The storm around the Jawaharlal Nehru University was still raging when there appeared a sign of things to come.

In late February, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a student organisation close to the Bharatiya Janata Party, suggested that their next target after JNU will be the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay.

“We will continue to agitate against anti-national activities on campus,” an ABVP leader was quoted as saying. “Our next stop will be Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. It is an even bigger hub of Maoists than the JNU.”

The plan was echoed just a few days later by Aniket Ovhal, the Mumbai secretary of ABVP, as he declared that the students of TISS and IIT-Bombay need to understand the meaning of nationalism.

“We didn’t really mean to target these institutes,” said Ovhal in a long conversation with this reporter. “All we meant was, we want a presence there, as we do in all important educational institutes.”

What stops them from building a presence there?

“They won’t let us,” said Ashish Chauhan, national secretary of ABVP in charge of Mumbai. “The Left controls the institute.”

“Look at this man,” Chauhan continued, while Googling the name of one professor at TISS. “He’s a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).”

Though unable to produce proof of the allegation, Chauhan insisted that not just this professor, but many of his “vocal colleagues holding prominent positions are Leftists. The academic environment there is dominated by the Left. There are neutral academics there [at TISS], but they should speak out against their colleagues”.

Appropriating Ambedkar

TISS students played a major role in organising one of the biggest rallies Mumbai has seen in the past few years, demanding justice for Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula, who killed himself on the Hyderabad Central University campus in January.

The Mumbai rally was a sea of red and blue flags, with supporters of the CPI(M) and Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh, a political party headed by Prakash Ambedkar, turning out in large numbers.

This solidarity, combined with JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar’s “Jai Bheem, Lal Salaam” slogans, irks Chauhan no end. “We also respect Dr Ambedkar. But this slogan distorts his teachings.”

The Tata Institute of Social Sciences was the first school of social work in the country when it was established in Mumbai in 1936, and Master’s in Social Work remains its flagship programme. It has been involved in researching neglected sections of society, be they residents of the slums near the institute or the tribals of Niyamgiri who are threatened by the Vedanta mining project. The conclusions of such research can go against the prevalent norms of development and the way national resources are distributed.

At the same time, as TISS faculty point out, the institute works closely with the State. For instance, it is one of the partners in the Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellows Scheme, under which students work with district collectors to implement development programmes in the most underdeveloped areas. The scheme is commonly seen as a bid to counter Maoists.

“We know, we know,” said Chauhan dismissively. “There are IB [Intelligence Bureau] reports about these Tata Institute Fellows based on the Collectors’ experience with them.”

But surely there’s no such danger from the nerds at the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay?

Student elections

Turns out, it’s not the students who the ABVP is worried about. As in TISS, it’s the faculty.

“Did you see their statement on the JNU issue?” asked Ovhal, referring to the statement issued by 42 faculty members condemning state intervention in educational institutions. “Did you see the state most of the signatories belong to?”

“West Bengal?” I hazarded, knowing the predominance of Bengalis in IIT-B. “You said it, not me,” replied Chauhan smugly.

So does ABVP have a plan to get rid of troublesome professors at both the institutes? Are complaints against them going to land on the desk of Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani?

This would have probably happened by now but for one hitch – ABVP cannot enter these institutes.

Chauhan’s biggest grouse is that at both TISS and IIT-B student organisations are not allowed to contest student union elections. In both these institutes, in keeping with the Lyngdoh Committee recommendations, students can stand for elections as individuals, not as representatives of organisations, though the latter do exist on campus. Indeed, TISS has a range of student organisations with ideological leanings ranging from extreme Left to mainstream Left to anti-Left Ambedkarites.

A new addition to these organisations is a right-wing group that recently invited Rajiv Malhotra, a self-taught social scientist, to speak at the institute. A question about allegations of plagiarism against the author sparked off references to the questioner’s caste, and the event ended with rival groups shouting slogans.

Ovhal insisted they have nothing to do with the right-wing group. “We have no members in the Tata Institute,” he said. “Some of our members had gone there on Students’ Day as Parishad members, to seek permission to put up a programme. The looks they gave us – as if we were aliens. Isn’t that intolerance?”

Simpler targets

TISS students agreed that there’s little support among them for the programmes of the new right-wing group. That is a major reason why they are unperturbed by Ovhal’s threat. They are also confident of their unity – “we are a family here”, said students' union president Deepak Nanda, a member of the Ambedkar Students Association – and their professors’ support.

However, the faculty are worried. How far will a politically powerful right-wing group go in curbing their freedom to teach courses that are designed to make students question? Already, central funding to TISS had been reduced and funds to pay salaries are released at the eleventh hour. TISS Director S Parasuraman did not reply to an interview request.

Neither Chauhan nor Ovhal seems keen to take the long hard route to expand support for ABVP in the institute. Hence, their insistence that student union elections be opened up to student organisations. “Once we contest in the Parishad’s name, we can project our candidates and protect them,” said Chauhan. It would obviously be easier for ABVP to make noise on the campus than for a few students to do so individually.

This political clout of ABVP could be seen in February, when JNU professor Vivek Kumar failed to deliver the annual Ambedkar Memorial Lecture at TISS. The official explanation given for the no-show was that Delhi’s traffic made Kumar miss his flight. But the real reason could be deduced from Chauhan’s expression as he smiled and boasted, “Our Delhi unit is strong.” The professor had been attacked by the BJP’s Yuva Morcha in Gwalior in February.

Meanwhile, ABVP is busy building a student base where it is easy – among Mumbai’s apolitical colleges. “Students are angry about the slogans raised in JNU,” said Ovhal. “They feel the country has been abused, and the government should have been stricter.” But aren’t the videos featuring those slogans doctored? As Ohval shrugged, Chauhan said, “The police arrested the students, there must be some evidence against them.”