Saturday, December 9, 2023

Think India: Is Sangh Parivar masquerading as academic forum in elite institutes?

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Elite national institutes like Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), National Institute of Technology (NIT), and National Law University (NLU), have become the latest battleground for the Sangh Parivar, the ecosystem of Hindu nationalist groups. While radicalisation tactics have been observed to work differently in Public Universities such as Jawaharlal Nehru University and Delhi University, where saffronisation is evident with a strong presence of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and syllabus alterations, implementing the same approach in Elite Institutes like IITs, NITs, and NLUs proves more challenging.

The immutable nature of the curricula leaves less room for syllabus modifications and guidelines against the presence of political organisations make it harder for communal forces to organise in the open. One crucial factor that sets apart the environment in these national institutes is the conditioning of these students. Even before they enter these elite spaces, they are made to believe their sole purpose in life should be centred around placements and failure to secure a job even after attending these prestigious institutes indicates a personal deficiency. Consequently, open communal forces like ABVP face challenges in attracting these students, as their focus from the beginning is on white-collar jobs.

The most effective way to attract these students is through alluring opportunities such as internships and working under powerful leaders. It is at this juncture that organisations like ‘’Think India’’ come into play. By masquerading as academic think tanks, these organisations create an appealing platform for students, promising to give them exposure to influential figures and internships.

Think India, a ‘’pan-India initiative’’, claims to have been formed in 2006 by students from IISc, IIMB, NIMHANS, and NLSIU, who sought to create a joint forum for students from premier institutes across the country with a presence in various institutes, from IITs to ISSERs.

In an email response to Maktoob, the National Convenor of Think India, Pratik Suthar, said it has a vision to “create opportunities for students and for infusing in them a sense of nationalistic spirit for the development of Bharat, in general”.

“We do not engage with the forces and groups that are motivated to harm the social and cultural fabric of Bharat, and those who conspire against the integrity and sovereignty of the nation,” he added.

Think India’s Covert Connections with Sangh Parivar

The association of Think India with Sangh Parivar has been a constant characteristic of it, it can be seen from the early times. A look at publicly available conversation threads on Google Groups under the name “Think India” highlights the presence of influential individuals associated with ABVP at the Think India 2013 Convention held at IIM Ahmedabad. A ‘brief report’ posted on the “THINK INDIA 2013 CONVENTION” tells the National Joint Organizing Secretary of ABVP presided over the Inauguration Ceremony. Additionally, Sushree Nivedita Bhide, Vice President of Vivekananda Kendra, an organisation known to be a part of the Sangh Parivar, delivered a speech titled “A ROUSING CALL TO YOUTH” on day two of the convention. Notably, all the messages on the Think India Google group were either posted by Think India’s official Google account or by Ashish Chauhan, the National Organizing Secretary of ABVP.

The Advisory Board Committee of Think India comprises several members with direct associations to ABVP, one of them is Varadraj Bapat, a former ABVP president of Maharashtra and a professor at IIT Bombay, who remains actively involved on IIT Bombay campus. He had delivered a speech for ‘IITB for Bharat’, an unofficial right-wing group, which was recently distributing free tickets to women students for an Islamophobic movie, The Kerala Story. Another member of Think India’s advisory committee is the Director of MNIT Jaipur, Udaykumar R Yaragatti who has publicly proclaimed, “Sangh Parivaar Is one of the biggest families in the universe and ABVP is our pride.”

In response to a questionnaire with the findings, Suthar said, “It would be extremely naïve and antithetical to the contours of fair journalism to converge the ocean of our activities to certain binaries based on preconceived notions and biases by having a myopic view of speakers/activities and would be nothing but an act of intellectual dishonesty to paint Think India as an organisation associated to just one ideology or one worldview.”

He further asserted that the group is “not cataracted by the prisms of ideologies or politics”.

“There is no iota of doubt that we do not promote hatred between communities, harm or violence against individuals/state or of ideologies supporting the same. We do not engage with the forces and groups that are motivated to harm the social and cultural fabric of Bharat, and those who conspire against the integrity and sovereignty of the nation,” Suthar added.

The Strategy: What attracts the students

The organisation offers internships under programs like VIDHI, NITI, and ANUBHOOTI, covering areas such as law, public policy, and journalism. These internship opportunities appear attractive to students, but concerns arise regarding the individuals and organisations they may be working with during these programs.

A recent graduate from NLU Ranchi shared their experience, stating, “I interned with them in my 5th semester, and they have WhatsApp groups where they post internship opportunities. One such posting was under OpIndia.”

OpIndia is a right-wing propaganda outlet known for promoting hate.

One PhD student from an IIT, who preferred to remain anonymous, talked about the questionable nature of Think India’s internships. “They offer internships with prominent right-wing personalities, it becomes concerning when you realise students are made to intern under people like J. Sai Deepak and Smriti Irani” 

Think India also organises talks with various Government Ministers and Spokespersons, creating an environment where students can interact with these individuals. These interactions are enticing to students. A student from NIT Rourkela recalled an acquaintance they knew from the first year who was more or else apolitical back then getting radicalised by the third year of college after joining Think India, they stated, “He mostly kept going on about “power” and that he joined so he could have influence and have things his way”

Ayan (2025 Batch), a student from NLU Delhi, highlighted the stark difference between ABVP and Think India. They explained, “ABVP operates in politically charged campuses like DU, whereas Think India targets seemingly apolitical campuses like NLUs. They portray themselves as a discussion forum, akin to a think tank, even though they talk about nationalism they try not to have the same connotation of nationalism as the ABVP to not seem like a violent organisation to students.”

