Ever since the present Modi government came to power, there appears to have been a clear set of orders issued from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) headquarters to its student organization, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), to go on the rampage in university campuses all over India. From getting specific parts of syllabuses changed under threat of violence, disrupting events by other student organizations on campuses, to forcing university administrations to intervene to curb freedom of expression, to filing police complaints against dissenters, they seem to have been acting according to a well rehearsed script, subverting democratic processes on campuses. After its recent electoral defeats in JNU and Hyderabad Central University (HCU), however, the ABVP’s role seems to have acquired an even more virulent feature. The game plan appears to be to provoke violence wherever possible so that rather than any kind of debate, however contentious, on issues such as nationalism, minority rights and caste injustice, what we are increasingly likely to see are violent standoffs between student groups, which have to be controlled by the police. These are often represented in the media as brawls between students, as if there were no ideology or political content involved, just two groups of students “clashing.” But of course, in each case ABVP is involved, and in some kinds of reporting it can even be made to appear that ABVP was somehow the victim.
This is the moment at which teachers need to finally accept that ABVP is not just another student organization. We have tended to take the position in our universities that we must not condemn or directly address ABVP, since we must not directly involve ourselves in student politics. Teachers must talk to administration, be publicly critical of its lapses, take all measures necessary to display and enact our solidarity with students under attack by this regime. While students take their own decisions on modes of struggle and so on, teachers see our role as supportive but with a critical distance.
However, now we may need to start thinking of ways in which we recognize the organization of the ABVP as a serious threat to Indian democracy. I don’t mean individual students, who would also be in our class-rooms, and with whom it may still be possible to continue a conversation, and whose examinations we will continue to grade with utmost probity. as we have always done.
But the ABVP as an organization has a specific role to play, as storm-troopers in the project of Hindu nationalism, and we cannot afford any longer not to face up to this fact frontally.
The Hindutva Project
Those of us who can clearly see the current regime under Narendra Modi as involved in a many faceted project to bring about a ground level transformation of India into a Hindu nation, cannot remain innocent of the knowledge that ABVP is not just another students’ organization. It is the student’s wing of the RSS, the fountainhead of Hindutvavaadi philosophy, an organization acknowledged time and again by members of the BJP as the revered source of authority for every action taken by this government from the Prime Minister downwards. The most recent pronouncement of this kind was by Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar who attributed the allegedly successful “surgical strikes” by the Indian Army against Pakistan to “RSS teaching.”
The RSS acts as an extra constitutional source of power, legitimizing a wide range of activities from violence against Muslims and Dalits under the garb of cow protection, to violent policing of social media and social spaces to weed out any form of dissent to its masculinist, savarna, anti-women, anti-minority Hindu nationalist project. The actual actors in these attacks need not be directly linked to RSS, but they are spawned by the legitimacy given to the Hindutva project by the current regime, and by the impunity enjoyed under it by the smallest foot soldier of Hindutva for the most criminal of actions.
There is of course, a split in the Hindutva forces along the faultline of caste, for a Savarkarite rendering of Hindutva required the modernization of Hinduism to eliminate caste discrimination and indeed caste itself, through internal reform and intermarriage. The Savarkarite project was to consolidate the Hindu community, to modernize and militarize it, and all of this requires Hinduism to break the Seven Shackles of caste discrimination that bind it. As part of this project of Hindu consolidation, probably recognizing that many communities that he wanted to bring under the umbrella of Hinduism ate beef, Savarkar even said:
…When humanitarian interests are not served and in fact harmed by the cow and when humanism is shamed, self-defeating extreme cow protection should be rejected…(Samagra Savarkar vangmaya,Vol. 3, p.341)
But BR Ambedkar was right, and Savarkar was wrong. Hinduism cannot survive without caste, and caste cannot be eliminated without eliminating the Hindu shastras. And this is what explains the large scale extension of the violence of gau rakshaks from Muslims to Dalits, which cannot be contained even by Modi’s heartfelt plea to get the Hindutva project back on track – “Kill me, not Dalits”, he famously said. What he meant was “Kill Muslims, not Dalits.” But the visceral hatred of the caste Hindu self for Dalits cannot, it seems, be held at bay even for the Hindu Nation to succeed. A CRPF jawan who died in Pompore during a militant attack was denied public land for cremation by the upper castes of his village because of his “lower” caste. His status as martyr for the glory of the nation did not protect him from this indignity in death. Within ABVP itself, caste prejudice is rampant, and there have been resignations from it on the issue of caste.
