In 1973, an honest police officer called Inspector Vijay swore vengeance against those who had killed his family. Vijay was played by the then relatively unknown Amitabh Bachchan and Zanjeer saw the birth of both a star and the ‘angry young man’.
Over 40 years later, the angry young Indian has spilled over from fiction to real life. You don’t have to look very hard for this character. He (and she) is there on primetime TV hollering because Pakistan has yet again shown its duplicitous face. He is there on the streets busting kneecaps because a driver has brushed against his scooter. He is there in his neighbour’s home, beating him to death after an altercation. He is sniffing out lunch-boxes for a whiff of murderous beef and stringing up cattle traders in the name of cow protection.
He is in universities fighting for the right to shout azaadi or hoist the Tricolour. He is there among our leaders threatening to chop off the heads of those who will not chant ‘Bharat mata ki jai’.
A recent global happiness index that takes into account GDP per capita, life expectancy, social support and the freedom to make life choices, finds India ranks a low 118 of 157 nations. This puts us below Pakistan, Somalia and even the Palestinian Territories.
How did we slide so far?
First, the shrinking of our identities, exemplified by the nationalism/anti-nationalism debate, reduces us to binaries: You either chant Bharat mata ki jai and prove your patriotism, or you don’t and are, by definition, an anti-national. Aided by lazy journalism that has its eye on ratings and no space for a middle ground, emotions are ratcheted up in an already emotionally overwrought environment.
The angry Hindu nationalist is protesting what he sees as years of Congress ‘appeasement’ of minorities. Certainly, the Congress didn’t do anyone any favours by its ambivalence on the Bharat mata issue in Maharashtra, and certainly the party has much to answer for from Shah Bano to The Satanic Verses. But it’s also pertinent to point out that the diversion of the national debate to patriotism also saves the ruling BJP government from having to answer inconvenient questions on development and growth.
Second, the slow and necessary dismantling of the old order is leading to what activists call backlash violence. This is most visibly manifest with the rising aspirations of women: A Dalit schoolgirl raped on her way to school, a woman sarpanch murdered by her brother for cremating their mother, unabated ‘honour’ killings when daughters marry men they love, regardless of caste and family prohibitions.
It’s this dismantling of the old order that leads economically and socially dominant Jats in Haryana to demand a slice of affirmative reservation – and to press home that demand, public property is vandalised and 16 people are left dead.
A third reason is the growing frustration of India’s youth demographic. Nearly 40% of our population was born after 1991’s economic liberalisation and grew up through a period of 9% annual growth. Now, growth has halved and jobs are hard to come by. School enrolment levels are nearly universal with 96.7% of our children in schools but 48.1% of class 5 students have the reading abilities of class 2 students, finds the 2015 Annual Status of Education Report.
“There is a mismatch between aspiration and reality,” says Dr Achal Bhagat who heads Saarthak, an NGO engaged in mental health issues. India’s educated youth is either unemployable or competing in a shrinking cauldron for jobs that are too scarce. In February last year, Hindustan Times’ Chandigarh edition carried a report of how 16,000 candidates applied for 21 posts of court peons – of these, 40 were post-graduates.
And yet, angry as we are, we simply aren’t angry enough about things that should outrage us: Nine farmer suicides a day in Maharashtra, the ongoing endemic of violence against women, chronic malnutrition amongst adivasis and the marginalised.
Perhaps the angry Indian’s anger is misdirected. Perhaps the angry Indian ought to be angriest about himself.
The views expressed are personal