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"We just had to make ourselves heard!"

No one thought they’d move beyond Facebook. But after a brutal gangrape and the victim’s tragic death, India’s youth are finally angry. They want change and they want it now.

brunch Updated: Jan 05, 2013 11:52 IST
Yashica Dutt

I am 26 years old and I had never been to a protest. Not when college students took to the streets to demand justice for Jessica Lal in 2006, not when Anna Hazare summoned the common man to Jantar Mantar in 2011. But when two weeks ago, young men and women protested angrily on the streets of Lutyens’ Delhi, demanding justice for a 23-year-old-girl who was brutally gangraped in a moving bus in the city, I went. And so did thousands of people like me. Few were activists, but that didn’t matter. They snatched lathis from policemen despite being walloped from all sides; they offered their bodies to the icy licks of water cannons in Delhi’s cold, cold December.

And they gathered again last Saturday, when the girl finally succumbed to her injuries in Singapore. Not just in Delhi, but in cities across the country – Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkata, Hyderabad – to show their anger and anguish. Says Maya Sharma, a 31-year-old school teacher who participated in a candlelight vigil at Shivaji Park in Mumbai, “There are so many students who have come here [Shivaji Park] after school and college to show solidarity. It is no longer a Delhi issue. It is a national issue. The country is simmering and the government can’t ignore the situation anymore. The girl has died but she has given birth to a movement.”

But who are these youngsters? Are they the same people who are seen (by the older generation) as materialistic, placing their concern for money far above their concern for political issues? Who wear their apathy like a Zara accessory? If that were true, then why did they get together for what the international press is calling one of the world’s largest protests against rape and sexual violence?

Bringing the movement offline: The young people of India realised the importance of protests in public spaces in Vijay Chowk on December 22

It’s a well-known fact that India is a young nation: the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports puts 70 per cent of the population below 35 years and the 2011 Census places 52.7 per cent under the age of 24. To put it rhetorically, these are the people who are the country’s future. This is also the segment wooed by everyone – from media houses to mobile phone manufacturers to movie makers. And it is this segment that has the most potential for action. As adman Prahlad Kakkar puts it, “World over, all revolutions begin with young people and this is certainly the beginning. Only the young have the energy, the stamina and the passion to fight and change the system. The oldies are not going to do it.”

But what was it about this particular issue that triggered such a wave of angry protests from youngsters?

‘It could have been me’

Because this time, the victim could have been any of them. The rape wasn’t the first of its kind, but it was unique in its barbarism and the absolute absence of fear with which it was conducted. And any hope that the victim might survive and live a normal life ended when she died in the early morning of December 29.

Noor Enayat, a 27-year-old public relations professional, has started an online campaign called Aurat Bandh, urging all women in the country to not do what they do for a living for one day, to highlight just how essential women are in the social scheme. She says that it was the sheer brutality of the incident, leading to death, that shook young people up. “Growing up, all girls follow some rules while stepping out of the house,” Enayat says. “Dress conservatively, don’t be out till late at night, use public transport and always have a male companion if possible. In this case, the girl followed all the advice and still…. What more can we do to protect ourselves? Should we stop going out at all? We had to make ourselves heard.”

In addition to fear was also genuine empathy and anger. As social scientist Shiv Visvanathan says, “For many of the young people, it was their first protest. They were angry and wanted something to be done.” Bhanu Gehlot, a 21-year-old student who “went to show support and be counted,” says that the huge crowds did ultimately make a difference. “I hope this will create some fear that people won’t take this lying down anymore. Each one of us felt, ‘it could have been me’.”

More reassuringly for this country, the protesters included young men too. Valay Singh, 29, who works with an NGO, attended the protests in Delhi for three days in a row. He says that the numbers went up because no one was unaffected. “The issue resonated with everyone across divisions of class and mindset,” he believes. “Everybody wants to be safe and no one should have to ‘ask’ for it. We have been simmering with discontent over the recent scams, political apathy and sense of injustice. That’s why young people from all social strata participated in the protests.”

Revolution tweeted?
Older people like to accuse the youth of using social media to excess. But this time, Facebook and Twitter were used for a purpose – to inform people about the protests. Even afterwards, people continued to share blog posts, articles and tweets. Nikhil Gandhi, who handles the Disney UTV network’s youth-centric channels like Bindass and UTV Stars, says that social media has been an enabler in generating opinion. “Young people first air their thoughts and views on Facebook and Twitter, where they can freely express themselves. Approval for their opinions emboldens them even further, when it comes to taking action like this.”

You may well ask what good it does if a display picture on Facebook is changed to a black dot. But for a generation that would rather read a status message than a news report, who would respond to a tweet over a news ticker, this was perhaps a fitting way to show solidarity to the cause. “Any activity on social media gives voice to an opinion,” says 26-year-old Sonal Kapoor, who left her cushy advertising job to start the non-profit oranisation, Protsahan, two years ago.

However, social media doesn’t make revolutions happen, people do. Labony Kaushal, who was a part of the protests held in Mumbai, accepts that a tweet and post will help spread the word. “I got to know about the Bandra protest on Twitter and I could then spread the word faster. But the real reason for these mass protests is because people are just frustrated and fed up.”

If social media lit the flame, then traditional media, especially television, sustained it. “The outcry was fodder for many news channels who in turn pressurised the government to finally make some public statements,” observes actor and former MTV VJ Ayushmann Khurrana.

And no one can deny the power of an image, or a young person’s willingness to share that image. “When one sees people being lathi charged for a cause they believe in, it makes one want to be a part of something that is so big,” says Valay Singh, pointing out that the Anna Hazare movement had already set the ball rolling and shown people that opinion could be effectively mobilised.

