(Prof. Ram Puniyani has sent the article based on which he delivered a thought provoking speech against communalism in the seminar organised at the venue of 16th All India Conference of Students' Federation of India, SFI held at Shimla. We are publishing it for the larger audience)
The coming to power of Narendra Modi in 2014 has brought to fore the deeper agenda of RSS. During last three decades in India there has been an encroachment of fundamentalist politics in India. This politics has been focusing on the issues related to identity, like Construction of Grand Ram Temple at the site where Babri Mosque was located, those related to personal codes. This politics has whipped up the sentiments of people by abusing the faith of people in religion and used it for strengthening of a Right Wing politics, in the form of the party called Bhartiya Janta Party. This politics has been spreading hate against minorities, initiating and leading violence against them, intimidating them, ghettoizing them and trying to relegate them to the status of second class citizens.
Rashtrriya Swamyam Sevak Sangh (National Volunteers Organization, RSS) has been the real force behind this politics. RSS operates through organizations like BJP, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (Forest Dwellers Organization) Bajrang Dal (Storm Troopers in the name of Hindu God hanuman) and many lie this. It also operates through modulating cultural mechanisms through the Religious Saints (Clergy), through education (Schoolbooks, and chain of schools) through media (direct control over some and infiltration in to others) through infiltration in bureaucracy, police and military)
RSS was formed in 1925 in Nagpur. The immediate cause of its formation was the discomfort amongst the upper castes/landlord elements due to the non cooperation movement launched by Gandhi as a part of freedom movement. This movement brought into fold the average people into freedom movement; this caused discomfort to the elite sections of society. At the same time the Non Brahman movement was shaking the social relations of Brahmin landlord on one side and the dalits-workers on the other. The founders of RSS were very inspired by the ideas of nationalism of Hitler. RSS had contempt towards the concept of Indian nationalism, which was the ideology of Nationalism, led by Gandhi.
RSS took off from Hindu Mahasabha, an organization which was formed by the Hindu Kings and landlords. Later this organization was led by a middle class intellectual, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. He propounded the ideology of Hindutva, Hinduness, which is the concept of Nationalism based on Brahiminical values of hierarchy of caste and gender. RSS founders were to make this concept of Hindutva and Hindu rashtra as their base ideology and politics.
RSS in Action
RSS began with training its volunteers into the version of History, which was communal and had nothing to do with the truth. It said that India has always been a Hindu state and Muslims are aggressors and foreigners. The concept being promoted by Gandhi-Nehru that India is a land belonging to people of all religions is wrong and that what is needed is to build a Hindu nation and undermine the Muslim nation. It decided to keep aloof from direct electoral politics and went to create a set of volunteer, swayamsevaks trained in the ideology of Hindutva. It kept aloof from freedom movement, as freedom movement was based on the values of secularism and democracy, while RSS was for Hindu nation and perpetuation of Brahmanical values in newer garb.
It was/is exclusively male organization and when Laxmibai Kelkar wanted women to be taken into RSS, they were advised to form a subordinate organization, Rashtra Sevika Samiti. In the very name of this organization the word swayam (self) is missing as this organization, like all other communal organization stands for superiority of males, believes in patriarchy. It discouraged people from participating in movements related to freedom. Barring few exceptions none from RSS went to jail during freedom movement. And those who happened to go to jail went either for looking for more recruits for RSS or accidentally went to jail and later on apologized to British and got themselves release from the prison.
RSS, Hindu Mahasbha held Gandhi as the person responsible for appeasement of Muslims, for partition of the country etc. On this charge Nathuram Godse and ex Pracharak of RSS, who joined Hindu Mahasabha killed the father of the nation. At that point Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel said that it is due to the hate spread by RSS that the country had to loose its father, Gandhi. Savarkar was also one of the accused in the murder of Gandhi, but he was let off for lack of corroborative evidence.
RSS started forming other subordinate organizations. One of them was Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, which started working amongst students. In 1951, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee of Hindu Mahasabha in collaboration with RSS formed Bhartiya Jansangh. Bhartiaya Jan Sangh raised identity related issues and resorted to war mongering by calling for the Nuclear weapons to be made by Indian state. It also demanded that, Muslims should be Indianized. It remained a marginal force till it joined the Jaya Prakash movement and got the chance to become part of Janata Party. Meanwhile RSS was silently infiltrating in all the wings of state and society, bureaucracy, police, education, media, judiciary and army. It was working to oppose the progressive liberal values by promoting religiosity and conservatism in cultural arena.
Jansangh joined Janata Party and came to power in 1977; its leaders became the part of Government. Using this opportunity they further planted their workers in media and other parts of the state apparatus. After splitting Janata Party, the Jan Sangh component remerged as Bhartiya Janta party on the grounds of Gandhian Socialism. The values which it never believed, but had to project those for electoral purposes! It lent support to Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 elections Meanwhile it gave birth to Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram. VHP started taking up emotive issues and Ram temple issue was made the center of their political credo. Also they went on to form Bajrang dal on the lines of storm troopers of Nazi party in Germany.
