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Controversial student activists turn India's universities into ideological battlegrounds

Controversial student activists turn India's universities into ideological battlegrounds
Activists from a right-wing Indian student organization shout slogans at a protest in New Delhi on Feb. 24, 2016. (Prakash Singh / AFP/Getty Images)

They have disrupted movie screenings, scuffled with fellow students and briefly held a liberal journalist hostage.

And in recent weeks, the political activism of the student organization Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad has become even more controversial in India.

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Activists with the ABVP – which springs from the same Hindu nationalist organization as Prime Minister Narendra Modi's governing Bharatiya Janata Party – complained about a campus event at the University of New Delhi where students condemned the hanging of a convicted terrorist.

Top government officials launched an investigation. Students who organized the Feb. 9 event were charged with sedition and the president of the student union was jailed.

That followed an episode at a university in the southern city of Hyderabad, where ABVP members complained to federal education officials about a student protest against the execution of a man convicted for his role in serial bombings in 1993. One student targeted in the complaint committed suicide.

The agitations have turned India's university campuses into a battleground between liberal, secular voices and supporters of Modi's conservative government – of which ABVP has become among the most prominent. The group's leaders say they are fighting an ideological battle against professors and others they accuse of downplaying the traditions of India's Hindu majority to appease minorities.

"There is a myth called secularism, which believes in denying Indian culture and tradition," said Sunil Ambekar, national organizing secretary for the ABVP. "And these so-called intellectuals propagated this myth for all these years…. Instead of teaching patriotism, they encourage anti-national activities."

Secularism is enshrined in India's constitution, and professors who have clashed with ABVP say that India's right-wing establishment sees an opportunity to promote a pro-Hindu agenda at universities. Professors worry that the group's rising influence is shrinking the space for free debate.

"The government is using ABVP as its foot soldiers because to bring about ideological change in society, it is better to start with students," said Milind Awad, assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, where the February incident occurred.

ABVP maintains it is independent of the BJP, although many party leaders, including government ministers Arun Jaitley and Ravi Shankar Prasad, were members.

The group claims to be India's largest student organization, with 9,800 chapters nationwide. Its membership doubled from 1.1 million in 2003 to 2.2 million a decade later. In 2014, the year Modi took office, the group said it added more than 900,000 members.

The group traces its roots to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a hard-line Hindu nationalist organization that was temporarily banned after Mahatma Gandhi's assassination in 1948 for spreading hatred against the independence leader. The organization, which also spawned the BJP, formed the student group to attract young followers.

Yadunath Deshpande, secretary of the ABVP in Mumbai, organized symposiums across universities last year with the aim of getting students to think "pro-nation." One topic focused on "Indianizing" the subjects that students are taught.

"There are many aspects of our rich history ignored in India's education curriculum," Deshpande said.

Deshpande vigorously denied that the BJP had any say in its functioning.

"Students are gravitating towards ABVP because we take up student issues," he said. "We will not hesitate in standing up to this government either if the situation arises."

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Tensions between the right and left wings have long roiled Indian university campuses. The difference now, many observers say, is that ABVP's links to the governing party are prompting top officials to become involved in the disputes.

That is what happened in January at Hyderabad Center University, where ABVP student members targeted a student group that opposed the execution of Yakub Memon, convicted for his role in serial bombings in 1993 that left 257 people dead across the city of Mumbai.

After the ABVP complained, a BJP official wrote to the federal education ministry, accusing the protesters of turning the university into a den of "extremist and anti-national politics." Then, in an unusual move for a top official, Education Minister Smriti Irani wrote five letters to the university inquiring about the issue.

Rohith Vemula, a Ph.D. student from a poor background who was involved in the protests, was suspended from school, had his scholarship withdrawn and was kicked out of his dormitory. After his appeals to be reinstated went unheeded, he committed suicide.

"Clashes between student organizations at universities are not new," said Suresh Gaikwad, a friend of Vemula. "But today we have central and state ministers interfering with it."

Jawaharlal Nehru University, one of India's most prominent educational institutions, has been a bastion of liberals, who have long controlled the student government. ABVP activists pushed to have an annual festival honoring the Hindu goddess Durga observed, over the objections of liberal students.

"They denounced worship of God and are now denouncing love for the country," Ambekar said. "When students shout anti-national slogans, it is time to question the kind of education they have been subjected to. There are limits to freedom of expression."

Gaikwad said ABVP members are quick to brand anyone who opposes their views as "anti-national."

"Nationalism is about fighting for equality, justice and democracy," he said. "It is about staying true to the constitution of India."

Students say ABVP members have become more militant in the last two years, frequently disrupting campus events where liberal student groups raise issues of caste or capital punishment.

"A university is a place where students should question conventional norms, debate, discuss and engage," said Kancha Illaiha, a prominent author and critic of ABVP. "By compromising the autonomy of universities, we are playing with the future of potential thinkers in the country."

Parth M.N. is a special correspondent.

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