Reign of ABVP: The students' wing of RSS gets ready for a new avatar

ABVP’s Ankiv Baisoya (3rd from right), the newly-elected president of the DUSU, has been accused of submitting fake mark sheet | Photo: PTI
The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) — the students’ front of the Rashtriya Swayam-sevak Sangh (RSS) — often makes news over kerfuffle with its ideological adversaries on prestigious campuses or when its leaders are embroiled in controversies. Recently, Ankiv Baisoya, the newly elected president of the Delhi University Students Union, has been accused of submitting fake marks sheet by the Congress-aligned National Students Union of India —  a charge rejected by the ABVP leader.  

That’s not how the RSS and the ABVP wanted the 70-year-old organisation to be depicted in popular consciousness. The ABVP is the first front the RSS set up in 1948, before the Bharatiya Jana Sangh.  It was nurtured by a Mumbai professor, Yeshwantrao Kelkar, and an RSS pracharak, Madandas Devi. Devi is remembered as peacemaker whenever the Sangh got edgy with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the late Prime Minister. 

P Muralidhar Rao, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) general secretary who was an ABVP leader in Warangal’s Kakatiya and Hyderabad’s Osmania Universities, ascribed the combative profile the ABVP acquired to the Left unions’ purported bellicosity and provocations. “In this country, violence has come fundamentally from the Leftists. The ABVP is strong in Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan, where its only competitor is the NSUI. Where is the violence? If  the ABVP is genetically violent, there should be violence on more campuses,” argued Rao.

In the Sangh parivar, the ABVP is regarded as much of a success as the BJP and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, having set up its branches in 810 universities and over 40,000 colleges, according to Sunil Ambekar, national organising secretary of the ABVP. Statistics don’t interest Ambekar as much as the fundamental changes he witnessed in the ABVP, with which he is associated since 1983. “We have become a cadre-based, pan India, mass organisation. We have committed leaders and activists from every social stratum,” he said. 

To stress his point, Ambekar claimed in 2016 when Dalit student Rohith Vemula’s suicide shook Hyderabad University and triggered a caste backlash, it was the presence of Dalit office-bearers from the Mala and Madiga sub-castes  in the top rung of the state ABVP — signalling what he said was “more than paying a token obeisance towards the Dalits”— that staved off caste conflicts outside the campus.

As further “evidence” of a conscious policy to usher in “social inclusion”, the revamped ABVP national team has a Tamil,  Subbiah Shanmugam, as president for the first time. Shanmugam holds an MBBS degree from Tirunelveli Medical College and practises oncology in Chennai. “Years ago, in Tamil Nadu, we had to change the ABVP’s name to Akhil Bharatiya Mannava Ekam because people were unfamiliar with the original Hindi name. Now we are on 900 campuses,” he said. 

As an adherent of the ABVP’s founding tenet that students must represent “national power” and not become a “nuisance”, Shanmugam described his outfit as a “participant in representation, construction and agitation”. Bharat Khatana, the ABVP’s Delhi secretary, expanded on Shanmugam’s definition and said, “Our basic commitment is to nationalism and patriotism, otherwise we have no fixed ideas. In Delhi, we were the first to pitch for installing sanitary napkin vending machines in colleges and on university campuses. We are needlessly branded anti-modern.” 

In recent years, the ABVP has set its eyes on India’s burgeoning private universities. K N Raghunandan, national joint organising secretary of the ABVP, said, “Currently, 48 per cent of students study in private colleges and universities. We are using different fora like Think India and Students for Development to take our social concepts to private campuses. For example, at Bengaluru’s Christ University, we regularly get students involved in environmental issues. At Vellore Institute of Technology, we organised interactions with prominent educationists.” Shanmugam stressed that the RSS’s endorsement of the Supreme Court verdict on the decriminalisation of same-sex relations was welcomed on several campuses.

However, Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Hyderabad University remain thorns in the ABVP’s flesh, for all its avowal of being “ideologically adaptable”. In the recent JNU student union polls, the Left coalition beat the ABVP to first place but the ABVP came second, albeit a distant second, in all the contested posts. “The Left is unable to digest the growth of the ABVP,” remarked Rao.  Khatana’s take was the ABVP’s “rise” had forced “all” shades of Left unions to coalesce into a front in the polls. Ambekar accused the “interventionist” teachers association of stoking the Left unions to confront the ABVP full steam ahead. “Our approach is in one hand carry a raise-the-problems placard and in the other show a solve-the-problems placard,” he said, brushing aside the fact that the ABVP was second to none in provoking and retaliating against attacks and counter-attacks, despite its smaller strength in JNU.

They started young

The ABVP is the wellspring of the BJP's skills and talent. With the BJP's rise, it is the former ABVP activists who became the party's and later its governments' steel frame 

Among the notables who moved from the ABVP to the BJP are:
  • Amit Shah, BJP president
  • Arun Jaitley
  • Nitin Gadkari
  • Ravi Shankar Prasad
  • Ananth Kumar
  • Prakash Javadekar
  • Radha Mohan Singh
  • Dharmendra Pradhan
  • J P Nadda
Chief ministers and deputy CM
  • Devendra Fadnavis
  • Jai Ram Thakur
  • Sushil Kumar Modi
In the RSS, Dattatreya Hosabale, a joint general secretary, is from the ABVP

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