The West Bengal headquarters of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) in Kolkata is on the first floor of a residential building, with an unassuming black gate that bears big, Bengali letters that say, “Don’t Park Your Car Here”.
The “office space” is a two-bedroom flat in the first floor of the building with white paint chipping off the walls.
Over the years, the ABVP has had to work hard to make its way into university and college campuses in West Bengal- a space that has been dominated by “left-leaning” ideology, if not directly by Left-affiliated student parties.
However, since the BJP secured 18 out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state in the 2019 elections- the party’s first major win in the state in years- the ABVP’s activities have received a boost, say the Bengal workers of the RSS student-wing. While this boost has translated into more visibility for the student organisation, has it been able to use it to make its mark in college campuses?
Increase In Membership But Dynamics Of Student Politics Unchanged
The ABVP’s membership drive is usually held between May-July every year, right after the declaration of high-school board results and towards the beginning of academic sessions in college.
In 2019, right after the election results, 43,472 people signed up to become ABVP members in the state. In 2018, this number stood at around 11,000, say state functionaries.
The 2020 recruitment drive has been postponed because of the COVID-19 situation.
“One thing that has changed since the elections is that ABVP activists, or students who want to affiliate themselves to the ABVP, have the courage to say so openly. Earlier such students would choose to remain apolitical because they were intimidated by the dominant Trinamool Chhatra Parishad (TMCP) or the Left parties,” said Saptarshi Sarkar, National Secretary of the ABVP, to The Quint.
The fact that the ABVP's visibility and general "activities" have increased since the 2019 polls is attested to by Srijan Bhattacharya, state secretary of the Students' Federation of India (SFI). However, they are yet to make a real change to the dynamics of student politics in West Bengal campuses.
"Unlike in mainstream politics where the BJP are currently second place in the state, the ABVP aren't seen as a major contender in student politics yet. It is largely still limited to the Left and TMCP in West Bengal", he says.
He also points towards the fact that instances of violence on campuses, allegedly perpetrated by the ABVP, have increased in areas where the BJP did well in 2019.
In the past year, the saffron student group has been accused of perpetrating violence in several campuses across the state, including the Jadavpur University in Kolkata, Visva Bharati University in Birbhum and North Bengal University in Siliguri.
"They clash with the TMCP where they are in majority and with us where we are in majority. But that's what they're limited to- protests outside gates. They are yet to have the numbers that the other two parties have", said Bhattacharya.
Attracting New Membership
The ABVP says that there’s an effort to bring young people into the fold from the time they finish their class 10 exams.
“We have felicitation programmes for graduating class 10 and class 12 students in each locality. These are not programmes where we look at who topped or who didn’t. We felicitate all the children who put in effort. If there are say, 100 people, that we felicitate, about 10-15 of them later sign up for the ABVP,” explains Sarkar.
20-year-old Sourav Singha is one such recruit.
Singha was a first-year student at Kolkata’s Gurudas College. He joined college and the ABVP in 2019.
“My elder brother was an RSS guy so I used to go to the RSS shakha in our locality since I was a child. I liked the fact that while people in the CPI(M) were obsessing over western leaders like Che Guevara and Marx, the teachers in our shakha were talking about nationalist leaders, those who helped us win the freedom struggle”, says Singha to The Quint.
“After my class 10 board exams, I was felicitated by the RSS and ABVP. I wanted to join ABVP at that time itself but thought that I wouldn’t be able to work as the ABVP office is far from my home. Later, when I joined college, I contacted the ABVP myself so that I could join them. When I think back now, I feel like I should have joined in class 10 itself. In fact, if someone had told me that we could join in class 8, I would have done that too!” he adds.
Bhattacharya, however, claims that "almost 70 percent" of the ABVP membership is made up of disgruntled TMCP members, who could not win favour with the local leadership.
"These instances of violence that we were talking about are also sometimes just two factions of the TMCP taking it out on each other. The ABVP does have some RSS members, but most of them lack any sort of ideological push. It's just an organisation formed of TMCP dropouts", he says.
