In India, the right-wing ABVP takes down its opponents through trolling, harassment and threats — and recently took down an outspoken liberal, Gurmehar Kaur.
Indian universities are becoming a battleground as a new war is being fought on campuses across the country between the radical right-wing and the liberal left. Last week, the campus of Delhi University saw violence and disruptions when the right-wing student group ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad) protested against a seminar entitled “Cultures of Protest,” which was scheduled to take place on February 21. At the seminar, JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) student leaders Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid were invited to speak.
This is not the first time that the ABVP — which has strong ties to the ruling BJP, the right-wing Hindu nationalist party that is currently in power in India — has been in the news for violent incidents and attacks, particularly when it comes to JNU teachers, administrators, and students. There is long-standing hostility there; JNU is a liberal left-wing university that fosters critical thinking, free debate and independent thought, and this is dangerous to the right-wing ideology. JNU student leaders Kanhaiya Kumar, Shehla Rashid and Umar Khalid have all received death threats in the past year.
The ABVP has a legacy of violence and vandalism; they have a few proven tactics that they like to use time and again. A favorite strategy is to accuse anybody they disapprove of anti-nationalism; it was exactly a year ago that JNU student leaders were arrested on sedition charges. Nivedita Menon — a JNU professor — was invited to lecture at a university in Jaipur; although she evaded charges, the academic who invited her was not as lucky. He was suspended, just as an associate professor at the Central University of Jharkhand was suspended in 2016 for inviting a JNU professor to an event.
In 2013, the ABVP attacked the students of the Film and Television Institute of India, in Pune, over the screening of a film, and in 2016 they disrupted an Amnesty International event in Bangalore that was being organized to bring attention to human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir. These are only a sampling; there are more, and they occur across the length and breadth of India. It is hardly surprising; ABVP currently boasts a membership of more than 3 million students, and claims to be India’s largest student organization.
People who stand up to ABVP quickly find themselves on the receiving end of threats, harassment, bullying and — in these days of social media — trolling across social media accounts. Their latest quarry, Gurmehar Kaur, is a 20-year old student of Delhi University. She launched a campaign against ABVP that went viral, and she quickly became the target of vitriolic rage and hatred. Although she is the daughter of a slain Indian Army soldier, there was absolutely no respect for her family’s sacrifice. Trolls went so far as to say that her father would be ashamed of her if he were still alive, and she has been mocked and derided by politicians, cricketers, and actors. Yes, I’m looking at you, Kiren Rijiju, Virender Sehwag, and Randeep Hooda.
It’s not surprising that Gurmehar has been labelled an anti-nationalist; that’s a pattern that ABVP and its allies love to repeat over and over again. The perils of free speech are an actual point of discussion here in India now, with politicians from the ruling right arguing that free speech is all very well, as long as you don’t use that free speech to critique the country. It seems to me that they’re missing the point of what free speech actually is.
Universities like JNU and Delhi University are bastions of liberalism, free speech and left-wing ideology; their student leaders are charismatic, well-spoken, and politically brilliant. They are the leaders of tomorrow, and that, more than anything, is what the right-wing seems to fear. Students are still out of the government’s control; they are encouraged to question authority; they are taught to be individualists; the spaces they belong to are spaces where liberal democracy creates itself. This is why the government relies on the ABVP to reach into these spaces where they cannot, and the ABVP, unquestioningly, faithfully, and unerringly wages this war.
Gurmehar Kaur has been successfully silenced for now; the threats – particularly the detailed rape threats she received – took their toll, and she stepped away, asking to be left alone. An uneasy calm finally prevails upon Delhi University, but it won’t be for long. ABVP will be back, in another university, targeting another Gurmehar, threatening the life of another Kanhaiya. The utter tragedy is that every time this happens, every single time ABVP wins, democracy in India dies a little bit more. If liberal universities are not protected, if free speech is not allowed to remain intact, and if students are restrained, India as we know it will change irreversibly, and one day only the memories of democracy will remain.