Enough is Enough A potent mix of anger and anguish made them face water cannons and lathis on a cold Sunday in December

Me-generation or us?

Growing up with the Internet, with access to credit cards, cellphones and chauffeur-driven cars even before they’re out of school, it’s easy to look at India’s urban youth as a demographic of self-obsessed people. But that would be doing them a grave disservice. Says Vipul Mudgal, director of Delhi’s Publics and Policies Programme at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, “These young people are products of their time, born in an age of technology and materialistic pleasures. It would be wrong to blame them alone for being consumerist. Even old people don’t hesitate from purchasing their second and third houses. Also, today’s youngsters are a frank generation. They say it like they see it.”

Adds Sonal Kapoor of Protsahan, “Who isn’t fond of nice things? If young people like to party then they have also shown that they are ready to protest!”

Veteran journalist and writer Ajoy Bose thinks it is the need of the hour. “Even though it died down in the last few years, activism is coming back. Look at the Occupy Wall Street movement in the West, it was the young people who wanted change and did something about it. They are tired of being just materialistic; there is a sense of restlessness. This is why you see so many people taking all kinds of risks. Finance consultants leave their jobs to open restaurants and management graduates turn down high salaries to pursue something they love. The change is already happening.”

For a generation that feeds on instant pizza, to see something as important as justice taking forever is beyond comprehension. Mehvish Shaikh is a 25-year-old freelance editor who started a vigil for her friends Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandes, the duo who died fighting ‘eve teasers’ in Mumbai last year. As she points out, “It takes a minimum of one year to get to a verdict. Till then, according to our law, the accused is innocent. How bizarre! The youth is used to blazing fast responses. If you tweet something, it reaches so many people in a second. We can’t wait for the slow judicial system to take its own sweet time.”

The movement against United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War began on college campuses, and gained national prominence in 1965, after the US began bombing North Vietnam.

A public change

India is no stranger to youth movements, we have witnessed the Naxalite movement of the ’60s. “But Naxalbari was a politically saturated social movement,” says Shiv Visvanathan. “Today the youth aren’t politically aware. What happened was a spontaneous protest without political affiliations.” Vipul Mudgal believes it to be not just apolitical but actively anti-political. “The politician is the villain here because people are sick of politics and feel let down by its agencies. This is why there is no face to this spontaneous movement. The youth today is practical without being ideological like previous generations. They want straight answers for straight questions. Social media’s real time exchange of information has made old-style spin doctoring counter-productive. And politicians will have to speak in their language.”

Indeed, the young people have held up a mirror to older people as well. “I have never seen this kind of youth mobilisation in my life and it is really heartening to see it happen in Delhi, where rapes had become so common,” says 54-year-old feminist activist Chayanika Shah. “We are proud of the youth for showing us that they are committed, aware and conscious citizens.”

Shiv Visvanathan echoes what has become overwhelmingly evident: Young people have realised the importance of protesting in public spaces. “They have realised that the state doesn’t understand their freedom. It’s a sort of coming of age for them.”

Bhanu Gehlot does feel different after being hit by lathis and tear gassed for two straight days at Raisina Hill, and – most painfully – after mourning the death of the young girl. “The power of youth didn’t mean anything to me earlier, now it means so much. I look at things differently now.”

With inputs by Amrah Ashraf, Veenu Singh

Young people make it happen
Youth protests that shook the world

US college campuses, 1965
The movement against United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War began on college campuses, and gained national prominence in 1965, after the US began bombing North Vietnam.

Paris, 1968
The revolution began when students of the University of Paris protested against what they saw as paternalistic rules of the university. The students were joined by half the French labour force, causing France’s economic machinery to shut down for weeks. The impact almost led to the collapse of President Charles de Gaulle’s government.

Tiananmen Square, 1989
These student protests, which began in April 1989, were quashed by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in June 1989, leading to the deaths of thousands of protesters. It was a massive demonstration by students asking for democratic reforms.

Paris, 1968 The revolution began when students of the University of Paris protested against what they saw as paternalistic rules of the university. The students were joined by half the French labour force, causing France’s economic machinery to shut down for weeks. The impact almost led to the collapse of President Charles de Gaulle’s government.

Compiled by Shreya Sethuraman
Sources: BBC website, Guardian and History.com

December 22, Raisina Hill, Delhi

I Witness
by Manit Moorjani

I had never been part of a protest in my life, and maybe that was why I felt like joining the crowds at India Gate that Saturday (December 22).

When I got there, I knew this wasn’t like anything I had seen before. There were hundreds of people shouting slogans, and
holding banners which read things like ‘We Won’t Tolerate Rape’. A band with a guitar and a djembe were singing songs in Hindi. A few groups performed street theatre.

India Gate was transformed into a university campus and even teenagers had skipped school to mark their attendance at the protest.
Walking up Raisina Hill led me to what felt like a fortress. An army of police personnel stood behind barricades at every step of the building. By the time I reached, things seemed tense, to say the least. The cops just stood there, quietly staring at the protesters
below. And ‘the masses’ sat on the road, still wet from the morning’s water cannons, still shouting their slogans.

Suddenly, people started running in the opposite direction. Before we knew it, we had tear gas in our eyes and liquid dripping from our noses. We heard more tear gas bombs go off on the other side and saw clouds of smoke. Some boys and girls fell to the ground, almost unconscious from the shock. We dragged them to the safety of the Raisina lawns and poured water on them. Madness
followed. The crowds dispersed but soon returned, only to face more tear gas. The cops began lathi charging us and one of my
colleagues got hurt in the process. All he was trying to do was protect two girls.

From HT Brunch, January 6

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