ABVP’s ‘Nationalist’ Strategy to Control JNU is an Old Ploy

In the 1970s the ABVP targeted a progressive students' movement at Osmania University using strategies very similar to those used at JNU today.

As the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) swarms across campuses, targeting left-wing and Dalit students and their unions, memories of its violent reign that scarred my undergraduate days in Osmania University, Hyderabad, were revived with a sense of déjà vu.

In the battle to control Osmania, one of the oldest universities in India, the student wing of the RSS wing used the same strategy in the late 1960s and 1970s that has now been unleashed in several centres of higher education: the University of Hyderabad, Jawaharlal Nehru University, IIT Madras and the Faculty of Fine Arts at Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda, among others.

Basking in the rising clout of its ideological parent, the RSS, and protected by its political patron, the BJP, the ABVP cadres are using tried and tested methods employed more than four decades ago on the beautifully landscaped OU campus to target rival students’ unions. Back in the day, as an under-aged, undergraduate student at the imposing Arts College, which I had joined more for its distinct Indo-Saracen architecture than for anything else, I had a ringside view of right-wing politics in the campus.

Strategies used by ABVP at Osmania

In those days, elections were not a civilised affair. It was more often than not a bloody struggle that targeted progressive and liberal ideas, and dalit and women students. The ABVP ruled the roost, having ousted the Youth Congress, and the campus was run like a feudal fiefdom. They brooked no opposition. They first used intimidation to stop others from contesting. If that did not work, they labelled the rival faction anti-national. They also raised the bogey of a rising ‘Red Army’ in a propaganda onslaught based on a smear campaign and distortion of facts.

That was the forerunner of today’s doctored videos. Fortunately, there were no TV channels with or without agendas to fan the flames of student unrest.

The ABVP leaders and RSS members on campus spoke of cultural revival but showed very culture in their dealings, especially with women students. An RSS shakha had been held in the famous Landscape Gardens, the most idyllic spot in OU, and became a much discussed issue. At the time, the big guns of the ABVP were Narasimha Reddy, Surdas Reddy, Vidyasagar Rao and Narayan Das, most of them students of at the law college. The law college then had an unsavoury reputation as the favourite perch of ‘professional students’ – that is, young men who stayed on for years in the hostels with a view to joining mainstream politics eventually.

This was the heady era of the Paris students’ revolution, the anti-Vietnam war protests at the University of California, Berkeley, and the civil rights movement in the US. Students the world over were in ferment and at OU, too, the winds of change were blowing across the campus and in prestigious professional institutions like Gandhi Medical College (GMC). Elections to the students’ union were a time of fear and anxiety for all because of the violence that marked it. Victory allowed the ABVP to exercise day-to-day control over colleges, hostels and the campus administration, recalls Gita Ramaswamy, a social scientist and labour organiser who studied there in the 1970s. “The ABVP did not allow other candidates to contest against them. If the candidate did not withdraw, he was beaten up.”

The challenge of George Reddy

That was until the radical George Reddy stood up to them. George was a brilliant physics student and research scholar who had topped the MSc exams in physics and taken the prized gold medal for excellence in science. He was also gifted in other ways. Well-read and abreast of what has happening in the world – remember there was no TV in those days, and few newspapers that carried news of global developments – he discussed issues of importance with a growing circle of students. He was a persuasive polemicist and drew an eclectic group around him: Dalits, Muslims, upper caste Hindus alike were inspired by this unusually fearless young man who spoke of a progressive movement to stop the rot in universities and society.

He befriended the lowliest staff of the university, known as Class IV employees, and was quick to come to their rescue if they were mistreated. Ready to use his fists, George was portrayed as a troublemaker whenever he fought an injustice.

After he became politicised, the differences between George’s Progressive Democratic Students and the RSS acolytes erupted in frequent clashes. He was murdered in April 1972 in a university hostel in broad daylight while the police looked on, stabbed dozens of times by a gang. It was an event that occasioned widespread student outrage in the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad and had repercussions across the country.

