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Generation hexed

Lack of economic opportunities and social inequities are pushing too many young Indian men to protest violently against the State, writes Ramachandra Guha.

india Updated: Jul 15, 2010 21:33 IST

When the Kannada film actor Rajkumar died in April 2006, thousands of young men poured into the streets of Bangalore. They forced shops to down shutters and attacked police chowkis and government offices. Oldtimers, who thought of Bangalore as a ‘pensioners’ paradise’, were unnerved by the violence. Mumbai has been periodically subjected to communal riots; Kolkata, to bandhs and hartals at the rate of (roughly) one a week. But what happened that day in Bangalore was out of character with what has generally been a placid, genteel city. As a long-time resident, I couldn’t make sense of it myself until a friend remarked of the protesters that ‘these are all young men who cannot get jobs in Infosys’. Nor, indeed, in Wipro, MindTree, Biocon and the other widely celebrated entrepreneurial success stories of the city.

The boys who have been raining stones down on the police in Kashmir this past month can’t get jobs in Infosys either. So too the Marathi-speaking boys who, every now and then, taunt and threaten ‘outsiders’ in Mumbai. When, in the summer of 2005, the Chhattisgarh government raised a vigilante army named Salwa Judum, they got very many willing volunteers because there were very many young men in the state who were without jobs in the organised economy. In promoting the vigilantes, the state government was mimicking the methods of its proclaimed adversaries, the Communist Party of India (Maoist), whose ability to recruit tribal young men was also in good part a consequence of the poverty and hopelessness of everyday life in adivasi areas.

The violence on show in India today usually travels under the flag of sentiment and ideology. But, as often as not, it’s a manifestation of more elemental hopes and fears. No doubt, Rajkumar was greatly loved by those who watched his films. However, the violence in Bangalore in April 2006 wasn’t wholly, or even largely, a spontaneous outburst of grief — rather, the death of the film star was an excuse, a provocation, an opening, for the public expression of the anger that smoulders among the city’s subaltern groupings. The men who protested that day came from north and west Bangalore — where lie abandoned tanneries and textile mills — whereas those (like me) who were unnerved by them live chiefly in the south and east, the areas of the city’s software and biotechnology ‘boom’. Likewise, the stormtroopers of the Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) are motivated as much by class resentment as by love of Maharashtra or the Marathi language.

Reports from Kashmir suggest that the proponents of ‘azadi’ find ready volunteers because they pay cash to young boys without jobs or prospects of getting them. And, as I found while travelling through Dantewada some years ago, while the ideologues of the Sangh parivar claim that the Salwa Judum is defending ‘nationalism’ from ‘extremism’, the recruits themselves were animated by other considerations — such as a steady income, a uniform, and, above all, a gun with which to parade one’s masculinity and one’s ability to rise above the status of being merely a peasant. And while the members of the Politburo of the CPI (Maoist) may sometimes have a passing acquaintance with the works of Marx and Lenin, the cadres often join for material, rather than ideological, reasons. To be a Naxalite is more exciting, as well as more paying, than the alternative occupations of tendu leaf collection and hard labour on someone else’s fields.

Whether committed in the name of regional sentiment, ethnic pride, religious fundamentalism or Maoist revolution, the violence in contemporary India is almost wholly the work of young men. There are some Naxal women who know how to use a gun. But the more savage acts (the beheading of alleged informers, for example, or the laying of landmines) are the handiwork of male comrades. In watching TV footage of stone-throwers in the Kashmir Valley and of taxi window-breakers in Mumbai, I can’t recall seeing a single female vandal. There may be a biological basis for this generational and gender bias in violence. However, as in so many other areas of human history, the real explanation lies in society and culture rather than in biology.

There is an excess of angry young men in India today because there are deep inequities in economic and social development. Some parts of India are indeed shining; as, for example, the cities of the South and the West. However, the economic growth here is led by the service sector, rather than by agricultural renewal or manufacturing, which have the potential to create many more jobs. At the same time, other parts of India are stagnating, or even sinking — as for example the adivasi districts of Orissa, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh, where the intensifying of mining to meet global demands led to displacement and mass humiliation. The feelings of discrimination are magnified by modern means of information transmission, such that the India that isn’t shining is manifestly aware of the India that is. The hurt, and the anger, are doubtless felt by women of poorer households too. But given their traditional role as homemakers, they are less prone to vent their feelings on the streets.

I have no sympathy with extremist ideologies of Left or Right, or with social movements based on sectarian identities that undermine the inclusive idea of India. But the violence that scars India today can’t be diminished by the simple re-statement of liberal pieties. It requires something more substantial — namely, a reorientation of the economy and of educational institutions, such that young men of all regions and social classes can find a more productive channel for their energies than violence.

Ramachandra Guha is the author of India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy. The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jul 15, 2010 21:29 IST