The violence in and around Delhi University’s Ramjas College on Wednesday is the latest sign that the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh affiliate, has consolidated its grip on India’s universities in recent months.

The ABVP’s attack on freedom of expression in universities – by silencing students and teachers using a mix of threats and violence – began well before the arrest of three students from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University for alleged sedition in Feburary last year, and Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide at Hyderabad Central University the previous month.

In fact, Delhi University had succumbed months earlier. In August 2015, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad-led Delhi University Students’ Union stopped a screening of the documentary, Muzaffarnagar Abhi Baki Hai at Kirori Mal College on the North Campus. For eight months after that, its film club could not screen anything at all, not even the Japanese classic Seven Samurai.

“I do not think any college in Delhi University has the nerve to invite Nivedita Menon although she used to be very popular before,” said a teacher attending a protest at the Delhi Police Headquarters on Thursday. Menon is a Jawaharlal Nehru professor who has been targeted by Hindutva groups and sections of the media for her remarks deemed to be anti-national. She was in the news again earlier this month in connection with a conference she attended at a Jodhpur university.

Wednesday’s violence came a day after the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad intervened to stop a seminar titled “Cultures of Protest” at Ramjas College at which Jawaharlal Nehru University scholar Umar Khalid, who had been arrested for alleged sedition last year, had been invited to speak. The police had allegedly refused to intervene when members of the ABVP demanded that the invitation to Khalid be withdrawn.

The seminar was eventually cancelled. But on Wednesday, when Delhi University students attempted to take out a protest march from Ramjas College to the Maurice Nagar police station, a 10-minute walk away, they were attacked on the way, and faced a lathicharge and detention by the police.

Silent censorship

The cancellation of the Ramjas College seminar was not a one-off incident at Delhi University.

“Delhi University colleges now practice a form of unwritten censorship,” said a teacher from a North Campus college, who did not want to be identified. “Principals are very reluctant to grant permission [for certain events]. They feel is it too risky and fear attacks from the ABVP. There are also other ways to scuttle programmes too. We are told seminar halls will not be free.”

The teacher added that college administrations are reluctant to allow even members of Pinjra Tod – a group that fights gender discrimination in student hostels – to speak at events.

A student of Lady Shri Ram College, which is in the university’s South Campus, agreed. “Many programmes such as seminars with Kamla Bhasin, Arundhati Roy and Dilip Simeon had to be cancelled,” she said. “Our programme to commemorate Rohith Vemula’s death anniversary was conducted in the park outside college.”

She added that the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad tended to stifle conversations on Kashmir and caste. “They do not want any dialogue,” she said.

An MPhil student added that a seminar on Partition in Delhi University was recently cancelled too.

A protest against the ABVP in Delhi on Thursday. Photo: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

‘Fascism on campus’

On Thursday, hundreds of students and some teachers gathered outside the Delhi Police headquarters at ITO in East Delhi to protest against the police who have been accused of standing by silently while members of the ABVP beat up students on Wednesday. Several journalists and students have complained that police personnel also joined in to assault them.

On Thursday again, Khalsa College in North Delhi, down the road from Ramjas college, was forced to cancel a street-play contest “after repeated threats from DUSU [Delhi University Students’ Union]”, said Saikat Dasgupta, staff advisor to the college’s theatre society. He added that the police had appealed to them to call off the event in the interest of restoring peace and normalcy in the campus.

None of the teachers gathered at the protest outside police headquarters could recall the last time the university saw anything like Wednesday’s violence against faculty and students. However, many said that they were waiting for the other shoe to drop after the chaos at Hyderabad Central University and Jawaharlal Nehru University last year.

“This is the face of fascism,” said Debjani Sengupta from the English Department of Delhi University’s Indraprastha College for Women.

Said Saumyajit Bhattacharya, who teaches economics at Kirori Mal College: “It is happening in campus after campus.”

The ABVP factor

Students allege that the police “did not touch the ABVP students” during Wednesday’s violence because they are affiliated to the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is in power at the Centre.

This is a refrain in other universities too where students have accused the ABVP of misusing the state apparatus to target specific students or campuses. Senior politicians, BJP leaders and even the police have been accused of siding with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad.

For instance, in 2015, it was after a complaint from the ABVP that Union Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya wrote several letters to Smriti Irani, then the Union Minister for Human Resource Development, demanding action against Rohith Vemula. Irani obliged, writing to Hyderabad Central University five times in three months that year. The university subsequently suspended Vemula in November 2015, and he committed suicide two months later.