One of the significant factors contributing to Think India’s appeal is its substantial funding. The organisation gets immense funding to organise trips for students, which serve as a major draw. A student from an NIT who observed the trips being organised, said, “Think India funded a trip for 10-15 students from our campus and other institutes to attend a G20 summit event in Guwahati. They stayed in luxurious hotels and had direct access to influential ministers, they had even organised a trip to Haridwar to talk about “culture”. More students from my campus have started joining Think India after this.”

Ayan emphasised on the question of funding saying, “The substantial funding they receive works as a powerful magnet. Many students join not necessarily because they are pro-BJP, but because they are enticed by the benefits and opportunities Think India claims to offer. It’s insidious and works well, especially considering that most students here prefer to stay away from student politics and hence would not join an organisation like ABVP”

Think India has also organised heritage walks and literary festivals, inviting speakers with affiliations to the RSS, such as Sunil Ambekar in the Bhagyanagar Literary Fest organised in 2021. He is the Head of RSS’ media and publicity. The students participating in these events often remain unaware of the backgrounds and associations of these.

Suthar said, “As a platform, we are rooted in the thought of “वादे वादे जायते तत्त्वबोधः”, meaning thereby – out of churning comes the real truth. Guided by the civilizational ideals and ethos of Vaad, Vivaad and Samvaad, we invite personalities from all walks of life who have contributed in whatsoever manner for the betterment of the society, and as facilitators of dialogue and discussion, taking them to the student community and enable conversation and engagement on contrary viewpoints.”

Radicalisation and Influence

On July 13, 2023, the Ambedkar Study Circle (ASC) and Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC) called for a candlelight vigil to protest against the institutional murder of Ayush Ashna, a Dalit student. Parallel to this, on the same day, Think India also called for a condolence meeting for Ayush. A poster started circulating along with their call in WhatsApp groups that read “Stop communal politics and giving a caste angle to it.” A PhD student at IIT Delhi, a witness to this meeting organised by Think India said, “They discussed IIT being a very strong community during the meeting, according to them students don’t see other’s caste.” Not only did the organisation deny the role of casteism in these institutes, but the calls to end ‘’communal politics’’ are hypocritical coming from the organisation when it has been actively inviting speakers associated with communal forces to address students. One such event was a talk on “Transforming North East,” where Ashish Bhawe, a member of the RSS, was invited as a speaker. Bhawe has previously made controversial remarks, claiming that research conducted by JNU scholars from the Northeast is based on secondary data collected by British officials and denied the existence of the term “tribe” in Indian civilization during a conference on “Tribal Community of India: Identity and Cultural Heritage” in 2018.

Think India had also organised a talk ‘Propagating Anti-India Agenda through Academic Research’ where speakers accused researchers who are critical of the state of being anti-India and anti-national. The speakers dismissed terms like “tribal” and “Dalit” in research as mere labels being used to ‘destroy culture’. Furthermore, they mocked scholars who highlight human rights violations in Kashmir. Such right-wing talking points seek to fundamentally change the research landscape in India. The objective appears to be homogenising the vocabulary used to describe different social groups and promoting conformity to the RSS ideology. Undermining the significance of terms like “tribal” and “Dalit” aims to erase the distinction between the oppressed and the oppressors. This manipulation of language and ideas limits the student’s ability to critically analyse social issues.

In their social media handles, while on the surface, their endorsements may seem devoid of any particular ideology to the students, alongside figures like Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh, Think India also openly promotes Hindutva figures like VD Savarkar.

According to a student media blog run by students of NIT Rourkela, they had organised a talk with Ashish Chauhan, the current National Organizing Secretary of ABVP. The event was set to include Nupur Sharma as a guest speaker as well. Chauhan delivered a speech talking about the ‘essence’ of how RSS was built and expressed support for the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir. When a concerned student raised a question regarding the curfew and lockdown imposed in Kashmir following the abrogation of Article 370, he outrightly denied the existence of any curfew in Kashmir.

The presence of Think India cannot be viewed in isolation as it reflects a broader trend of radicalization within these spaces. While its formation dates back to 2006, it is only in recent times that the group has become increasingly active on campuses. When asked about the existence of Think India, many alumni who graduated before 2020 were unaware of its presence during their time at these institutes. This suggests that Think India’s network has gained significant momentum since 2021.

“My roommate used to attend RSS Shakha sessions in the playground. Once, a senior student even took them to a Pro-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) protest. Think India organises events where faculty members actively participate, and local RSS leaders are invited.” testified an alumnus of IIT Jammu. Another alumnus of IIT Kharagpur in a conversation about the spread of Hindu nationalism talked about the presence of RSS Shakhas and having a well-established network amongst PhD students who reach out to other students in their hostels during hostel elections and try to get them onboard.

The pattern of organising students continues across other institutions as Think India mimics the activities of Sangh by similarly organising students in support of CAA in Maulana Azad National Institute of Technology in 2019.

Think India fills the gaps where the Sangh cannot operate openly, operating in a manner that avoids suspicion. By infiltrating elite national institutes, the organisation has found a fertile ground for indoctrination and ideological reinforcement.

While not responding to our questions specifically, the Think India convenor stated that “any attempts at mis-portraying the organisation and making concocted allegations based on half-baked facts and half-truths would compel us to seek recourse to appropriate legal remedy”.

Anandita S. Trindade is an independent writer whose interests lie in gender, politics, and sexuality.

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