NEW DELHI — A somber Amnesty International event recently featured families from trouble-torn Kashmir province recounting stories of abusive behavior by the Indian army, before it dissolved into angry calls for freedom from India.
Members of the country’s right-wing student group All India Students Council — or ABVP — were also there, quick to counter with protests of their own. A police complaint that Amnesty had organized an anti-India event resulted in a sedition charge against the rights group and a call for it to be banned.
In recent months, the powerful student organization has become the self-appointed conscience of the nation, watching campuses and conferences to ferret out critical voices that it regards as unpatriotic. The group has ties to the Hindu nationalist organization called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, to which Prime Minister Narendra Modi also belongs. In the past two years, it has disrupted campus events on caste, Kashmir, the death penalty and religion.The group has also complained to the police and politicians about what it calls anti-national conferences, seminars and talks that are offensive to Indian culture and even handed over video recordings of speakers to TV studios.
Critics say its tactics are having a chilling effect on free speech.
“Their narrative of nationalism has made speaking freely about many things very difficult in the past few years,” said Aakar Patel, executive director of Amnesty International in India. After examining the evidence, the police in Bangalore said Saturday that the sedition charge against Amnesty may be dropped.
More than half of India’s 1.2 billion people are younger than 25, and student politics is enjoying a resurgence after two relatively quiet decades. Analysts say that ABVP is on the front line of the ideological battle that Modi’s Hindu nationalist party is waging against critics in academic institutions.
ABVP complaints landed some students in jail for sedition in February after a similar event about Kashmir took place at a university in New Delhi, which they also called “anti-national.”
“We consider it our prime duty to expose anti-national voices in society,” said Vinay Bidre, general secretary of ABVP in Bangalore. “We are the strongest voice on campuses today on the issue of nationalism. The authorities across India cannot ignore our complaints. We will not spare anyone who speaks against the country.”
Formed in 1949, soon after India’s independence from Britain, one of ABVP’s first campaigns was to change India’s name to the Hindi word “Bharat.” It played a key role in nationwide protests against the state of emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi from 1975 to 1977, and it has been a training ground for many prominent leaders in Modi’s government, including the ministers of finance, home, law, road transport, health and education.
Many say that Modi’s government tacitly supports the group’s activities. His government is scrutinizing the foreign funding that many activist and nongovernmental groups receive and has canceled thousands of approvals. Officials on Thursday denied permission to Amnesty International to set up a South Asia hub in India.
The student group has used its newfound clout to reverse a controversial program at Delhi University, launched by the previous government, that lengthens the undergraduate degree program from three to four years. It has also protested against beef-eating and demon-worshiping rituals on campuses, and disrupted the screening of a documentary film on Hindu-Muslim rioting and a reading seminar on the caste system.
When the group reported a lower-caste doctoral student for engaging in “anti-national” activity because he was protesting the execution of a man convicted of terrorism, the student lost his grant and was thrown off his campus in southern India. He hanged himself in January, setting off student protests against ABVP.
“The political churning that you see elsewhere in India is reflected in student politics. The ABVP is challenging the left-dominated campus culture everywhere,” said Ashok Malik, a political columnist. “After Modi was elected in 2014, the ABVP naturally got a shot in the arm and gained political currency.”
Despite the controversy, membership is soaring, leaders say. ABVP grew from 2.2 million members in 2013 to 2.8 million last year. Leaders expect the number to climb higher next month.
“There is a new wave of patriotism now in India. People are tired of groups who misuse their freedom of expression or hide behind the shield of human rights to attack India or Indian culture,” said Sunil Ambekar, the group’s national organizing secretary.
On campuses, students say they are working against divisive forces that undermine Indian pride.
“There is too much debate on campuses about what divides us — caste, class, gender and religion. There is not enough emphasis on what connects us all as Indians,” said Shruti Agnihotri, 25, a Spanish language student and a member of ABVP at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi. “If we see some anti-India speech, we will record it with our smartphones and report to the police.”
The impact of their vigilance is being felt on campuses.
At JNU, new rules require post-dinner speaker sessions in dormitory dining halls to be filmed by guards.
“Nobody will talk freely if they know that there are guards with webcams around,” said Shehla Rashid, vice president of the students union at JNU and a leftist opponent of ABVP. “They want to sanitize debates about difficult issues like Kashmir.”
A Muslim-majority region, Kashmir has been the site of an armed separatist insurgency for three decades. In the past month, more than 60 people have been killed when police have fired at demonstrators during street protests.
When students in Hyderabad Central University in southern India gathered to protest the deaths in Kashmir last month, dozens of ABVP students rode motorcycles around the campus with the national flags, shouting “Salute Mother India.”
“They created an intimidating atmosphere on campus,” said Arpita Jaya, a PhD student opposed to ABVP.