Agreeing with Bhattacharya's point, former bureaucrat and political analyst, Jawhar Sircar says that the state ABVP, much like the state BJP, has become a "dharamshala" for people looking to flee their organisations. He further states that the TMCP's reputation of being embroiled in multiple corrupt practice in campuses, starting right from the time of admissions, may give an edge to the ABVP. "Just like the Chief Minister had to appeal to her grassroots leaders to not take 'cut-money', the Education Minister had to appeal to the TMCP to not indulge in admission scams and examination scams and other such activities", says Sircar to The Quint. "There's still a disillusionment with the Left, and with the BJP's 2019 win, the ABVP will increasingly look like a viable alternative, though they're yet to make any electoral mark", he adds. The TMCP's "high-handedness" is why Singha claims that one has to now call him an “erstwhile” student of Gurudas College. Following violent face-offs with the TMCP, in which he alleges he’s suffered irreparable damage to his right leg, Singha says that he’s now "stuck" in a “false” legal battle. “They (TMCP) have filed a case against me under six charges, including molestation and attempt to murder. They want me to spend all my time in courts so that I can’t do ABVP work in college”, says Singha, who has now left his parent’s home and moved permanently into the ABVP karyalaya in Kolkata. At present, about 10 members stay at the karyalaya due to the COVID-19 lockdown. The routine that Singha says they follow is not one that many would fathom to be part of life for someone accused of molestation and murder. “We wake up at 5 am to go for a walk or exercise. We then recite the ekatmata sutram and the shanti mantra. Then our shakha starts”, he explains. “In the shakha we pray to the Vedic Gods. We then practice yoga and hold discussions on “issues of the day”, he adds. The shakha activities go on for about an hour, after which the members break for food. There’s a reading of the “bhojan mantra” before every meal. “After our meal there’s time allocated for us to read. Even those who are not students, like me, read something. It’s a part of our discipline,” Singha says. He further states that this “discipline” is something that other student organisations lack and is what attracted him to the ABVP. During the course of his conversation with The Quint, he also alleges multiple times that Left culture is basically also “mod-ganja” (alcohol-marijuana) culture. “On my very first day in college the TMCP guys came to our class and said that they’ll arrange alcohol and drugs for those who want to join them”, he says to elucidate upon his point.
Moral Policing & Tackling The Left
The “alcohol-marijuana” narrative, coupled with the organisation’s nation-wide narrative of the Left being “anti-national”, is the discourse the ABVP seems to be pushing in the state’s Left-dominated colleges, largely limited to the universities in Kolkata.
Suranjan Sarkar, a Jadavpur University (JU) student, and in-charge of ABVP’s South Bengal unit attests to the same.
“The culture among Left students in JU is to come to college, indulge in all sorts of nasha and have a fun time. They know the professors are also Leftist so they will be given grades even if they don’t attend classes,” claims Suranjan.
This narrative has been extended, many times, to the women in JU who have been distastefully remarked on by not just ABVP supporters in online smear campaigns, but BJP leaders in public press conferences as well.
"This is an example of how they moral police students. Women will wear what they want, people will eat what they want, act how they want. That's not what the Left has ever talked about, or ever will", says Srijan, a student of JU himself, reacting to these allegations.
Sarkar, who was one of the organisers of the 2019 ABVP event in JU to which BJP MP Babul Supriyo was invited, also says that while the Left makes a lot of noise about freedom of speech, they don't let opposing voices exercise this freedom.
The Babul Supriyo event later turned into a huge fiasco with student protesters blocking the MP’s entry to the event, the MP alleging that he was manhandled by the students, and hours-long drama that led to vandalisation of college property and Supriyo having to be “rescued” from the campus by West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar.
However, Sarkar says that since the right-wing has started growing in favour in Bengal, ABVP workers in JU, such as himself, have also started asserting themselves more on campus.
“They talk so much about Freedom of Speech, but their professors walk out of the class when an ABVP student comes to study. I, personally, have been ousted from my department’s WhatsApp group because I’m with the ABVP”, he says. “But that doesn’t stop us anymore. We are still trying to organize events and make our mark in the campus.”
When asked if the state BJP influence their activities, both Saptarshi and Suranjan say that while they’re aligned with the BJP, they try to not publicly campaign for them.
“During the Lok Sabha elections, we didn’t campaign for the BJP. We had a campaign called ‘No to NOTA’, and that is what we approached students with. We agree with the BJP’s ideology, but we are not BJP workers. There have been times, nationally as well, when ABVP has disagreed with the BJP,” said Saptarshi.
“For the 2021 elections as well, we are looking for a neutral topic with which to campaign among the students”, he added.
The state RSS, however, does keep a close eye on the student organisation’s activities.
“We have workshops and three-day camps every year with about 250 students in each workshop. This is where students are given ideological training and training in life skills,” said Saptarshi.
Over the last year, the organisation has also arranged for self-defence classes and classes on menstrual health for its female members.
While the ABVP is yet to make an indelible mark on any major campus in the state, the organisation hopes that the growing acceptance for their ideology, as illustrated by election results, changes their fate.