Those who believe that India's hopes reside in its youth might want to glance at the events of the recent week and take off their rose-tinted glasses. Yesterday, police lathicharged students in Allahabad who were violently protesting against the construction of a petrol pump, allegedly on college land. In Madhav College, Ujjain, students beat up and killed a defenceless professor of political science, because they believed he was responsible for the cancellation of student elections. The furious, hysterical faces of ABVP activists threatening to wipe the floor with their teachers, wagging fingers and spewing abuse were captured in full close-up by television cameras. A policeman standing close by shockingly failed to realise that criminal intimidation is a punishable offence and simply looked on.
In another part of India, in Chandigarh, irate young women demanded an apology from, and the suspension of, a teacher who punished a girl for speaking on her mobile phone in class. And in Meerut, girls from a local college vandalised the vice-chancellor's home and damaged his vehicle simply because he failed to give them an appointment.
Our great hope is that 65 per cent of our population is under the age of 35. But has India's youth inherited the worst traits of their elders and tossed out the best, like yesterday's hawai chappals? Is the mantra, 'the system sucks', leading to total normlessness? In the Sixties and Seventies, youth movements were generally ideological, based on attacking ideas rather than individuals. Today, youth protests have changed dramatically. The anti-reservation stir this year was no doubt an example of a powerful youth movement, wherein many sincere young people participated in the debates and voiced legitimate concerns about the future.
Yet, here too, the protestors seemed to display a sort of tunnel vision, a refusal to engage with the realities of social justice, to understand what caste discrimination really means. Instead, there was an almost hysterical obsession with 'Oh God-what's-going-to-happen-to-me-I'm-going-to-America'.
'The system sucks' syndrome is dangerous. Why do I abuse my teacher? Because 'the system sucks'. Why do I ram my car into sleeping human beings? Because 'the system sucks'. Why do I applaud a film that makes heroes out of criminals? Because 'the system sucks'.
In fact, the system does not suck. Many, many things in our system work: the courts, the new economic processes, the social structures and citizens' initiatives. To push all this under the 'the system sucks' blanket is the worst form of self-absorption.
Rang De Basanti is a cult film for today's youth. A film that preaches disrespect, hedonism and historical forgetfulness while valourising murder is seen as the great protest film of our time. Glance at any workplace today and you'll find the majority of the workforce made up of feverishly ambitious, mercenary young people myopically focused on upward mobility, with empty minds that are also as narrow as their trousers.
Scan the blogosphere and you'll find several vicious armchair 20-somethings vomiting out defamatory and bloodthirsty sentiments about strangers who they would, it would appear from their blogs, like to murder. Take a survey of the individuals spooning up milk to the idol of Lord Ganesh and you'll find many are sharply dressed young trendies who, when not leafing through horoscopes, sun signs and escapist ghost stories, are spending all their waking hours drinking or drugging themselves blotto so as to experience the 'deeper' moments of existence. India's youth may be our greatest resource, but parts of the youth are, alas, sunk in such awful decadence and aggressive normlessness that they make the Naxalites of the Sixties look like nawabi intellectuals.
Youth politics has degenerated to such an extent that a committee headed by former CEC, J.M. Lyngdoh, was appointed to frame guidelines for campus elections. Notwithstanding these rules, in large parts of India, college politics is rarely marked by the ideological stances of the Sixties and the Seventies. Youth activists back then played an active part in, say, the Nav Nirman movement in Gujarat and the anti-Emergency protests. Many future politicians - be they Sitaram Yechury or Arun Jaitley - first earned their political stripes in these protests.
But now, organisations like the Youth Congress, NSUI and ABVP are in decline and comprise mainly of lumpen elements jostling for petty local fiefdoms. Rogue elements are taking over campuses and turning youth politics into factories manufacturing ever larger numbers of villains.
A CNN/IBN-Hindu State of the Nation poll conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies on youth in contemporary India provides interesting facts. Our survey was conducted in 19 states across 833 locations on respondents aged below 30. Nearly one-third of those polled didn't know the significance of August 15. Forty per cent failed to identify the year in which India became independent. And three-fourths had not heard of the Emergency. In fact, more respondents knew about Valentine's Day than the Emergency.
The intriguing fact about this money-conscious, success-oriented generation is the disappointing conservatism of their ideals. Where is the risk-taking, the adventurous spirit of youthful recklessness, of questioning and rebellion? It is nowhere in sight - only 16 per cent have participated in a political protest or rally. A resounding 58 per cent believe marriage should take place within one's own caste. An equal proportion also believe that decisions about marriage should be taken by parents. Almost 60 per cent say all their friends come from their own caste.
Advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather, in a special survey for Outlook, coined the term 'Genie', standing for Generation that Independently Engages. Those that make up this generation appear more modern than their parents, but harbour a thinking that is far more backward.
In short, they believe in caste and patriarchal family values, do not support women's rights and are overwhelmingly concerned with money and success. Their desire to hit the arclights outstrips all sense of morality, decency and values. Clearly, our future is not in very safe hands.
The incidents in Ujjain, Chandigarh and Meerut are shocking for various reasons. They illustrate the complete breakdown of relations between teachers and students, an utter lack of discipline and the complete lack of respect for all institutions and individuals. A young woman who insists on being allowed to take her mobile phone into class deserves to be punished. The fact that instead of her, it is the teacher who has had to apologise for trying to stop her from doing so (agreed he should not have slapped her as the students claim he did) is nothing short of a terrifying imbalance in our priorities.
But the most chilling indictment of India's youth has come from Ujjain. Agreed, the many talented and hardworking young people across India, the studious folk in the IITs and IIMs, the quiet achievers, do also exist and thrive. But the brutal side of the younger generation was never more in evidence than in this incident when a quiet, defenceless and unarmed academic was murdered (in full view of policemen) by enraged young people, motivated entirely by concern for their political future.
The guru-shishya parampara has been overthrown. The Rang De Basanti generation, maniacally repeating that 'the system sucks', demonstrates its contempt for the law.
The writer is Senior Editor, CNN-IBN