[ In this 3 part series on Student Activism and the ABVP, the author intends to analyse both the contributions and the shortcomings of this organisation. The author also intends to focus on the challenges facing this student body today . As a long serving member of the organization, the author feels he is qualified to give an insider’s perspective to these questions ]
Be it the Argentinean student revolution of the 1920’s or the emergence of campus activism in the early 1950’s in Canada that led to large scale changes in that country’s political landscape, or the campus activism in Australia that triggered major changes in that country’s political climate, student activism has proved to have had the potential to inflict substantial changes in a country’s public life.
Back home in India, students were at the forefront of the freedom movement with thousands of them boycotting schools and colleges to join the struggle. The participation of students grew in number towards the later part of the freedom struggle, with the Quit India movement witnessing the largest student and youth participation. Post Independence, though the role of student participation in public life lessened substantially, various student organizations continued their work across university campuses. University elections and affiliations of student organizations with various political parties also kept student activism ticking on the campuses.
A resurgence of student activism was witnessed in the dark days of the emergency, when students responding to Jayprakash Narayan’s call for total revolution, immersed themselves in large numbers in the fight against emergency. In fact, JP himself realized the potential of student activism when he saw them lead a fight against corruption in Bihar and Gujarat. JP formed the Chatra Sangarsh Samiti – an umbrella of student and youth organizations across the country – that led the fight against emergency from the forefront. An important constituent of this forum was the Akhil Bharatiya Vidayarthi Parishad, more popularly known in its abbreviated form as ABVP.
A key member of the Sangh Parivar, the ABVP was founded in 1948 with the objective of national reconstruction on the foundation of Indian ethos. Sensing the immense potential in mobilizing students for achieving this end, the ABVP consciously made an effort to build an all India network of dedicated volunteers and activists who would take the work and ideas of the organization to the remotest campuses of the country.
In the 1982 Vichar-Baithak (Intellectual Discussions) – a quadrennial exercise- an attempt was made to define the basic tenets of the organization. “ABVP wants to build an ideal student movement”, the resolution said, “which will work in the wider context of national reconstruction, in the field of education, with a firm belief in constructive activity, in the existence of educational community and in the need to stay above partisan politics”. Contrary to the mainstream media’s relentless portrayal as the hooliganist student wing of the BJP, the ABVP was the earliest student organization in the country to emphasize that student activism must not only be constructive in nature, but more importantly, must remain completely aloof from partisan politics.
Over time, the ABVP has grown into a mature student organization – mature, in terms of both organizational strength and ideological clarity. Today, the ABVP is the world’s largest student organization in terms of membership, outreach and activities. The activities of the organization can be seen across India – be it in terror inflicted Jammu and Kashmir or the communist stronghold of Kerala or the Naxal infected districts of Andhra Pradesh or the insurgency inflicted remote villages of the North East. Like its mother organization, the RSS, the ABVP has man-making as the central tenet of its philosophy; Knowledge-Character-Unity being its guiding motto.
The ABVP has been at the forefront of many agitations that have taken place in the country. Starting from the Goan liberation movement of 1961, the participation in Civil Defence during the Chinese aggression, the relentless fight against corruption in Gujarat and Bihar in the early 1970’s ,the massive participation in the fight against the emergency where more than 5000 members of the organization were imprisoned under the draconian MISA – ABVP has led numerous agitations in the country. As a nationalist ideological movement, the ABVP has been fighting a long and arduous battle against anti-national ideologies, even at the cost of sacrificing many of its young and dedicated volunteers in the course of the struggle. The ABVP’s bold fight against Naxalism and left wing extremism, where many of its volunteers were brutally murdered in cold blood, is an example of the kind of commitment to nationalism, patriotism and selflessness the organization instills in its volunteers. Bearing in mind these sacrifices, one would undoubtedly feel that the slogan – “Join the Indian Army. If not, join the ABVP” – is not an exaggeration.
In addition to these agitations, the ABVP’s role in awakening the young populace to the national security problems of the country has been exceptional. ABVP led thousands of students in protests in Kerala and Tamil Nadu against the illegal infiltration by Bangladeshi’s in the north eastern part of the country and the insurgency and separatist movements in Kashmir. When political commentators were speculating the very endurance of a strong knit Indian political state in the wake of the separatist cries from Kashmir and the North East, students in Karnataka were taking out large protest marches with passionate slogans like “Kashmir ho ya Guwahati, apne desh apni maathi” on their lips. Besides this, the ABVP also conducts the SEIL –Students Experience in Inter-State Living – a unique student exchange program between students of North east India and the other parts of the country. The main object of this exercise is to acclimatize students from various parts of the country to the varied, diverse and pluralist culture of the country. These agitations and activities not only pressed the governments to address these security problems, but by bringing these issues for discussion in universities and college campuses, they also helped the awakening of the national consciousness in the young.