During 1960s and 1980s, also it kept doing its work of propagating Hate against minorities, first against Muslims and then against Christians. The result was anti minority violence. In anti Muslim violence, amongst the victims of violence around 80% are Muslims. Most of the inquiry committee reports have concluded that riots are generally begun by RSS affiliates, pretexts are created for that right in advance. Also due to communalization of state apparatus most of the guilty of the crime are generally not punished. Many a times other political leaders have also used the communal violence for heir narrow political goals. The agitation around Ram Temple created a great deal of social hysteria, leading to Babri demolition and intense violence in Mumbai-Bhopal-Surat and other places. Mumbai violence of 92-93 shook the whole country and instilled a great amount of fear amongst the minorities.
(Photo: Ram Puniyani Speaking at the Conference)
Violence in the name of Religion
Due to violence the RSS base went on becoming stronger and its political wing BJP went on becoming stronger to the extent that it could grab power at the center in 1996. Later again it came to power and ruled the country, under RSS supervision for six yeas. From 1997, in order to scare away the Christian missionaries from Adivasi areas, the areas where their work is leading to empowerment of poor Adivasis, the violence started and during its course, they also burnt Pastor Graham Stewart stains, on the charge that he is doing conversion work. The Wadhva Commission, which went into this murder, opined that Pastor had not done any conversions. Most horrific form of anti Christian violence was witnessed in the BJP ruled Gujarat and later BJP ally Biju Janata dal ruled Orissa (2008). With every act of communal violence BJP becomes stronger.
Agenda of RSS:
RSS has nothing to do with the moral values of Hindu religion. The word it has coined for its politics is Hindutva (Hinduness, which simply explained means a politics based on the values of birth based hierarchy of caste and gender. It is trying to propagate the virtues of Hindu Holy scriptures which glorify the secondary status of women and Dalits (ex-Untouchables). It is stands for abolition of democracy so that the feudal system of rigid hierarchies is brought back with hegemony of upper caste Hindu males. While it talks in the language of religion and glorious ancient traditions, it has subtly opposed the Father of nation, Mahatma Gandhi, who was a Hindu, but stood for secular democratic values and all embracing inclusiveness of people of all religions and castes.
As such India has been a plural society and people of all religions have lived in peace and harmony. It was during the colonial period that seeds of divisiveness on religious lines were sowed and fundamentalist organizations harped on their politics, which as not only opposed to the freedom movement, to secularism and democracy but also to plural culture of India. Today, politics of RSS poses a serious threat not only to the democratic edifice of the nation but also to plural traditions and the spirit of tolerance, which is a part of Indian ethos.
At surface its politics oppresses and intimidates the religious minorities, at deeper level it is opposed the rights of weaker sections of society, the dalits (ex-untouchables), women, workers and Adivasis (tribal). Under the garb of Hindu religion its aim is to subvert the values of Indian Constitution and that India has stood for during the freedom movement.
RSS progeny BJP in seat of Power
BJP first came to power as a minority Government in 1996. That Government fell in 13 days. Later it came to power again for in 1998 as NDA to last the full term. During that period Atalbhihari Vajpayee was the PM with many parties as the part of coalition. The major things they did was nuclear explosion in Pokharan, and saffronization of education in particular. Its real agenda got manifested with Modi coming to power with full majority in 2014.
Modi’s campaign was high profile, backed by section of Corporate and Lakhs of volunteers of RSS Combine (RSS and its progeny-BJP, VHP, Bajrang Dal etc.). Large section of media created blitz in his favor. The propaganda of Gujarat model of development had caught the imagination of large number of youth and some other sections of society. Modi derived enormous advantage from Anna Hazare movement for Jan Lokpal. Anna had a solid team in the form of Arvind Kejrival (Now Delhi CM), Kiran Bedi (Now Governor of Pondicherry), Gen Singh (Now a Minster), Baba Ramdev (now a bigger entrepreneur), Sri Sri Ravishanker to name the few. The primary target of campaign was to defame Congress. The Nirbhaya case was also taken advantage of by Modi, reminding people to keep Nirbhaya in mind while voting. Modi’s promises were sold in an impressive package; black money being brought back leading to Rs 15 Lakhs in every body’s account led the pack. Increase strength of Rupee (Becoming equal to Dollar), cheaper commodities and diesel did the trick; the people in some number got sold over to Modi. Still with all this BJP got 31% of vote share. As we have first past the post system, he was able to corner 282 Lok Sabha seats, a comfortable simple majority.
Though the Government was that of NDA, the other components of NDA had practically no say on the national issues. Forget that even within BJP, first thing which became noticeable was that all power is getting centralized in the hands of prime minster. The Cabinet system, where PM is first among the equals, got gradually replaced by a single leader, deciding all the issues related to policies and Governance. He undertook extensive tours abroad, more than any PM so far. The reaching of cooking gas to poor households and Jan Dhan Yojna, are some attempts to address the issues of poor, but that seems to be about all. In his absence Cabinet meetings are not held, as was the case earlier. Christian minority faced its own problems as now even Carol singing is being associated with conversion activity and sub radar violence against the community is going on.
Identity Issue to the Fore
His closer circle, which accompanies him in his travels abroad, is probably of business people, whose benefits have now become synonymous with development. The whole orientation of industries is revolving around the profits of corporate world; the employment generation has been given a go by. The promised creation of crores of job per year; has seen the practical jobless growth! The suicide of farmers has seen an upswing, as adding on to earlier issues now Holy Cow, has started affecting the agrarian economy. Now it’s difficult to fetch a decent price for old cattle. The prices of agrarian commodities are rising while farmers are getting deprived of their decent earnings.