Angry students took out huge rallies to protest the murder, one of which attracted close to 6,000 marchers. In parliament, too, there was anger. Dozens of MPs belonging to different political parties petitioned Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to demand a CBI inquiry into George’s murder. These included K D Malaviya and Chandrasekhar of the Congress, Hiren Mukherjee of the CPI and the opposition, Madhu Dandavate of the Socialist Party. They urged the PM to introduce legislation banning the RSS.

Osmania University. Credit: Jules Joseph/Flickr CC 2.0

Osmania University. Credit: Jules Joseph/Flickr CC 2.0

Lessons for life from George

Ramaswamy, who is the publisher at Hyderabad Book Trust, a not-for-profit organisation that produces, publishes, and sells serious social literature in Telugu, says things were never the same at OU thereafter. Many were inspired to “upholding the politics for which he lived and died”.

Srinath Reddy, a close friend of George who now heads the Public Health Foundation of India, recalls what inspired his band in those days. “We were greatly influenced by the anti-Vietnam war protests and deeply impressed by Cuba’s determination to survive as a socialist country despite unrelenting threats. For us, Che Guevara became the icon of socialist bravery.  With his striking good looks and beard to match, George came to be seen as our own Che.”

In a commemorative piece on the 40th anniversary of George’s murder, Srinath Reddy – his father was the well-known K.V. Raghunatha Reddy who was cabinet minister at the centre – wrote perceptively about the tumultuous events of that era:

“The political scene in the campus changed as right wing communal forces made an entry and started gathering strength.  They saw the Youth Congress as their rival in the student body elections but regarded the left wing student groups as their ideological enemies. The Youth Congress started fading from the campus scene, losing ground both to the ‘left’ and the ‘right’.  Over time, it was only the left groups that offered resistance to the aggressive onslaught of the right wing. George and his associates were especially targeted for vicious attacks – not merely political but often brutally physical.

“All of this made him a prime target for the right wing.  They realised that it would be difficult to make political gains on the campus if they had a charismatic opponent like George.  Some of them befriended him early on, hoping to win him over.  Failing in this, they tried to frighten him into inaction.  Failing in that, too, they decided to eliminate him physically.”

As George waded into university politics with fearlessness and a determination to meet violence with violence, and as his small band of radicals challenged the stranglehold of what he called “fascist forces”, it was an education for the rest of the student body. Many of us were hearing the term for the first time but over the decades, it has become clear that George was prescient in his understanding of what has happening in the country.

Like the iconic Che, George, too, was felled by forces that were too powerful. His murderers  were never brought to book. All were acquitted by the sessions court and an appeal in the high court was dismissed. “It was a foregone conclusion,” says Ramaswamy. 

Right wing tactics remain the same

What is interesting is the first pamphlet brought out in September 1971 by the Progressive Democratic Students (it later became the PDSU). It shows that right-wing tactics have not changed in the last 45 years.

Students who stood up to the ABVP were labelled communist extremists. “It is a typical fascist campaign (creating the myth of the Red Army) to scare people,” reads the pamphlet, which also touched upon the nationalism virus that is now rampant in the country. The infection of that virus had started at OU a long time ago. “Whoever supports the Parishad and its parent organisation the RSS (an organisation banned in connection with the Mahatma Gandhi’s murder) become nationalists while democrats and whoever courageously calls their bluff is a communist extremist to be put behind bars,” it points out.

It’s quite likely that neither Kanhaiya Kumar nor Rohit Vemula know nothing about or, at best, very little about, George Reddy. For today’s students, a book recently published by Ramaswamy –  Jeena Hai to Marna Seeko: The Life and Times of George Reddy – provides a detailed account of the political struggles of the students of that era.

Ramaswamy never met George Reddy; she joined OU after his murder. “Yet he has been a great influence on me and countless other students who were drawn into a new student movement that challenged the establishment,” she told this writer. “Our lives changed beyond comprehension.”

The lives of those who opposed George were greatly influenced, too. Vidyasagar Rao became a rising force in the BJP and is now the governor of Maharashtra. Surdas Reddy joined the Congress, as did Narayan Das.

Latha Jishnu, a senior editor and columnist, is a journalist of many decades.