The teaching of Savarkar that RSS and its followers do take very seriously however, is the need to build a Hindu nation through producing hatred of the Other, even when that Other is intimately tied to one’s self. Criticizing Buddhism for destroying India’s “political virility” and preventing the possibility of “common worship” that could have built the Hindu nation, Savarkar writes in Essentials of Hindutva:
Moreover everything that is common in us with our enemies, weakens our power of opposing them. The foe that has nothing in common with us is the foe likely to be most bitterly resisted by us just as a friend that has almost everything in him that we admire and prize in ourselves is likely to be the friend we love most. The necessity of creating a bitter sense of wrong invoking a power of undying resistance especially in India that had under the opiates of Universalism and non-violence lost the faculty even of resisting sin and crime and aggression, could best be accomplished by cutting off even the semblance of a common worship…(P 12 of pdf available on-line at savarkar.org)
This necessity of “creating a bitter sense of wrong” is in essence the Hindutva project, whose goal is paradoxically, to destroy the confidence of Hindus, an undisputed majority community whose heterogeneous cultures define this land, and to create in them a sense of humiliation, defeat and impending doom from minorities.
Not to recognize the Modi government as the chief driver of this project, a violent Hindu nationalist project, internally contested though it may be, is to fail comprehensively in understanding this current moment in Indian history. Every single one of the Indian state’s actions at this time –
promoting a Uniform Civil Code or endorsing the need to end the practice of triple talaq;
the massive on-going repression in the long saga of Indian military occupation of Kashmir;
the quick attribution of blame to Pakistan for the Uri attack and the consequent war mongering;
the tacit support to gau rakshaks.
These cannot be separated into discrete policy decisions as political commentators have tended to do. In such analyses, the first is seen to be motivated by a recognition of women’s rights, the second as unavoidable or even desirable, the third as sage and statesman-like, and the last, even Modi’s admirers concede, unfortunate. But in fact, every single one of these policy decisions is driven by the same agenda, the project of building the Hindu Rashtra.
Just a quick note on the Uniform Civil Code. The women’s movement has long made it clear that the goal of personal law reform must be gender justice, not uniformity. First, because it is not clear to what standard would uniformity be held. That is, should we take the best practices of all Personal Laws and put them into a Uniform Code for all communities? What if a practice in Muslim Personal Law is more gender-just than one in Hindu Personal Law – such as for instance, the marriage as contract than as sacrament? Would Hindus accept that the Hindu marriage henceforth should be a contract too? The point here is that when the Hindu right demands a Uniform Civil Code or an end to triple talaq, it is as another weapon to use against Muslims, not because they care for Muslim women. If they did care for Muslim women, then they should be listening to the voices of Muslim women’s organizations like Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan and Bebaak Collective, which are in legal battle to remove such provisions from Muslim Personal Law, but which are firmly opposed also to the Hindu nationalist project and the violence it unleashes on Muslim women during communal violence. (I have written about these issues more at length here.)
The Role of the ABVP
It is in this scenario that we must see the ABVP and its growing power in universities. ABVP, whether in power as official students’ unions or not, has the ear of key people in university administrations, and direct access to the Ministry of Human Resources Development. This was in evidence in JNU and Hyderabad Central University, the scripts of which crises I will not rehearse again here, they are too well known. But ABVP has been active in similar ways on other campuses over this past year, Allahabad University and IIT Madras for example.
Suffice it here to give two instances from JNU after the first crisis had subsided through the intervention of Delhi High Court. The first Academic Council meeting held in the current Vice Chancellor’s tenure (My 2016), at the height of the hunger strike by the students, ended in its abrupt adjournment. No faculty member or the JNUTA had any idea of when the AC meeting was to be reconvened, despite several attempts to get this information from various members of the university administration. The first intimation was to ABVP, in a handwritten note by a senior member of the administration on a letter written by the ABVP President. An image of this letter was circulated on WhatsApp by the ABVP to indicate its closeness to power. Second, an Orientation Programme organized by the VC for new entrants at the beginning of the academic year of 2016, kept out all student organizations. However, some students were present as “volunteers”, and they happened to be from the ABVP.
The ABVP played a key role in the crisis concocted at Central University of Haryana last month over a dramatic performance of Mahashweta Devi’s story Draupadi (1978), in which the protagonist, an Adivasi woman, defiantly faces down the police who have raped and tortured her in custody. In Gayatri Spivak’s translation, Dopdi, (as she calls herself), at the end holds her battered and naked body erect before Senanayak:
She looks around and chooses the front of Senanayak’s white bush shirt to spit a bloody gob at and says, There isn’t a man here that I should be ashamed. I will not let you put my cloth on me. What more can you do? Come on, counter me…come on, counter me…?