Adding on to this has been the suicidal step of Modi, demonetization. Hundreds died while standing in the queues, the currency notes in circulation came back in equal measure and Government exchequer was burdened by lakhs of crores in printing of new notes. In addition thousands of daily wage workers lost their jobs, while Modi continued to show his arrogance and not admitting of his folly which plunged the nation in deep crisis. The whole claim of controlling terrorists and Naxalite violence through demonetization also turned out to be yet another of false claim. Adding salt to the injury, GST was applied in a manner which put large sections to discomfort. The people are still not comfortable with the financial hardships brought in by the economic measures.
Meanwhile the rot in the banking system has deepened. The Non Performing assets, loan primarily to big Corporate have increased in volume. Already Vijay Mallya made good his escape with huge loan and is living in London in a life of luxury. Two other business tycoons did the similar trick, right under the nose of Modi, who claimed that he should be elected as a Chowkidar, (watchman) to save the country’s wealth. Neerav Modi and Mehul Chowksi, known to Modi have made good their escape plundering our banks with huge amount of money. The poor farmers with small loans have to commit suicide as they are not able to pay the debts.
In matters of foreign policy, it was claimed that with Modi at helm the neighbors will shudder and behave. While Modi is seen roaming all around the immediate neighbors are what they are. India could not counter China in Dokhlam. There is a great sense of despair all around. The ‘Award wapasi’ campaign by noted citizens showed the despair due to the RSS combine affiliates taking law in their hands with impunity. On regular basis some or the other groups like Bajrang dal, Karni Sena unleashed themselves on emotive issues. Hate speeches went up in the extent with BJP leaders being foremost in such actions. The divisive activities ranged all around on the issues like Holy Cow, Beef, Love Jihad, Bharat Mata ki jai, Vande Matram and what have you. The issue of Ram Temple has been kept alive and surfaces whenever some elections are in the offing. Universities are another site where communal intimidation in the name of patriotism is ruling the roost. The hyper nationalist muscular policies are creating a situation in Kashmir where the alienation of the people is on the rise.
At the level of icons, Sardar Patel is being glorified and Nehru is being undermined. Rumors against Nehru are abounding the social media and his contributions in the building of Modern India being presented in an adverse manner. Since RSS combine did not participate in the freedom movement it has no icons worth its name. There are attempts to appropriate Ambedkar and Patel as its icons. Gandhi’s major contribution in Hindu Muslim unity is being erased and he is being presented mainly as pioneer of Swachta Abhiyan (cleanliness drvie).
At the same time through sleight of hand attempts are being made about participation of RSS in freedom movement, which is totally baseless. Many ideologues of RSS are trying their best to stretch the facts to show that RSS was part of freedom struggle. As RSS is wedded to Hindu Rashtra, its workers do spill this out times and over again. One Anantkumar Hegde recently stated such an intention on the part of BJP. Also as they don’t believe in secularism, Mr. Yogi, UP Chief Minister is asserting that secularism is the biggest lie of Independent India. While on one side they want to change the Indian Constitution, some of them have been demanding that Gita should be declared as the National book. In the arena of education they want to change the content in conformity with the Holy Hindu scriptures and change the pattern of schooling to Guru Shishya parampara (Guru-student tradition) in contrast to the present goal of society, where teacher is the one, who helps the student learn.
Scientific temper and achievements of science are aimed to change for what the Holy Scriptures say. In accordance there are claims of plastic surgery, genetic science, pushpak viman, internet and what have you all being part of the ancient Indian society. At the same time history is being aggressively changed to demonize Muslim kings and glorify Hindu kings. The intimidating sectarian mindset and attitude has led to murders of rational thinkers like Dabholkar, Pansare, Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh.
On every conceivable occasion Muslim kings are being presented in negative light, be it Alauddin Khilji, Tipu Sultan or Taimur. The claims that Taj Mahal was a Hindu structure, or that it is a symbol of slavery are alternately being voiced too often. This does deepen the communal cleavages in the society. Issues like the Love Jihad led to the ghastly murder of Afrazul Khan and tried to annul the marriage of Hadiya.
Anti dalit atrocities saw an upswing during last few years, while bigger garlands are being offered to the portraits of Ambedkar. At places, out of extreme intimidation, many a dalit groups are threatening and also converting to Buddhism. The violence against dalits in Bhima Koregaon was a sad reminder as to how planned violence against dalits is there in the country. The claims are that Modi government honored Ambedkar as no earlier Government did! Nothing can be farther from truth as the policies of BJP Government are polar opposite of what Ambedkar stood for. In tune with earlier Hindu communal organizations the present BJP regime is also trying to portray as if Congress is anti-Hindu, perception is being created that it I a Muslim party.
Challenges to Democracy: Tasks for Future
Now the question also comes at electoral level, how do principled alliances can be built up to stop the severe erosion of democratic secular values? The lessons of four and a half years of experience of Modi rule is a wakeup call for opposition parties to hang together, else the victim will be the very concept of democracy itself! The agenda of Hindu nationalism has quickly unfolded itself during this period. The insecurity of minorities, the blatant corporate loot, the failure of governance in the form of destruction of institutions like CBI, RBI and Academic institutions is a matter of deep concern. There is a need to combat Hate in society, need to promote the interests of youth, dalits, farmers and Adivasis. Time is overdue to build a democratic coalition to take the country back to the path of peace, progress and development.