When Jawaharlal Nehru University was in the spotlight in February last year over the issue of alleged anti-national slogans being shouted at an event, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh said on Twitter that he had given “necessary instructions to Delhi Police commissioner about what happened in JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University]”.

Three Jawaharlal Nehru University students – Umar Khalid, Aniban Bhattacharya and Kanhaiya Kumar – were subsequently arrested and did time at Tihar jail.

“They [the ABVP] can do all this with impunity because they think their government is in power,” said Jacob George, a first year student at St Stephen’s College.

ABVP protest in Bangalore in February. Credit: PTI

After JNU

Between what students refer to as the “attack on JNU” last February and its sequel at Delhi University exactly a year later, there have been several instances of protests against certain events or simply the presence of academics – especially those from Jawaharlal Nehru University – in other universities. The ABVP has been directly or indirectly involved in the majority of these incidents.

For instance, retired Jawaharlal Nehru University sociologist MN Panini was prevented from speaking at the Central University of Jharkhand in Ranchi in March. The organiser of that event was briefly suspended following protests that are believed to have been instigated by the ABVP. Another retired Jawaharlal Nehru University professor, Chaman Lal, was prevented from speaking on Bhagat Singh at Delhi University, also in March.

Earlier this month, Rajshree Ranawat from the English Department of Jai Narain Vyas University in Jodhpur was suspended for inviting Nivedita Menon to speak at a conference.

Jawaharlal Nehru University students also hold the ABVP responsible for the disappearance of Najeeb Ahmed, a student, from the university’s campus in October. He went missing after a scuffle with some members of the Hindutva students’ group at his hostel.

Before JNU

Students and teachers at several universities faced several instances of threats and intimidation even before the Jawaharlal Nehru University controversy flared up.

In December 2015, ABVP members at Mohanlal Sukhadia University, Udaipur, objected to a speech on the representation of Hinduism in the writings of Western scholars by retired Delhi University professor Ashok Vohra. The students were offended by his quoting Indologists Paul Courtright and Wendy Doniger – even if it was to counter their positions – and the Rajasthan higher education minister had reportedly asked the vice-chancellor to file a police complaint against Vora.

In January 2016, the ABVP stopped journalist Siddharth Varadarajan from participating in a seminar at Allahabad University.

“Thinking that they are just a set of hooligans is already a mistake,” said Rimli Bhattacharya, a professor at Delhi University’s Department of English. “We are losing space every day and the relentless dumbing down of universities is creating a culture in which such goons can thrive.”

‘Communist conspiracy’

The ABVP’s national spokesperson, Saket Bahuguna, dismissed the anger against the students’ body he represents as a “conspiracy by communists”.

“I believe in facts,” he said. “We have been sweeping student union elections across the country.” At last count in 2016, the ABVP was present in 7,197 colleges and had a total membership of 28.3 lakh. “We are the largest and the only credible students’ union in the country, if not the world,” said Bahuguna.

That, for him, is enough to justify ABVP’s stand on any matter.

“Ordinary students vote for us,” he argued. “We contested the Delhi University Students’ Union elections last year, promising to drive out anti-national people from the university. We won three of four seats. We have the mandate of ordinary students for what we do.”

But there are some gaps in that argument. The Delhi University victory, at least, may not have been that easy if colleges like Lady Shri Ram and St Stephen’s – there were sizeable contingents from both colleges at Thursday’s protests – were a part of the union and voted to select its leaders.

Bahuguna denied that the ABVP engaged in any form of vigilantism or that large sections of ordinary students feared its interventions.

“This is the Left’s propaganda,” he said. “All sorts of people are called for seminars. The Kashmiri documentary filmmaker Sanjay Kak had been invited to Ramjas too. We did not bother. We cared about Umar Khalid because there is a court case that he shouted slogans about India breaking into pieces.”

The Delhi Police has not filed a chargesheet against Khalid as yet.

Bahuguna said that the ABVP had objected to the screening of Muzaffarnagar Abhi Baki Hai at Kirori Mal College because “propaganda about caste and religion was being served to young, impressionable minds”.

His reply to a question on the ABVP being involved in practically every campus controversy over the past few years was telling. Only campuses “where there is a presence of Left politics” have seen strife, according to Bahuguna.

“The Left manufactures anger and discontent about caste and religion,” he said. “People start thinking they do not have freedom.”