Excerpt - Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing Their World by Snigdha Poonam
By midday on 21 September, as we left the election camp, the streets of Allahabad had turned into a carnival of masculinity. A dozen processions hit the university street at the same time: The candidates themselves were in the front rows, perched on the shoulders of their respective gangs; their followers rallied behind on motorbikes and SUVs — waving party flags and screaming slogans. It was less a show of strength than a call for battle. Only four kinds of people come out on the street on the day before the qualifying speech: candidates, supporters, journalists and police. Richa Singh was in the front row of the Samajwadi Party procession, her right hand locked with Yadav’s, for support, and her left hand locked with mine, for safety. Singh had told me numerous stories to explain the insanity of the students’ union elections, and I had noted down each detail, but it was finally now that I understood her point. Shoved by rows upon rows of men from behind and glared at by rows upon rows of them in front, I wondered if I should stick around for the rest of the week. I gave myself another day. At dusk, Singh asked me if I wanted to come to the night’s ‘mike meeting’. I knew what it was in theory — an open debate between the various panels — but she told me the actual thing would be nothing like anything I had ever seen before. I would soon know. It’s called a mike meeting because the various ‘panels’ for the union poll are supposed to face off each other armed with microphones.
Sound is key to the ritual. The mikes are placed on stages built on opposite sides of a narrow road with a dead end. The two biggest student parties position themselves across the road, the small and harmless ones taking whatever spot is available. The SP and the ABVP faced off this time. Even more important than mikes, it turns out, are speakers — massive, colourful, deafening, a set of four tied to each of the four poles holding together a stage. Behind each microphone stands a line of men organizing the party’s election campaign, but not the candidates themselves. The candidates are parading down the aisle on the shoulders of their supporters. The space is packed with men. Those not carrying others are either waving banners or tossing around pamphlets. Everyone in the 500-metre space is speaking at the same time, including the three battalions of Allahabad police trained in riot control. Across the road, the opposing parties are screaming into their microphones, attempting to drown out their rivals. It may seem a completely pointless exercise at first. No one can hear anything, but as I have already been told, that’s not the point. What matters is that the rivals keep speaking without a break; the idea is not to be understood but to cancel out each other’s noise. It’s like a rap battle in the middle of a Kumbh Mela; more insults are exchanged across this aisle on election eve in Allahabad than during the rest of the campaign. At the centre of the action this evening is the strip of road between the stages of SP and ABVP. The Samajwadis kicked off the session by accusing the ABVP of killing Rohith Vemula (‘You are murderers’). I know this mainly because I was standing behind the speaker. Singh stands next to him, smiling at the insults coming from the other side. On the stage across the aisle are her colleagues from the union. It seems she can tell what they are saying, or she knows everything they could say. Midway through the evening, everyone can see what’s going on — on the ABVP stage, the men are pointing at Singh and then the mike.
Richa Singh takes it in the middle of a deafening roar from the other side. Smiling, she tells her colleagues what she’s been meaning to say since day one of the campaign: ‘I didn’t allow Yogi Adityanath into the campus and I won’t allow you to enter the students’ union again.’ Surely no one can hear it, but it makes the ABVP stage throb with rage. The moment the words leave her mouth, a bomb explodes on our left. As I cover my ears and jump off the collapsing stage, two more crudely assembled explosives go off in quick succession. The police flood into the smoke-covered street just as everyone else tries to leave it all together. Like everybody there, I run for my life, except I don’t know where to go. By the time I find Singh in the stampede, I know I am done with Allahabad.
I had never seen anything so out of control. I had seen a bunch of young men build a straw effigy of China, drape it with the flag of the enemy country, burn it in the middle of a crowded market, and stomp on the ashes until every bit of red in the flag of the People’s Republic had turned to black. I had seen another group of young men search 200 trucks in one night for the slightest trace of a Muslim smuggling a cow. Rare exceptions aside, my wide-ranging forays into the madness of modern India boiled down to the same thing: the anxieties of young men who no longer know their place in the world. What they find hardest to deal with are women who do. The young men can deal with me. I am there more to understand their masculinity than to threaten it. They have no idea how to deal with someone like Richa Singh.
Snigdha Poonam works with Hindustan Times