The 16th All India Conference of Students Federation of India has successfully come to an end at Shimla, Himachal Pradesh. The conference has been concluded by taking the historic mission to complete a target of 50 lakh membership by the 50th anniversary of the organization. SFI completes 50 years in 2020. The conference has been dispersed by forming necessary plans to add around 10 lakh members more in the organization to achieve this. In fact, the most important aim would be to reach out the areas where the presence of the organization is weak.
It is for the first time in the history, Shimla has become the host of All India Conference. Moreover, it is for the second time in a row SFI’s highest conference is happening in Hindi states/northern states. Among the three All India Conferences held in north India, two were held during this period of time. This can be seen as the sign of influence and development the organisation could make in these areas. The conference reviewed that after the 15th All India Conference held at Sikir, Rajasthan, SFI could strengthen its presence and influence in new places. Apart from being elected to the union leadership in central universities such as JNU, Pondicherry, and HCU, the activities of the organization are extended to the Central University of Gujarat and Karnataka. Recommence of organizational activities in Gujarat after 14 years, the formation of the union in Jammu University and the emergence of SFI as the single largest organization in the first election conducted in Ambedkar University are achievements worth mentioning. Apart from the sweeping victories in the union elections in Kerala and Tripura, SFI could win the students union elections in Rajasthan, Assam, Madhya Pradesh and Tamilnadu.
The conference called upon to expand the organizational activities in north eastern areas- which is now largely limited to Tripura and Assam- to all the states. It has also decided to vitalize the activities in Jammu. Formation of State Committee in Jammu Kashmir, Jharkhand, Manipur, Chhattisgarh and Odisha is one of the major goals. It is pertinent to enter into the private educational institutions which strategically keep the student politics at bay. These institutions are the fertile land for widespread looting and rampant violation of democratic rights and ethos. The government is not yet ready to come up with necessary legal measures to limit such moves.
The conference has given a resounding mandate to fight the increasing case of sexual harassments occurring inside the campuses. The conference pointed out that, lack of democratic spaces and lack of sensitisation against gendered crimes and the existing power structure inside the campuses and many other factors create a hostile situation for the women students. To handle this out, there is a need for institutional mechanism such as GSCASH inside the campuses. The conference condemned the strenuous attack against such institutions, for instance replacing well functioning GSCASH with ICC in JNU.
An integral part of democratisation of campus is ensuring gender justice in all the spheres and to break the patriarchal hegemony which is normalised in such spaces. Conference decided to have a transparent and democratic internal mechanism to address this kind of issues within the organisation. SFI hence becomes the first student organisation to take such a historic decision.
From 30th October to 2nd November 2018, the 16th All India Conference of SFI, has critically evaluated the political and organisational tasks lying ahead. The conference passed 15 resolutions on various issues including the ones mentioned above. The conference discussed various issues such as the challenges faced by school education and the danger in forming higher education commission by sabotaging UGC and many other.
The Conference welcomed the supreme court verdict on Sabarimala and pledged to strengthen the fight against the brahmanical-patriarchal Sangh parivar forces which is desperately trying to destroy the secular social fabric of Kerala. The conference extended solidarity to the efforts of left forces in Kerala to upheld the values of Kerala renaissance. This conference also mandated to build a broad spectrum resistance against the increasing mob frenzy and communal violence. Conference underlined the role of students in the struggle for ensuring equal rights, a life with dignity and social justice. This conference expresses it deep concern over the increasing number of suicides in IIT’s and other professional institutions and demanded laws to be formulated in order to check the physical and mental harassments faced by students particularly who are coming from marginalised backgrounds and gender. This is also important to make sure a healthy campus atmosphere where a vibrant political and cultural activism increase the inner democracy of campus life.
The student community expressed its solidarity to left-wing governments across the world fighting continuous imperialistic interventions, blockades and attempts to create internal disturbances, through anti-capitalist policies & tenets in their home countries. The struggles at Palestine, Syria and the persecution of Rohingyan refugees at Myanmar were taken up for discussion at the Conference.
The amendment to have National Conferences every three years was agreed upon. It has also been decided to have State Conferences every two years and other conferences every year. The Conference put forth demands for the extension of research scholarships and their timely distribution. Increased scholarships should be awarded to students from economically & socially weak backgrounds in general and women in particular. Transgender-rights and the rights of other sexual minorities should be protected.
Another crucial demand, for a widespread political alliance of the country’s left-leaning students’ organizations was also put forth, at a separate session with the national leaders of organizations like the All India Students’ Federation (AISF), All India Students’ Association (AISA), All India Democratic Students Organisation (AIDSO) etc. In order to resist the privatization and communalization of Indian education, it was reiterated that there is a pressing need for a regional-level strengthening of this political alliance along with venturing into a concerted national-level fight with the larger student community of the country.
The All India Conference was inaugurated by P. Sainath and Prof. R Ramakumar. While Sainath spoke of the unprecedented rise of Indian inequality and how India was on its path to become one of the most unequal societies in the world, Ramakumar briefed us about the historical process of privatization of education in capitalist societies around the world. Seminars on communalism and higher education were inaugurated by Prof. Ram Puniyani and C. N. Bharati, [General Secretary, School Teachers Federation of India (STFI)] respectively.
