In 1997, when I arrived at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University to study history, the Bharatiya Janata Party was on the rise. The party had formed a 13-day government in 1996 and was widely anticipated to be on the cusp of power.
On campus, however, it was Marxism that dominated discussions. A number of left organisations had student branches in the university; among them were the Students’ Federation of India, the All India Students’ Federation, the All India Students’ Association and even the extreme left Democratic Students’ Union. These bodies would organise activities to take stands on a variety of issues from those specific to campus (demands for more student hostels), to the national (the 1997 killing of Dalits by the Ranveer Sena in Bihar), to the global (foreign policies of the United States). They held torchlight processions, pasted walls with leaflets and posters, and often rent the night air with shouted slogans.
But while communists of various hues held sway, the right-wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad—the RSS’s student affiliate—was a tough challenger. The ABVP was ensured a steady stream of 800-odd votes every year in the student body elections, usually enough to win it one of the four major positions.
I chose to join the ABVP. I was brought up in Jaipur in the late 1980s and 1990s, a time in which India witnessed its first surge of Hindu nationalism in politics. Nationalism was something I saw as unquestioned from the early days of my childhood. My father worked as a CRPF officer and I grew up with symbols of Hinduism and the Indian state all around. I had been brought up on Amar Chitra Kathas—comic books that told stories of freedom fighters and Hindu mythological figures. Our adolescent years saw the rise of the Ram temple movement, with slogans supporting the building of a temple at Ayodhya inscribed on walls, and saffron flags fluttering atop shops. I remember being stirred by audio tapes of Sadhvi Rithambhara’s speeches at friends’ places. The speeches denigrated Islam and spoke about the need for Hindus to assert themselves. This was the world I knew and trusted, and, when I heard left activists in JNU talk about the rights of, say, Kashmiri separatists, it sounded like treason.
Students in JNU’s history centre divided informally along class lines early on. Apart from a few exceptions, those from elite colleges like St Stephen’s in Delhi and Presidency in Kolkata turned left, while those from small towns were splintered among the left, the ABVP and the Congress’s student wing, the National Students’ Union of India. Apart from my background, it also seemed to me that falling in line with the left would mean acceptance of this intellectual hierarchy. Spurning the system seemed enticing.
I began in the ABVP as a regular activist, before rising to become part of the pamphlet-writing committee. I wrote on issues such as nationalism and communalism, weighing in on current controversies. I wrote a pamphlet condemning the Godhra train burning soon after the incident, claiming that secularism was a discourse that offered nothing to Hindus. In another pamphlet, I argued that Nehruvian socialism was steeped in hypocrisy. I also attended RSS gatherings like the guru dakshina—an annual event where volunteers (swayamsevaks) offer a donation to the Sangh and salute the saffron flag (dhwaj pranaam).
I soon became a prime ideologue of the ABVP in JNU, heading the pamphlet committee and study circle, where we read MS Golwalkar and Vinayak Savarkar and picked out flaws in communist movements. It helped that I was one of the few within the ABVP who was proficient in English. Rather than set the terms of debate, we primarily reacted to the left, with pamphlets and sometimes even with scuffles, such as when the VHP leader Ashok Singhal was invited to campus in the early 2000s and left activists gathered to shout slogans against him.
I had always been a Hindu, but, now, to show it became crucial. I would often apply tilak on my forehead when I ventured out of the hostel, something I had never done in life except for rare visits to a temple or to relatives’ homes.
But though I was a committed member of the Sangh, my academic research in Hindutva, which ran parallel to my political activism, complicated my thinking. I encountered Mohandas Gandhi’s less aggressive approach to Hinduism, and in books by scholars such as John Zavos and Christophe Jaffrelot, I read theories that Hindutva wasn’t intrinsic to India, but that it was a modern attempt by some Hindus to imitate organised religions like Islam and Christianity, and the colonial state. I also learnt that, contrary to their nationalist discourse, Hindutva figures, such as Savarkar and Bhai Parmanand, had avoided participating in the freedom struggle in their later phases as Hindu nationalists.
These seeds of scepticism would perhaps have been subsumed by my Hindu political activism if not for the fact that, owing to the impending pressures of securing a job, I left JNU midway through my doctorate, in 2005, to study journalism at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. I was still ideologically right of centre, but faced with the journalistic requirement of neutrality, and with the politically polarised environment of JNU behind me, other ideas grew stronger in my mind. And when I ran into political rivals from JNU after leaving the campus, they seemed friendlier. Battles are often bound by time and space; they die natural deaths outside these confines.
When I began to work as a journalist, in 2006, it was critical that my reporting not be infused with any ideological biases, and thus, my strong overarching convictions were replaced with a preference for examining specific ideas and events. In 2008, when I helped organise a history session at an RSS-related seminar, I faced marked hostility for some of my views—such as my rejection of the idea that ancient Hindu civilisations had made advances in fields like nuclear technology and were scientifically superior to modern societies.
That seminar was my last formal interaction with the Sangh.
After seven years as a journalist, I became a teacher of media and communication last year. Today, I consider myself to be neither left nor right. I don’t perform Hindu rituals, but, at the same time, I refuse to be fashionably anti-Hindu.
India, meanwhile, has chosen a leader with a strong Hindutva background. Some argue that Narendra Modi was chosen because of his development pitch—his performance on this account remains to be seen. But the ideology with which his party, the BJP, and its affiliates, like the RSS, are inextricably bound no longer appeals to me in the way it once did.
Vikas Pathak teaches media and communication at the Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication, Pune. He has worked as a journalist with the Hindustan Times, Indian Express and The Hindu, and covered the BJP till October 2013.