India : Student Day. The age of ABVP

SUR SADAN IS THE CULTURAL EPICENTRE OF AGRA.

The auditorium hosts many of the city’s most significant cultural events, and stands in a compound along one of the main roads through the city centre. Potted plants, arrayed a few paces from each other, form a ring around the auditorium building, and manicured shrubs and small trees line the roads and walkways. On the morning of 10 July, every pot had a saffron flag planted in its soil, and every shrub and tree within easy reach had one dangling from its branches. The flags bore a circular logo of a flaming torch held aloft against a silhouette of the Indian subcontinent. Four bold letters above it announced “ABVP.”

Every year, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a student group affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, celebrates the anniversary of its founding, on 9 July 1949, as rashtriya chhatra diwas, or national students day. As part of this year’s anniversary proceedings, the ABVP’s Agra unit held a two-week plantation drive across the city. Sur Sadan had been chosen to mark its conclusion.

The compound teemed with young people : university and school students, and uniformed members of the National Service Scheme and the National Cadet Corps, both government-run volunteer programmes. Two ABVP volunteers stood at the auditorium doorway, putting tilak on the forehead of each entrant. I was welcomed with a smear of the vermillion powder too.

The hall was booming with slogans : “ABVP dynamite, ABVP dynamite,” “Laal chale bhai laal chale, Bharat Ma ke laal chale” (Forward, sons of Bharat Ma) and “Bharat ko phir vishwa guru banana hai, yahi pavan laksh hamara hai” (Our sacred goal is to make Bharat a teacher for the world once again). I settled into a seat in a section of the front row reserved for the media.

At around 10 am, Sunil Ambekar, the 49-year-old head of the ABVP—officially its national organising secretary, a position filled via appointment by the RSS—walked in. Wearing an off-white kurta and with his greying hair neatly side-parted, he moved down the front row, greeting those in attendance. I got a polite “Namaste” and a question about my well-being. I had contacted him earlier to ask for an interview, and he knew I was in Agra to report on his organisation.

Just as Ambekar moved on, a woman who looked to be in her mid thirties sat down next to me. She introduced herself as Poorti Chaturvedi. “Sunil Ambekar-ji told me that you are a journalist and you have arrived from Delhi,” she said. “He insisted that I should meet you and sit with you.”

Chaturvedi told me she was a veteran of the ABVP, and served on its national executive council for ten years before leaving the group, in 2009. Now she was employed in the botany department of Agra’s Ambedkar University, and working on what she called a “Northeast project,” the Anumantaram Kanya Kulam. “As you know, in the Northeast most people do not even consider themselves Indians,” she said. “They don’t know anything about India. So we bring some girls here and educate them about Indian culture—for example, our rituals, puja and practices like havan. Our focus is that they get to know what Indian culture really is. We want to ensure their proper cultural development.” Most of these girls, she explained, were brought to Agra when they were in the sixth class, and sent back home after finishing school. “In the meantime, they live here.”

I heard all of this against a background of loud chants of “vande mataram.” It was a lot to take in. Last year, an investigation in Outlook magazine by the journalist Neha Dixit alleged that groups linked to the RSS had taken 31 Adivasi girls away from their homes in the Northeast to indoctrinate them in Hindutva beliefs. The magazine’s editor, its publisher and Dixit had a criminal case filed against them for “inciting communal hatred.” Soon after that, the magazine’s editor was replaced.

Ambekar took the stage, accompanied by a local BJP MLA, the Agra district collector and regional ABVP functionaries, to address the by-now packed auditorium. He began by praising the plantation drive, and congratulated the Agra unit for its environmental concern. Then he evoked the memory of the Hindu revivalist Vivekananda, who, he said, had helped reestablish the “importance and greatness” of India when the British colonial government was trying to make Indian youth feel inferior about their culture and national identity. “He said we should have pride in our nation, and after that a lot of students started participating in our struggle for independence. Since then, people have been criticising young people’s participation in politics, saying that they create a nuisance. But ABVP always believed in the power of youth, and came up with the slogan ‘Youth power, nation power.’”

Next, he returned to the plantation drive. “We have to think about the environment, and everyone can see the ABVP is committed to protecting the environment. If the air, water and soil are polluted, then our minds and hearts also get polluted. Crimes against women are rising in cities because environmental pollution is having a negative effect on our everyday lives.”

The ABVP, Ambekar continued, is bringing nationalism back into the mainstream, even as a few other student organisations, with help from a section of teachers at various Indian universities, are working against the country. “But I would like to tell such students and teachers who want to break India that this country has changed now,” he said. “The ABVP has pledged to counter such anti-national forces. If any slogans were to be raised in the country now, it would only be ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’ and ‘vande mataram’”—both staples of the RSS and its affiliates.

Towards the end of the programme, I was handed a brochure. It said that the Parishad, as some of the ABVP’s members call it among themselves, had planted 8,000 plants across Agra for the drive—5,000 of them tulsi saplings. Afterwards, Ambekar held a brief press conference. I asked him why the Agra unit had preferred tulsi saplings. “For other plants, people make excuses that their terrace will start leaking or their floor will crack, but no one says no to planting a tulsi sapling,” he said. “We wanted to encourage people to have plants in their homes. Besides, tulsi has so many medicinal values. What is the problem with using tulsi ? It should be seen as just a plant.” Only it is not. The tulsi plant has great religious value for Hindus, and is almost a universal symbol of Hinduism. All the ABVP members I heard speaking about the plantation drive referred to the plant with an honorific attached, as “tulsi-ji.” The ABVP, it seemed, had appropriated this symbol of Hinduism as a symbol of its Hindutva ideology—just as RSS-linked outfits have done with many other Hindu symbols too.

Agra was my first stop on two months of reporting on the ABVP. In that time, I visited university campuses in Delhi and in Varanasi, and spoke to dozens of the organisation’s volunteers and officers in person and over the phone. The more I learnt about the ABVP’s history, the more of its past and present leaders that I interviewed, and the more I saw of its current renaissance, the more it seemed to me that the tulsi-plantation drive was symbolic of the ABVP itself. The group could appear to be just another political student organisation, but it is not ; and now it is being planted across more of India than ever before.

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