Former leaders Nilotpal Basu, K.N. Balagopalan and V. Sivadasan shared their experience of leading the organization. Former all India president M.A. Baby also greeted the conference later. Former leaders released the book published by the Central Executive Committee on the history of SFI. M. A Baby released the conference special issue of student struggle monthly. Ashok Dhawale (President, AIKS), Suneet Chopra (Joint Secretary, AIAWU), Abhoy Mukherjee (General Secretary, DYFI), Kashmir Singh (Secretary, CITU) greeted the conference with warm words filled with hope and confidence in student movement.
647 delegates from 24 states participated in the Conference which was held at the manch named after martyr Abhimanyu Maharajas. Parijith, brother of SFI leader Abhimanyu who was killed by islamist fundamentalists in Kerala also attended the inaugural session of the conference. Unlike the earlier conference, there were delegates from Manipur, Sikkim and Gujarat this time. Vikram Singh presented the draft political-organisational report before the delegates. 58 delegates spoke in the seven hour long discussion session, representing 24 states, four sub-committees and Tribal students union.
Conference elected 93 member Central Executive Committee with 9 vacancies. There are 24 girls in the Committee. The All India Secretariat Consists of 19 members with 2 vacancies for Bengal and Kerala. VP Sanu has been re-elected as the President of the committee and Mayukh Biswas has been elected as the General Secretary.
A vibrant student rally through the valley of Shimla took place after the conclusion of delegation session, and culminated to a public meeting attended by a massive crowd. Both the rally and public meeting turned as a show of strength of student movement in the valley. The crowd was addressed by Nilotpal Basu, Rakesh Singha, Mayukh Biswas, Vikram Singh, VP Sanu and Dipsita Dhar. The Shimla conference has definitely been written in the history of student movement for providing a further push to the politically conscious students to spread across to new areas with a stronger organisation.
Interview with Comrade Prakash Karat (President of SFI, 1974 to 1979)
Late 60s and early 70s have been marked with vibrant student movement at different corners of the globe, mainly in western countries, in history. What were the important features of the international situation in the seventies which were relevant to the student movement?
The first half of the seventies was dominated by the national liberation struggle in South Vietnam. The indomitable struggle of the Vietnamese people against US aggression had a profound impact on the student movement internationally and in our country. The decade witnessed the historic triumph of the Vietnam struggle and the successful liberation of the Indo-Chinese peoples and many countries in Africa such as Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau and Ethiopia. These brought about a decisive change in the international balance of forces to strengthen the forces of anti-imperialism and peace. Alongside, the international situation saw in the first half of the seventies the process of detente, where imperialism was forced to relax tensions and recognise the growing strength of the USSR and the Socialist countries. The seventies also saw the development of the most profound all round crisis of the world capitalist system. The aggravation of the crisis saw the stepping up of the arms race and military preparations by U.S. imperialism, followed by reversal of detente. In the eighties, under President Reagan, a full fledged drive began to step up the arms race and develop new offensive missiles. In the seventies, the socialist bloc was strong but in the eighties for a variety of reasons, the reversal began.
What was the national situation?
To sum it up briefly, the decade began with the new radical postures of the Congress under Mrs. Gandhi consequent to the split in the ruling party and its sweeping victory in the 1971 general elections. It also saw the emergence of the Left as a determined force which withstood the wave particularly in West Bengal. The emergence of the Left as the major opposition force was in the background of the most vicious attack on the Left led by the CPI(M) in West Bengal. The major part of the seventies upto the end of the emergency saw the systematic semi-fascist terror launched against the left forces in the state. This attack presaged the growing authoritarianism of the ruling Congress which culminated in the emergency in 1975. The fight against authoritarianism and for defence of democracy was a major political issue in this period. It saw the imposition of the Emergency after the bankruptcy of the Indira Congress's populist rhetoric was revealed and also the united fight put up against the danger of authoritarianism. This resulted in the victory of the Janata Party and its brief spell in Government. Contrasted to the short lived Janata experiment, was the emergence of the Left Front Governments in 1977 in West Bengal and Tripura which became the advanced outposts of democracy and for implementation of alternative policies to those of the Congress (I). It is the character of these governments and fronts which have ensured their durability and attraction for the people all over the country
You were part of SFI in its initial decade. What was the characteristic of student activism during those initial years of SFI?
I was in the SFI in its initial years. Earlier, as a student in the University of Edinburgh, I was active in the movement against the Vietnam War and against apartheid in South Afirca. The early 1970s were a period of heightened student activism. There were three streams in the student movement. The first was a Left stream which include organisations like the SFI, AISF and the Samajwadi Yuvajan Sabha. There was a second stream of the student organisations associated with the Congress party and thirdly there was the ABVP which is affiliated to the RSS. The SFI, after its foundation, had to contend against these rival political and ideological streams in the student movement.
How did the student movement involve with the challenges put forward by that period.? How did we prioritize the issues to be addressed?
The period 1973 to 1975 saw widespread student struggles- in a scale and intensity which was more than a similar outburst in 1965-66. These struggles had as their focus- cheap and mass education to enable students to pursue their education; struggles to reform the educational system; and finally defence of democratic rights and fight against the government's anti-people policies.
The seventies saw the expansion of the organised, democratic student movement. This was reflected in the growth of the SFI since its foundation conference in December 1970. The SFI led many mass movements in defence of the economic and educational demands of the students. The economic crisis deepened in the first half of the seventies-and the student movement had to struggle to ensure cheap text books note books and educational material for the students, for cheaper kerosene in the villages, for mid-day meals etc. All these were directed to make education accessible to the common people. Further the progressive student movement and the SFI in particular fought for educational reform and to make a mass democratic and scientific educational system a reality. It was also in the forefront in the defence of students' rights in an atmosphere of growing authoritarianism.
