JNU Elections: Understanding the ABVP's Violence

While there is legitimacy for the underprivileged social groups to protest against their imposed social status, those coming from upper echelons, like the students of the ABVP, find themselves in a no-man’s land of neither being able to claim vulnerability nor legitimately articulate against perceived-vulnerability.

While there cannot be second thoughts in condemning the repeated acts of violence that the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) resorts to as they did yet again during the student elections in JNU, one needs to also search for the potential sources of this violence if one is to address it. Also, at the end of the day, these are students with a long life ahead and the cynicism that is found in their violent acts is something they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. Not long before the ugly incidents in JNU, Mohan Bhagwat articulated the current situation in India as a contest between a lion and wild dogs, conjuring up the imageries of a conflict between a prey and political predators. Violent imagination of politics seems to be endemic to much of Right-wing thinking.

There seems to be complex reasoning as to why those indulging in violence feel so desperate as to see no reason beyond a point but to express their angst through threats, street violence, abuse and intimidation. Invariably, those indulging in such wanton acts of violence belong to the so-called upper echelons of the society, who in a historical sense enjoyed undue privileges that are now being challenged by the bottom-up mobilisation, in terms of caste, gender, among others social aspects.

Further, this sense of superiority in history stands in stark contrast to their current situation where most of them come from humble economic backgrounds, from rural hinterlands facing somewhat similar kinds of challenges in speaking English, cultural lifestyles, urbanity and sense of aesthetics, as that of other not-so-well-to-do castes. This precarious location between a false sense of superiority based mostly on caste egos and the actuality of their current situation that is as vulnerable as anybody else leads to a social-psyche marred by the simultaneity of ego and inferiority. A claim to superiority in the past and vulnerability in the present. Across a certain cultural paradigm, individuals in such locations feel as stigmatised as their counterparts from more underprivileged castes and social backgrounds.

However, while there is legitimacy for the underprivileged social groups to protest against their imposed social status, those coming from upper echelons like the students of the ABVP find themselves in a no-man’s land of neither being able to claim vulnerability nor legitimately articulate against  perceived-vulnerability. Such a self-imposed exile leads to an inability of such individuals to become part of the institutions of higher learning in true sense of the term. Owing to their exalted egos and hyper-masculinity that work as shields against getting their social and economic vulnerability exposed to ridicule and stigma, they often remain as under-performers in institutions.

The fact that they need to compete with others and may not be the best and that they need to learn and educate themselves as anybody else in the system prove to be a difficult labyrinth for such individuals to negotiate. Education is a great leveller, and individuals suffering from such precarious social psyche find it difficult to come to terms with this process of levelling. The irony is that, students from these backgrounds often move out of the institutions of higher learning without acquiring any additional skills due to their refusal to come to terms with the fact that their ‘earlier superiority’ does not ensure them their current social status. This process of self-denial continues with them and so does their habitual resorting to violence. It is indeed a vicious circle that they are caught in. One rarely finds students from the ABVP active in class rooms, in seminars, and other academic activities. They remain suspicious and the politics that they pursue as part of the organisation they belong to only further reinforces that sense of cynicism.

This micro-socio-psychological process has links with the larger politics of ABVP’s parent organisation, the RSS. The source of the kind of framework the RSS adopts towards history and politics seem to have roots in the same combination of exalted ego and self-imposed inferiority. They see Hindus as victims of invasions by the Muslim rulers and later the British. They therefore feel Hindus self-hood of being peaceful, loving and accommodative has only reduced them to being exploited by the outsiders and they now need to assert themselves through militant aggression. This broad-brush narrative has the hidden story of lost glory of the dominant castes, which is why the repeated references to a glorious ancient past and the scriptures.

It is though ironical that the RSS feels Hindus are gullible and therefore feels fabricating history, creating rumours, passing misinformation, I guess, is something that will work with the Hindu community. Though they of course feel they pursue such methods in the larger interests of the Hindus and the nation. The ABVP is part of this larger narrative but what remains disturbing is that the larger outreach of such an organisation will only continue to produce young men and women who remain patently cynical of society around them. The question that should be raised by progressive-Left organisations, beyond or along with condemning such wanton acts of violence, is what reprieve can one collectively provide these young guns to come out of their part precarious, part self-imposed vulnerability marked by a misplaced sense of a self.

This inner vacuum that they suffer in a merit-based modern (capitalist) social order where they struggle to cope, as students from other underprivileged background, remains a potent source of the violence. How does one tame their exalted egos and their hyper-masculinity found in their recent acts of violence against girl students in JNU? Can one reach to their inner recesses where they seem to perceive themselves to be lonely, vulnerable and stigmatised, without a legitimate language to articulate the angst, except for finding resonance in the kind of hyper-nationalist rhetoric that RSS continues to offer them? What are the alternative modes of extending sense of recognition and dignity to these dominant-castes in decline? Unless these somewhat awkward questions are publicly debated, they will remain in the darker parts of human collective generating criminality and fear as false sources of solace.

Ajay Gudavarthy is associate professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.