Draupadi pushes Senanayak with her two mangled breasts, and for the first time Senanayak is afraid to stand before an unarmed target, terribly afraid.
The word “counter” is used in the Bangla original, and Mahashweta Devi meant by it an abbreviation for “encounter,” universally understood in India as the way in which political activists and “terrorists” are described as being killed (“in an encounter”) after being tortured to death in custody by police or army.
The ABVP termed the play anti-national’ as it “shows Indian soldiers in poor light” and filed a police complaint against the teachers and students who participated in the play, demanding that they should be booked under sedition charges. Subsequently, the faculty members involved, Dr Snehsata Manav and Dr Manoj Kumar are being targeted in disciplinary action by the university authorities and there were demonstrations at the gates of CUH supposedly by “villagers” from the surrounding areas whose sons are in the armed forces. The faculty members and students who are with them, continue the struggle for academic freedom, with support and solidarity from the wider academic community in India and outside, but what is noteworthy once again, is the role of the the ABVP in acting as storm troopers for RSS ideology and its militarist national imagination. University authorities under Vice Chancellors appointed by the Modi regime, are quick to act on the slightest complaint from ABVP.
Army, livelihood and patriotism
The fact is that in 21st century India, Mahashweta Devi’s story written in the context of the Naxalite movement in Bengal, still resonates. It is still an India of extensive police brutality and corruption; an India of farm lands and forests violently acquired by the state for private corporations through the deployment of its coercive state apparatus; an India in which armed and paramilitary forces routinely treat large sections of the country as enemy territory, under the full protection of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Widespread abuse of power and sexual offences by armed forces in areas under AFSPA have been authenticated by several investigative reports, not least among them, the reports of two distinguished committees – the Jeevan Reddy Commmittee set up by the government in 2004 and the Santosh Hegde Committee set up by the Supreme Court in 2013. The fact is that the Constitution is suspended under AFSPA and that the armed forces in areas under AFSPA cannot be prosecuted for sexual crimes under the law of the land. The fact is that police routinely torture, sexually assault and rape people in their custody, whether arrested for petty crimes or under anti-terrorism laws or as suspected Maoists. None of this is startling new information.
However, of late, public references to this aspect of “maintaining law and order” attract the ever vigilant attention of the ABVP and of sundry publicity seekers, sworn to protect the fragile honour of “the army”. There are innumerable police complaints and on-going cases in court, against individuals who have raised this issue in speech or writing. Apparently the “morale of the army” is a delicate thing, and it is the duty of the Indian citizen to cherish and protect it from being “affected” in any way.
We must never therefore, address the question of bribes in army recruitments.
Never raise the issue of disaffection among lower ranks of the army at service conditions that include their having to act as domestic servants of officers. In 2015 Voice of Ex-Servicemen Society (VESS) came out with a Charter of Demands that included the following:
The untouchability and ghetto system practiced by all Armed forces Ancillary services to be abolished. e.g. AWHO projects have separate enclaves for Officers and PBORs, even though cost of the dwellings are same for both.
Elimination of sewadari system from Army. Soldiers are for Fighting wars – not domestic servants
Re-structuring and modernising forces in professional manner by removing colonial discrimination by their roots, in similar ways of modern Forces similar lines of American Army.
Discrimination prevalent in armed forces should be eliminated in all its forms. Forces have become VVIP racism hubs with almost every facility being reserved for officers, including toilets.
Reducing corruption in armed forces, by creating a platform wherein corrupt practices can be reported by PBOR without fear of retribution- Similar to Whistle blower protection act.
Never address the fact that corruption is rampant in the military establishment, in some cases, affecting the quality of the equipment given to soldiers at the border, risking their lives.
Never ask why Hanumanthappa had to die in Siachen, why so many Indian and Pakistani soldiers die in that icy desert, from natural calamities like avalanches or just by being for sustained periods in that challenging terrain. Over 2000 soldiers from India and Pakistan have died there in these ways, not in combat, since 1984, when the two countries entered into competition for Siachen.
Sanjay Kumar writes:
Experts differ on the strategic importance of the glacier, but they agree that the icy terrain has become more of a prestige issue for both India and Pakistan rather than a security issue. The non-delineation of a formal border between the two countries prevents the demilitarization of Siachen. This will not happen unless both nations demonstrate foresight and vision in handling the issue. Furthermore, as The Hindu noted in an editorial:
The demilitarization of Siachen is definitely doable. This is not only because it is diplomatically possible, but also because there is a critical mass of opinion in both India and Pakistan that neither can sacrifice, or put in harm’s way, so many lives on the inhospitable glacier. If the initiative is not seized by both sides now, the vagaries of nature will continue to exact a toll on forces deployed in Siachen, even if peace holds.