Another major issue which confronted the student movement was the new orientation of government policy. With the deteriorating economic situation and growing educated unemployed, the Congress government at the Centre and in the states began resorting to hikes institution fees, restriction of entry in educational institutions and halting the trend towards abolition of fees in the secondary school stage. The student movement had to fight against these anti-student measures and struggles took place on the broad issue of defending the right to education. Big struggles were led by the SFI in West Bengal, Kerala, Tripura, Andhra and Punjab in this period. This served to channelise the student discontent on democratic lines.
On the international plane, the solidarity campaign with Vietnam was undertaken by SFI. No other organisation took the issue in such a big way to students as the SFI.
Apart from the organised movements, two major student upsurges were the Nav Nirman movement and the JP led Chhatra Sangharsh Samity movement in Bihar.The Gujarat student movement became a popular mass movement against the Chimmanbhai Patel ministry. It was sought to be crushed by bullets and repression. Scores died in police repression but it failed to crush the popular upsurge and the government had to go. However, in the absence of a strong democratic students organisation to guide it on the right lines and take it forward, there was no lasting influence of this movement. The same Chimmanbhai Patel became a Janata leader later! The Bihar movement had a wider impact and it played an important role in mobilising the anti-authoritarian forces. The fact that thousands of students participated in these two struggles shows the deep impact of the harmful Congress policies and growing authoritarianism which drew the mass of students into these movements. These were paralleled by the big mass mobilisation undertaken by the SFI and its allies in West Bengal, Kerala, Assam, Andhra etc. on their day to day issues.
Can you tell us something more about SFI's role and development in this period?
The SFI began with a membership of 1.24 lakhs in 1970 and by the Third Conference at Patna in 1979 its membership was 4,12 lakhs. This was an advance. Behind this was steady organisational growth in many new states. The SFI was in the forefront in the struggle for democratic rights and defence of democracy. In West Bengal, the SFI played a heroic role in the reign of terror which was extended to the educational institutions in the period of semi-fascist terror. Hundreds of SFI activists had to leave the educational institutions. Teachers were murdered. Yet the SFI fought against the anarchy sought to be fostered by the Chhatra Parishad-Youth Congress hoodlums and the Naxalites. It was the most difficult but a glorious period in the history of the SFI. Because of its tenacious work, the SFI retained its links with the students and continued its mass activities.
The Emergency was preceded by growing militancy in student struggles. Because of the SFI's prominent role in defence of democracy and students' rights, the Emergency saw a severe attack on its leadership and cadre. Nine of the CEC members including the Secretaries of Kerala, Assam, Orissa and Presidents of Tripura and Orissa were jailed under MISA. 4 other CEC members were wanted. Over 60 cadres of the SFI all over the country were detained under MISA and Hundreds had DIR cases against them. In Kerala alone over 600 of DIR were filed against SFI activists. Along with this hundreds of SFI cadre were denied admission in educational institutions. The SFI despite all the attacks continued to organise activities and protest actions during the emergency.
The struggle of the students in JNU under the SFI-led JNUSU against the emergency period attacks was a notable chapter of the student movement. The JNUSU president and another SFI activist were in jail under MISA in this period.
The SFI brought out as early as 1973 an alternative plan for the educational system - from the primary stage to the university stage. Since the third Conference in Patna in 1979, the SFI took important initiatives to unite with other student organisations on question of war and peace, national unity, employment for all etc.
The first important step was the joint student-youth convention on democratic rights, educational reforms and unemployment in April 1979.
What would be the main lessons of the decade?
PK: The student movement learned by experience of the Emergency and authoritarian attacks that the preservation and extension of its educational and democratic rights is inextricably connected with the defence of democracy in general and struggle against authoritarianism. Apart from uniting with the other democratic forces in society, it also brought about the realisation of the need for a wider unity of the students' organisations and for united struggles. It is only after the Emergency that the SFI also seriously oriented itself to this task as was done as the Third Conference at Patna. The earlier reoccupation with building its independent strength was now coupled within the necessity to unite with other student organisations for unity and effective intervention.
One of the barriers to united struggles during this period had been the approach and role of the AISF. Its wrong approach to the questions of defence of democracy and authoritarianism and its lining up with Congress elements against the oppositional student movements prevented any vital unity of the progressive sections of the student community. This could be overcome only after the Emergency.
Secondly, those organisations which had purveyed the ruling class idea that students should be kept away from politics such as the AVBP, soon had to give up this stand. The SFI's consistent stand that students should participate in politics and choose the correct political platform to defend their rights and reform education get employment etc. found widespread acceptance.
Thirdly, a beginning was made to fight the retrograde educational policy measures of the government, right from its formulation stage rather than reacting to its implementation university-wise, and institution wise. The effort by SFI to pose alternative policies to the Sixth Plan prescription and its later effort by the end of the decade to unite with other organisations to adopt common positions on issues vital to the students, showed that the degree of organisation and consciousness was growing.
We were standing startled in front of a small room until someone from the locality told us. “This is the place where Abhimanyu was born and brought up. There were five people living in this room till two days back. But now only four remains.” No one in the group could resist the tears rolling down the eyes while entering the room. A mother, father, brother and a sister were sitting muted in front of the photo of our comrade, his bloodstained mobile phone and his note-book. In my wildest imagination, it never struck me that five people can together stand straight in such a small space. What must have been the depth of love they shared in that one room-home!!! What could have been the closeness between hearts he enjoyed till his last breath!!!
