happened is often taken on face value as a case of ABVP’s involvement,” Sinha countered, talking about the Khandwa case. “The professor’s death was a mere unfortunate coincidence. Anyone could have a heart attack during a heated conversation or while witnessing something serious but this shouldn’t be used against the organisation. Nobody went there to kill him.”

‘Media spin and bias’

Chahal’s defence on the vandalism charges, however, focused more on the media’s alleged bias against the group’s ideology.

“The media only shows the stories it wants to tell,” he said, when asked about the cases of vandalism. “ABVP has always worked for students and, at times, we have to fight but there’s no conscious vandalism. Those who are Naxalites and anti-nationals in our universities never get highlighted in the media.”

He added that the benefits that the group had gained for students are often overlooked. “We fought for the roll-back of the four-year-undergraduate-programme, against fee hikes, for hostel facilities – but that’s never been talked about,” Chahal said.

Sinha agreed and cited the organisation’s long list of initiatives which, he claimed, were aimed at reducing the “anti-India feelings” in the North Eastern parts of the country by fostering interaction and helping students in campuses even where there are no electoral or political considerations.

“The ABVP’s largest contribution to the country remains its lead role in building up the JP [Jayaprakash Narayan’s anti-Emergency] movement of 1974 which fought for democratic rights and ideals to be re-established in the country,” Sinha said. “The ABVP came to the fore with socialist outlets in Bihar and participated in anti-corruption marches and built the movement while leftist parties like SFI [Students Federation of India] and AISF [All India Students Federation] were nowhere in the picture.”

Increasing popularity?

Does the seeming revival of the ABVP and the organisation making its presence felt in college campuses over the last year mean that it is becoming popular among students again? Unlikely, say JNU students holding key positions in the student council.

“The ABVP’s win in JNU is no sign of its popularity,” said Kanhaiya Kumar, President of the university students’ union, from the left-wing All India Students Association. “India’s electoral system is of the first-past-the-post which allows for a lot of arithmetic manoeuvring. ABVP merely consolidated the right-wing vote while left parties fought against each other in the elections.”

Kumar used the election for the post of Joint Secretary as an example of these equations. The ABVP won the seat with a slim margin of 28 votes from the left-backed AISA, but Kumar said there’s more to it than meets the eye. The seat polled over 400 “None of the Above” or NOTA votes, he claimed. He said the swing voters, not committed to any left or right ideology, ended up voting for the ABVP because all left parties seem divided.

But that doesn’t mean that the organisation should be underestimated, Kumar warned. “The ABVP has been among the most prominent political forces in the country for several decades and it still has a lot of influence,” he said. “Their ideology or actions might be questionable and seem in opposition to ours but their proximity to the policy-makers is undeniable. Ever since this government has come to power, the student body has only been emboldened to make its agenda of caste and communal politics further clearer.”

The ‘anti-nationals’

About the on-going agitation in Hyderabad University, Kumar said that protests organised against Yakub Memon’s hanging by the Ambedkar Students Association, of which Rohith Vemula was a member, had irked ABVP leaders on the campus, as they opposed any support to Memon.

“When there’s a space for democratic debate and free expression, be it about terrorism or human rights, ABVP chooses to bring in nationalist sentiments and muzzle all dissent,” Kumar said. “The organisation’s agenda is to solely promote India’s greatness while not realising the danger of overlooking human rights violations, perhaps because they indulge in them so often.”

Chahal from ABVP, meanwhile, claimed that the problems arose only because the organisation’s agenda was to put the country above all else. “If one group is supporting Memon, Kasab and other such terrorists, why shouldn’t they be labelled anti-national?” he said. “I joined ABVP to contribute to their cause of nationalism and our ideal is Vivekananda so we will oppose all efforts of India’s image being dragged to the ground on the basis of a skewed narrative that sees terrorists and Naxals as heroes.”