Several initiatives were made in the past to solve the Siachen issue, but the deep seated mistrust between New Delhi and Islamabad always came in the way.
Amid the ongoing dispute, the real victims are the soldiers. Is it worth losing so many lives for this terrain?
But of course, “demilitarization of Siachen is a seditious proposal.”
It is overwhelmingly poor men who join the armed forces, as a means of livelihood. As Aakash Joshi wrote after the deaths of Indian soldiers at Uri:
So many of those that died at Uri came from poverty. Among the dead were seven cooks. Did they choose to die the way they did, or were they victims of an event in which they had no authorship? Why were the tents, in which many of those who fell at Uri were residing, not fire retardant? Or why, as Sepoy Biswajit Ghorai’s father asked, was a 22-year-old with just 26 months in the army sent to such a high-risk zone so early in his career? So soon after Pathankot, why is one of our forward army bases so vulnerable to an attack from across the border? There may well be reasonable answers to all these questions. It is, however, our responsibility to ask them.
Can the ati desh bhakts give us a reason why the armed forces face such huge shortage of personnel while there is red blood flowing in their veins? Shouldn’t every real nationalist from Arnab Goswami to the ranks of the ABVP be filling those posts? (At the salaries the jawans earn, of course. It would be inspiring to see Arnab manage on a monthly income lower than the cost of one of his dashing suits.) And what sacrilege that the Defence Minister of this most nationalist of governments should assure Parliament that improved pay structures are being put in place to reduce attrition and attract new recruits into the armed forces. What an insult to the patriotism of our brave soldiers who join the armed forces only to protect Bharat Mata. Surely it is seditious even to utter the words “pay” and “armed forces” in the same breath?
RSS attack on thought
Ultimately, what the ABVP and its progenitor, the RSS demand, is the substitution of critical thinking (indeed, of thought itself), everywhere and particularly in universities, by slogans of the Hindu nationalist project, enshrining them violently as above any questioning.
Bharat Mata ki Jai.
Indian Army ki jai.
Gau hamari mata hai.
With these four slogans, the RSS could run a full fledged education programme towards a nation that would eliminate minorities and Dalits, independent women, all dissent, and most importantly, create that “bitter sense of wrong” Savarkar thought essential for Hindutva to succeed, towards the Other.
(Even towards the wildly popular and talented Fawad Khan, whose scintillating presence in a Bollywood film would apparently violate Bharat Mata herself. But Fawad Khan is the real threat, for remember Savarkar’s dictum, “everything that is common in us with our enemies, weakens our power of opposing them.” And Fawad’s talent lies in his ability to appear accessible to the viewer; not a “star”, but a possible boyfriend or husband, a colleague at work. Actor Ramya has a case lodged against her for sedition for stating, after a trip to Pakistan, that “Pakistan is not hell”, and the people there are “like us”. No Ramya, they are not like us. We have nothing in common with or enemies).
Independent thinking is a serious problem for this project of Hindutva nation-building. Take for instance, an interview with President of JNU’s ABVP unit, Saurabh Sharma, a doctoral student in neuroscience, in which he says:
“…no Indian will ever agree with [the] claim that we have forcefully occupied Kashmir. May be a handful of Indians will agree…but a majority call Kashmir, the heaven of India.
Go back to text books. I have never read in any school book that Kashmir is not an integral part of the country.
The reporter asks: But there will be some differences in what you read in school text books and what is taught in colleges?
I would have never got full marks if I had written in my exams that Kashmir was not an integral part of India.
This anti-thinking perspective fostered by RSS and so obediently displayed by the ABVP is far from absent in more mature adherents of the ideology. Recently, the proceedings of the Academic Council of JNU once again hit the headlines when two courses submitted for consideration by the Centre for Sanskrit were after deliberation, returned to the Centre for reformulation. The very next day, before the minutes of the meeting were formally circulated, there were stories in the media that anti-national JNU had rejected courses in “Yoga Philosophy” and “Indian Culture”, because of course, Sanskrit by definition is Indian and nationalist, and any courses proposed by that Centre should be reverentially passed. The real reasons for rejecting those courses emerged from an extensive discussion in the AC, in which renowned historians and scholars of Indian philosophy exposed the shoddiness in conceptualisation and dubious academic merit of the courses. One by one every member of the AC spoke and the overwhelming majority took seriously such academic objections. Serious Sanskrit scholarship is not the issue. There are many accomplished Sanskrit scholars outside the Sanskrit Centre in JNU, some of whom gave detailed comments on the courses (these can be read here). And on the other hand, the Chair of the Sanskrit Centre has come out publicly against serious Sanskrit scholarship, in a petition to remove renowned Sanskritist Sheldon Pollock, from Editorship of an important translation series. Historian Janaki Nair has pointed out the many illiteracies of that petition here.