An unforgettable daybreak
Early morning of 2nd July 2018 is still a horrific memory for those who believe in a democratic and creative campus spirit. By 2 o clock in the morning news about the attack on SFI activists and death of a student at Maharajas College came out as a shockwave. Whoever heard the news wished it was all a bad dream from which one could wake up. No one ever associated with SFI in Ernakulam could digest that, a student was stabbed to death inside Maharajas, the most romanticised campus in Kerala. As every student of Kerala, Maharajas was a dream of Abhimanyu, which he attained with his own efforts. He plunged into its heart, with his natural and innocent smiles. He was captivated by the unbreakable bonds of friendships and comradeship he earned from the college. By singing and dancing along with his friends, he enlivened his campus.
That night, the Maharajas was getting ready to receive its new guests. The students were busy in finishing the decorations to extend a warm welcome to their juniors. Those happiest moments were the time they chose to eliminate Abhimanyu from the earth. How cruel they were to destroy the happiness of a family, the hopes of a community and the joy of an entire campus space with just one stab. What could have been the trauma of the newcomers who were eagerly waiting that night to land into their dreamland next day, instead stepping into a campus dampened and reddened with the blood of comrade Abhimanyu. The Centenary auditorium of Maharajas which was all set to welcome the new entrants of the campus turned into a farewell space for Abhimanyu. The auditorium was echoed with the mourning of his parents. The hall has reverberated with the slogans raised by his comrades bidding adieu to him.
July 1st was a very much normal day. Nothing unusual was reported that entire day, except for a usual scuffle between students about a wall writing. The Campus Front wrote its name on the wall booked by SFI. There was an argument between students over this issue. To mark the protest against the undemocratic behaviour of Campus Front, SFI activists painted “Reject Communalism” on the wall writing of Campus Front. Citing the evening squabble as the reason, later in the night, a thoroughly prepared plan was implemented by the NDF-Popular Front forces to create an insecure atmosphere in the campus. The NDF-Popular Front criminals from outside the campus entered Maharajas with deadly weapons and started attacking the SFI activists. Hearing this news of the assault on his comrades, Abhimanyu, who reached the campus just a few hours back after fulfilling his organisational responsibilities in his native place, ran to the campus from the hostel. The specially trained killer-wing of Popular Front proficiently ensured his death with only one stab. Comrade Arjun who was injured badly along with comrade Abhimanyu had a very narrow escape. After many days of treatment in the hospital along with his strong determination to fight against the forces which killed his dearest friend, Arjun came back to life by defeating the death. Comrades Abhimanyu and Arjun are the victims of an intolerant politics, which cannot endure dissenting voices. The criminals have attacked Arjun and Abhimanyu for referring Campus Front as communal, for publically writing “reject communalism”. What else should have they addressed an organisation, which has its political base only on religion.
The entire episode was a perfectly scripted one to create panic among the student community of Maharajas who out rightly rejected the Campus Front for its communal ideology. This incident should be read along with the efforts put by Campus Front for the past few years to gain a foothold and to make a unit in the Maharajas College, in which they had been unsuccessful due to the dearth of students support. The attack was a part of the strategy of disrupting peace and harmony in college campuses of Kerala, the dominant sources of resistance against all kinds of communal politics. Although one of the accused in Abhimanyu’s murder had recently enrolled as a student in the College, most of the others were not students, with some being more than 30 years old. Some of the group members were not even from Ernakulam district, the fact which clearly points to the planned nature of the assault.
Through this attack Popular Front and NDF aimed at instilling fear among the SFI activists, who play the lead role in combating their communal-fundamental agendas. But they failed to understand that these students are the holders of the flag of an organisation which garners strength from countless brave martyrdoms. They forgot to realise that the attacks on this largest student organisation of the country, do not demoralise the activists, but strongly remind them about their unending responsibility to fight communalism and their incessant obligation to strengthen the secular left fabric of the society.
Comrades in Vattavada remembers Abhimanyu’s hastiness in reaching Ernakulam on the 1st of July itself. He set out to Kochi in the afternoon, just after attending the DYFI village conference. Since the transportation facility was scarce in his area, he started the journey in a vegetable cart came to transport vegetables from his place. He was very adamant in reaching the college that night itself as he wanted to join his comrades to adorn his dearest campus. Yes, that was the commitment he always maintained towards the organisation which he belonged to.
A Dalit-first generation learner from a remote village of Idukki district, who struggled throughout his life to reach a renowned college of Kerala for higher studies, smiled vividly, danced and sang with his friends without a tint of inferiority complex. In two districts, separated by unmeasurable distance, he intervened politically regularly. He was a complete political personality.
One would amaze at the political clarity acquired by a young man with only 20 years of life experience, who spent his entire life in a remote village room that did not have enough space to cry alone or to enjoy a dream in solitude. His writings on social media trace his political evolution. His facebook notes reveal the politics on which he puts faiths to fulfill his dreams of equality. They underline his unending commitment towards his organisation, the politics of which he imbibed till his last breath. His writings echo his unyielding resistance against communalism. His most progressive ideas about gender justice and pseudo-morality. His assimilation of energy from the martyrdoms. His in-depth understanding of the need for campus politics. His unbound love towards his college, his locality. His firm belief in the role of left politics in resisting the penetration of communal forces in the campus.
