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Anatomy of violence

As the country reels from the unrest and fear caused by Assam riots, we examine confict and India's youth. Pankaj Mullick reports.

india Updated: Sep 02, 2012 01:05 IST
Pankaj Mullick
Pankaj Mullick
Hindustan Times

That the youth of the country are one of the most important demographic goes without saying. People in the 15-24 years category were expected count in at 240 million, or one-fifth of the total population in 2011. The 15-34 age group, what the government defines as youth, are expected to make up 34.9% — more than one-third — of the population by 2015. This is just one of that many changes that India is going through that is affecting the youth.

"With economic growth comes social progress, which is breaking down the systems of patriarchy and hierarchy that existed in Indian society for centuries. Those who have been the beneficiaries of such systems tend to react violently in the face of sudden change," Ashis Nandy, senior honorary fellow at the Centre of the Study for Developing Societies (CSDS).

Changes in social structures are also leaving the youth anxious, setting the ground for violence.

A recent study — Indian Youth in a Transforming World: Attitudes and Perceptions — conducted by CSDS shows that unemployment — currently at 10.8% among the 15-24 age group — is a major source of anxiety. "Unemployed youth and students tended to report ‘very high anxiety' more than those who were employed and homemakers," it says.

Sanjay Kumar, fellow at CSDS, says, "Though factors like unemployment and discrimination do not directly lead to violence, feelings of being marginalised in society keeps youth on edge and a simple spark can bring them to a boiling point."

Youth from minorities that have traditionally been apprehensive about being treated fairly also report high levels of anxiety.

"There was greater anxiety about the future among the tribals and Dalits as compared to the forward castes. The less educated were clearly more agitated and uncertain about the future as compared to those who had access to higher education," the study adds.

The powers that be need to pay attention to such anxieties. Many a time, the foundation lies in economic strife and ambitions — such as a better reservation status. A case in point is the Gurjar unrest in Rajasthan.

The Gurjars, classified among Other Backward Classes, wanted to be reclassified as Scheduled Tribe. Things came to a head on May 23, 2008 when Gurjars lynched a policeman in Bharatpur and 15 protestors were shot by the police. Another 15 died when a mob tried to torch a police station. A year earlier, Meenas — a Scheduled Tribe — clashed with Gurjars because they were opposed to the latter's ambitions of reclassification. Such flashpoints show that as soon as someone tries to disrupt the status quo, violence is a very real possibility.

Dipankar Gupta, former professor of social sciences, JNU, who has studied three riots — Sikh Killings, Bhiwandi riots in the '80s and Ahmedabad, 2002 (post-Godhra) — says law enforcement is essential in a democracy, a view corroborated by many studies. "None of this (Assam-related violence) would've happened if the government had been strict in terms of law enforcement," says Gupta.

"A number of socio-economic factors contribute to crime, including poverty, inequality, unemployment, rapid urbanisation, and uncontrolled urban migration. The inefficiency of the security apparatus and the pervasive sense of impunity are further influencing factors," says a 2011 study by the India Armed Violence Assessment.

Screaming for attention
The youth also resort to violence when emancipation, which could be about a recognition of a separate identity and aspirations, remains unfulfilled through the democratic process. "Many youth in both Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh said that the Indian State ignores you until you take up arms. Frustration can also result if they feel that their participation in the political process is thwarted — either by unfair electoral means or through the stranglehold of the older generation," says Navnita Chadha Behera, professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Political Science, University of Delhi, and author of Demystifying Kashmir.

With the growing gap between the haves and have-nots, there is increasing resentment between the economic classes, as well. This can be seen most clearly in the oft-reported cases of violence against domestic workers by educated, well-to-do urbanites. The middle class is approximately 13.1% of the population and is projected to rise to 20.3% by 2015-16. The number will reach 37.2% by 2025-26.

"There is a sense among middle classes that the poor are to be blamed for India not making enough progress," says Dr Peter van der Veer, director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in, Germany. He is a Dutch anthropologist and expert on Indian religion and society. There are also increasing reports of violent crimes against the rich as reported from newly developed cities such as Gurgaon, where rich and poor reside in close proximity.

Hate online, hide offline
Another alarming trend that Indian youth are actively part of is spreading online hate messages. Racist and xenophobic speech is widespread on Twitter, YouTube and FaceBook. Anonymity seems to encourage people to be rabid without restraint. The harm this can cause was clearly seen in the widespread panic such messages created among the Northeastern community.

"Behind the veil of anonymity, one can easily resort to verbal and virtual violence. So, one doesn't have to take responsibility of one's words and can abuse anyone. In India, the State does not have the necessary resources to curb this. When it does, it goes after the wrong set of people, like the parody accounts of the PMO," says Prasanto K Roy, a technology and social media expert.

The 2011 edition of the Simon Wiesenthal annual Digital Terror & Hate Report notes a 12% increase to 14,000 ‘problematic social networks websites, forums, blogs, twitter, etc. (up from 11,500 in 2010), comprised on the subculture of hate'," says a report by the British Institute of Human Rights.

"There is this great sense of power that young people get from interacting with celebrities and saying anything to anyone they want. Especially, female TV personalities are targeted, also from a feeling that social media is more powerful than regular media. It almost seems like a route to instant fame — at least online — by being retweeted," Roy adds.

So what is the preventive or remedial action that that can be taken?

"Research demonstrates that family dynamics and parental or caregiver involvement are significantly correlated with an individual's propensity to engage in violent behaviour," says the American Medical Association in a guide to prevent youth violence.

Maybe, a paradigm shift is in order. Besides better law enforcement, perhaps it's better to start with the smallest unit of society — the family.

With inputs from Suprateek Chatterjee

case study

One man's story of how he went from breaking laws to enforcing them
Rahul Marak (name changed) now in his late 30s, a masters in sociology, is a top official in the Delhi police. He has put in over ten years of service. But he has a dark past. Two decades back, Marak was on the other side of the law. Here is his story.

As a reformed citizen, Marak's take on the violent young Indian is that it's "a dangerous emerging trend for law enforcement." "The splinters of violence in parts of the country must be contained before they conflagrate into something bigger," he warns. The breaking down of institutions — educational, familial, societal — is leading to simmering discontent. Disillusion with government, dwindling livelihoods, lack of avenues to channelise energies… are some reasons. "A slight provocation and the resentment comes out."

As a student, Marak was himself a lawbreaker. He damaged a superintendent's vehicle, and on several occasions got together with friends to throw stones and beat up policemen. "We lacked an aim, were angry, impressionable and needed a vent. Thankfully I got out of that phase in time. I went through scouts training, studied further, my family was supportive and I found my direction," he says.

The Indian youth is not criminal yet; but they are on the edge, he feels. Criminalisation of the mind happens in stages. "The first is in school. With the guru-shishya tradition being lost, the don't-care attitude of the system, if a child gets into bad habits like drinking, drugs, there's no one to guide him/her. Second, the internalisation of role models. Many of our politicians have criminal backgrounds. Who are the role models today? This is the stage when people are most influenced by peers and society. The third is when the person gets opportunities to participate in violence. This is the most dangerous phase easily exploited by vested groups. The person is stuck here and can't make a career or go home. The final stage is when the violence takes an extreme turn, there's no turning back. The person is disgruntled to the highest degree."
Shalini Singh

Causes of violence

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