Utterly revealing however, was the comment by an external (non-JNU) member of the AC, whose turn came after most had expressed their views. Declared he passionately, “Sanskrit is for the nation, and these courses are necessary for India. I say, if we can’t wage a war, let us go for a surgical strike.”
Such language and imagery in an academic context, during a discussion of academic courses, leaves nothing to the imagination as far as the RSS agenda is concerned. The conflation of Sanskrit with India, and the identifying of academics making scholarly arguments about courses proposed by the Centre for Sanskrit, as the enemy to be waged war upon, reveals in its entirety the Hindu nationalist programme for the elimination of thought.
What is left then, for the Hindutva project to do, is to send out its storm troopers, the ABVP, to obliterate all space where thinking can take place, by physical violence.
In Delhi University, students of Pinjra Tod (which translates as Break the Cages), who have been in a militant campus-wide campaign for over a year, for freedom and safety in public spaces for women, have been physically attacked by the ABVP. In their words:
After an exhilarating march through the lanes of Delhi University last Friday, we arrived at Vijaynagar tea point to begin our night vigil against sexual harassment. The Vijaynagar tea point, which is usually occupied only by men, took a different dimension that night as women took over and redefined the nature of that space. When we began our Pinjra Tod street play, Satender Awana (Ex-DUSU President from ABVP) arrived at the vigil along with his drunken companions. As expected, they smirked, laughed, passed comments and started to take videos on their phones, as though our protest was for their entertainment. The ABVP men ordered the chai-wallah to shut down, acting as the bully they are, in a display of their male, upper caste entitlement and insecurity. At the end of our play, Awana and Co, very predictably, began to scream “bharat mata ki jai!” One of these ABVP men in a green t-shirt, thought it would be ‘fun’ to flash a hundred rupee note at a Pinjra Tod activist and provocatively dance with it, in a desperate attempt to shame us by suggesting that we were ‘randis’ dancing for their pleasure. On being challenged, the man caught hold of the Pinjra Tod activist’s wrists and kept tightening his grip, while attempting to corner her with his friends.
We women were not going to tolerate this infuriating display anymore! The anger that lies buried in us from facing such harassment and aggression everyday in our universities, was to erupt that night. The manner in which ABVP behaved at the vigil, was not an isolated incident, but it happens repeatedly in our classrooms, during elections, on the streets, in public meetings and protests, turning the university into a hostile masculine space, instead of a democratic and liberating one for all students.
Since then, both male and female students identified with Pinjra Tod have been facing daily harassment and physical intimidation from ABVP goons at different places on campus. They are however undeterred, and march ahead with the slogans:
Bharat ki Mata Nahin Banenge.
Sabhi Pinjron ko todenge, Itihaas ki dhara modenge.
(We will not be Bharat’s mothers/We will break all cages, change the direction of history)
In JNU recently, a group of ABVP students provoked a fracas in a hostel with a student associated with a Left organization, who also happens to be Muslim. The administration immediately issued a disciplinary notice against the Left student, but no action was taken against the ABVP students. The student has since then, disappeared, JNU students are in protest against the administration, and once again an atmosphere of intimidation, especially this time, against minorities, has been unleashed on JNU campus. From a newspaper report of a eye witness account of the actual incident, it would appear that Najeeb was targeted specifically as a Muslim by the ABVP group.
JNU is a campus where physical fracas are very rare, but the ABVP clearly manages, whether it is in power (as in Delhi University), or out of it (as in JNU), to create such violent scenarios.
Most disturbingly, recently, arms were displayed by supporters of Delhi University Students’ Union President, in the DUSU office, for which no satisfactory explanation was given.
Within the last three months, here are three incidents on campuses one finds in the news.
In Bareilly College, ABVP leaders assaulted a male student “for asking questions in class”.
In Mangaluru, an ABVP activist assaulted a male student, this time, for answering a question asked by a woman student outside an examination hall.
In Trichy, tension prevailed at the Government Law College with allegations of state president of the ABVP compelling students to join the organization.
These are just a few of the reported incidents that made it to the media.
ABVP has evidently been given instructions from Nagpur to provoke violence on campuses. We, teachers and students, who are in a deadly serious struggle to save our universities, must recognize the game plan, and remain calm. We will wage the struggle in the best way we know – through our non-violent, militant protests.
And our relentlessly critical thinking.