He was someone who showed full justice to the slogan of “study and struggle” raises by SFI. He struggled for studying, struggled along with studies and studied for struggling. The walls of his village were filled with the posters of SFI, which must have pasted by Abhimanyu himself. Just beside those posters, his smiling faces were looking at the people who came to pay last tribute to him. The criminals struck down not only Abhimanyu, not even a family but the dreams of a community which remained alienated from all sorts of the development process. They chopped off a future scientist who has gained the life-experiences to understand even the smallest needs of the lowest strata of the society. Yes, Like Rohit Vemula, he dreamt of becoming a scientist and to utilise his expertise in improving the life of his community. To attain his dream, he worked during nights, weekends and vacations.
The number of responsibilities he shouldered along with his academics and his part-time jobs is unimaginable for many of us. Maybe, the struggles with life must have equipped him with enough strength to endure any pressure. Whatever he achieved in his life were the fruits of his own endeavours. In 2018 itself how many responsibilities he had assumed newly. Got elected as the first secretary of SFI Vattavada local committee. Became the member of Idukki district committee of SFI. Chosen as the mess secretary of Maharajas boys’ hostel. Abhimanyu’s teacher who is also the NSS coordinator of the college shares her memory of an efficient NSS unit secretary who at the same time enthusiastically indulged in the Chemistry department association activities. With sleepless nights and tireless days, he conquered everyone with his pleasant behaviour, friendly nature, and his commitment.
The people in his neighbourhood told us that whenever he came to the village, he kept on inspiring each and every child of that locality to gather more and more knowledge. They remembered his strenuous efforts to convince the parents to send their children to the new worlds for higher education.
He shows us that a person living with half-filled stomach can laugh full-heartedly. He proves us that a young man who experienced all sorts of backwardness throughout his life can radiate incredible energy to others standing around him.
Attacks on SFI activists
The martyrdom of comrade Abhimanyu points out to the necessity to intensify the fight against communalist forces in campuses and society. Across the country, SFI activists are the targets of all the fundamentalist-communal forces; be it ABVP/RSS or NDF/Popular Front/Campus Front Forces. In their broad politics, RSS and NDF (Popular Front) are not different, but the two sides of the same coin, which build their entire politics on religion and hatred.
NDF and Campus Front has a dark history of spreading communal venom in society and Campuses. There has been a series of attacks unleashed by NDF on SFI activists in last many years. No one has forgotten comrade A.B. Bijesh, the then joint secretary of SFI Thrissur district committee, who was brutally murdered by the NDF goons in 2009 for rallying people against their fundamental activities. The murder of Abhimanyu was the latest among them.
However, the blood-thirsty communal goons didn’t stop there. The very same day of comrade Abhimanyu’s murder, just after the protest demonstration over the barbarous incident, SFI activists in Alappuzha were attacked by the Popular Front with swords and knives. While this piece was being written, an SFI activist from Madappally college comrade Sajith has survived a murder attempt with deadly weapons by Popular Front of India goons.
It is not surprising that all the communal-fundamentalist groups get discomforted by the growing acceptance of SFI politics among the student community, as SFI is the strongest barrier that deters their infiltration to campuses and thus defeats their efforts to communalise our educational institutions.
Responses to the incident
The gruesome murder of a 20-year-old boy shook the consciousness of humanity. A public outcry over the incident has sprung up from all corners of society. A widespread solidarity against the NDF-Popular Front communal politics was built up under the leadership of SFI and other left forces. SFI Central Executive Committee has called for a national protest day by all its units the next day itself to mark the strongest resistance against the brutal assaults took place in Maharajas. In all district centres of Kerala, protest meetings were held to project the political violence of Campus Front. In all campuses, SFI undertook various programs to explain the dangers of communal politics and the violence attached to it. The large mobilisation of the student community in all these programmes indicates the growing antagonism of students against the communal forces which distort the peaceful atmosphere of campuses.
The fund collection campaign for Abhimanyu’s family was very well received by the public. From the nook and corner of the society, people contributed to register their dissent. Within 2 days, SFI Kerala state committee has collected 33 lakh rupees only from the campuses. To accomplish Abhimanyu’s vision of bringing the new generation of Vattavada into the mainstream, for which he believed education and knowledge as the only means, various campaigns and programmes have been initiated by SFI. Across the world, people enthusiastically participated in the book collection campaign to fulfil Abhimanyu’s dream of having a library in his village.
As a tribute to Abhimanyu, SFI achieved thumping victory in college union elections in all universities of Kerala. The students of Maharajas kept their promises to their beloved comrade by voting down all the communal forces in the campus. SFI has swept all seats in the Maharajas college union elections with a huge margin. News of incomparable victory has emerged from Rajasthan and other parts of the country. Students in JNU celebrated their unparalleled victory over ABVP by raising slogans about Abhimanyu and wearing t-shirts printed with his immortal smile.
Across the country, more and more students are getting rallied under the flag Abhimanyu held to his heart till his end. The slogans he raised are being shouted by more and more tongues. Countless fingers are joining together to achieve his dream about a “world that belongs to the alienated and the oppressed”. Comrade Abhimanyu continues to be a symbol of resistance. He remains to be an eternal source of inspiration for the struggling masses. He lives immortally in the hearts of generations to come.