ABVP’s band of dedicated volunteers, like all other organizations of the Sangh Parivar, are always at the vanguard of all relief activities, attending immediately to any natural disaster. Whether it is the participation in the relief works during the 1977 cyclone in AP or in helping the earthquake victims in Gujarat, or the tsunami in TN or the recent floods in North Karnataka, ABVP’s volunteers are some of the first to be on the ground, seen helping the victims.
In addition to these, the ABVP – by winning the most number of student union elections – is the most successful of all student organizations in India. ABVP elected student leaders have maturely handled the responsibilities of the union’s offices and have made commendable efforts in addressing the problems of the universities. Many such student leaders have gone on to become very successful political administrators of the country; Arun Jaitely, Narendra Modi, Sushil Kumar Modi to name a few. Hundreds of volunteers, having got exposed to a life of leadership and initiative at the ABVP have gone on to build many successful social and commercial entrepreneurial ventures.
Most importantly, ABVP’s concerted fight against gross commercialization of education, demand for systemic changes in both the academic and extra-academic educational curriculum and constant voicing of student focused concerns have made policy makers take note of the all important voice of the students while framing educational policies. Also, ABVP gives great emphasis on channelizing the immense energy of students in constructive activities. The “Students for Rural Reconstruction” and “Students for Development” projects, started as early as 1978, provide a large platform for students to undertake many constructive activities for rural development and environmental protection. These numerous, round-the-year activities have made the ABVP, one of the most popular student organizations in the country.
Perhaps, you will not find a student in our colleges who would not have heard of the ABVP. Most of them would have taken the membership of the organization by paying the 2 rupee membership fee, at the time of the annual membership drive, when the volunteers of ABVP approach colleges at the beginning of the academic year. While a handful of these students go on to actively participate in the activities of the organization, most of them remain as token members. Nevertheless, as they would have heard of the organization, they take its membership and even preserve the membership counterfoils in their purses or bags.
Wanting to know why many preserved these counterfoils, I once asked a student in a college, why he kept the previous year’s membership challan in his purse. He bluntly said that he hoped it would come of use if the college intended to take any disciplinary action against him or any other students as he could call ABVP ‘leaders’ for help, or more importantly, if they ever wanted to launch a strike against the college, they could seek the ABVP’s help. When I asked him what he knew about the ABVP, he only said that it was an organization “which fights for students”. He did not know anything more about it.
Sadly, it is only this impression that most of the students hold about the ABVP. It was my initial days in the organization, and it surprised me that one could join the organization for reasons such as this. I was also taken aback when I learnt that most of the activities of the organization were unknown to a majority of the students. Later on, to my dismay, I realized that many of those who even actively participated in the activities of the organization joined it for reasons as trivial as this and a good number had no idea of even the various activities the organization conducted, leave alone its ideology.
While many colleges gave ABVP a good reception, many more were vary of letting us to even conduct the annual membership drive for they feared disruption of peaceful academic environment. One of the reasons for this is the portrayal of the ABVP in the mainstream media, especially the English language media, being not very positive. Though a large part of this negative portrayal can be blamed on the stranglehold of the left-liberal types on our English language media, a part of the blame has to be certainly borne by the ABVP and its leadership.
The allegation that today, the ABVP is not very enthusiastically accepted by many students in our universities is not wholly wrong. It is true that the quality of people who are joining the organization is gradually decreasing – in terms of both organizational discipline and intellectual caliber. It is equally true that a section of the ABVP’s leadership – both at the national and the local levels – have grown oblivious to the numerous changes that have taken place in the country and the world, consequently making the organization lose touch of the needs and aspirations of the modern day youngsters. It is equally true that the ideological challenges posed by ABVP’s ideological adversaries are getting fiercer today and more so in our university campuses. Students are being more vocal today, than they were a few decades earlier about the socio-political problems of the country, thanks to the ubiquitous internet and social media. Hot debates and passionate arguments take place on various issues of national and ideological importance on many internet forums, where students are seen actively participating in large numbers.
What is the ABVP and its role in these changing dynamics? If the quality of the ABVP as an organization is decreasing, what are the reasons for the decrease? How can the ABVP overcome the challenges that are being hurled at it today? What shall/should be the role of the ABVP in the forthcoming years in the backdrop of the fast changing milieu of student and youth activism? Can the ABVP, while maintaining its core value and ideological commitment evolve to face the realities and challenges of the present times?
(The author is a Member of Parliament representing Bengaluru South in the Lok Sabha. He tweets at @Tejasvi_Surya)
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