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Young dissenters: Is the Indian State listening?

Awakening: It was a tech-savvy youth brigade fed up of a jaded regime who led the recent Turkey protests. Its Indian counterpart is marked by a new-found individualism with a slow but steady claim to its spaces... is the Indian State listening? Shalini Singh reports.

world Updated: Jun 09, 2013 09:39 IST
Shalini Singh
Shalini Singh
Hindustan Times
Taksim Square,Tahrir Square,2011 Egyptian Revolution

Even as Taksim Square in Istanbul was being hailed as the new Tahrir Square (site of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution) when protests flared up in Turkey in recent weeks, students gathered at India Gate — young India's symbol of dissent in the heart of the nation's capital — last Monday, this time to rally against an issue of higher education (Delhi University's proposed four-year degree programme). Some months ago, the site was simmering with the December 16 gangrape protests and two years ago, with the anti-corruption movement.

The vibrant thread of young people running through the fabric of protests mark out these recent events, including the Arab Spring of 2011 and Iranian upsurge of 2009. "In tandem with what's been happening in these countries, the urban Indian youth too is frequently showing its outrage and lack of faith in the State," says Saikat Ghosh, 35, English professor at DU and one of the front-runners at the FYUP protests. (Note that youth protest movements are not new in India. India's rural young continue to be active in the cases of big development projects. "Of late, with everything being a middle-class movement, other peasant/adivasi movements tend to get ignored," says sociologist Nandini Sundar.)

The context for this voice of the urban youth is the neo-liberal society post the 90s. "The Indian middle class was caught in a bubble/illusion. Some sections have benefited from the economy opening up, but the ones dependent on manufacturing are getting disenchanted. Our economy may be growing but it's not creating jobs, leading to resentment," explains Ghosh. (For more on this, see 'Jobs, No More', in Hindustan Times dated May 12 2013.)

According to political psychologist Ashis Nandy, Iran, Egypt, India, Turkey are becoming 'regimes of despair'. "There are huge pockets of despair and narcissism. In the reality of despair, you sense it but deny it by building different walls (narcissism) - page 3 news, luxurious holidays, virtual reality, hyped talks of development, lifestyle diseases of the rich..."

Consumer citizen
Be it political, financial, educational, city spaces, sexuality or jobs - urban is the new imagination of globalisation says social scientist Shiv Visvanathan on this new wave of protests. Turkey's 2013 protests, seen as the largest uprising in recent times, were shorn of the old movement nature of protests. The ripple that spread from being a campaign to save a local city park to the larger issues of identity - spilling into other Turkish cities - was created by several disconcerted groups: corporate executives, traditional Muslims, well-heeled urbanites, academicians etc. In India, the DU protest may seem local but it points to a larger message from the youth - similar in the Turkey case - 'don't be authoritative'. And like Turkey's unexpected outrage spill, the gangrape protest and anti-corruption movement in India also had a sense of surprise. "The new generation of young Indians was not seen as political activists. They were interested in upward mobility, consumerism and therefore not seeing a political identity in themselves," says Visvanathan. The consumerism, he explains, has created a different model of citizenship, where "the individual is the new client to be serviced by the state". As consumers, the new generation is claiming the right to the body and right to privacy. Rape, seen as an ultimate form of intrusion, led to the right to claim public space. The intrusion is seen as a threat to this new citizenship. In the Anna Hazare phase, where there was an attempt to create 'nostalgic nationalism' (Hazare, a Gandhian, was seen as an icon of the national movement and Arvind Kejriwal as the icon of social movement) the issue of corruption threatened the citizenship because it hampered consumption. "So, the two intrusions — rape and corruption — both threaten public space where individuality is played out," says Visvanathan.

Well connected
Young urban Indians today are increasingly exposed to the worldwide revolution in information technology. (India has one of the fastest growing young Internet populations.) "When they see differences in social justice quotients, more gender freedoms... they wonder why they can't get what other countries don't have to struggle for," says Ghosh. The resentment, he adds, is not just with the State but is now slowly inching towards the corporates too. "For example cricket, which enjoyed a certain respect earlier and was part of the big business, is finding itself at the heart of recent match-fixing scandals."

Perhaps much like the young woman in a red summer dress recoiling from the riot policeman's pepper spray who has become the symbolic image of the Turkey protests, several young urban Indians naively went in for the first time during the gangrape protests. "Faced with the lathi charges, they learnt the hazards of protest and discovered the deftness of the state — which was both indifferent and contemptuous," says Visvanathan. This movement also discovered its confidence through the media that became the first historian of the (gangrape outrage) movement. "The media transformed them. Most protests weren't that big but became amplified with the attention they got, juxtaposed with the crudity of the State that resorted to things like lathi charge. When a movement catches the

Imagination, it becomes bigger than itself," he says.
Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter emerged as the youth's first political tools in these urban protests. According to Nandy while social media relies too much on the 'spontaneity of response', it no doubt played a key role in the Egypt protests. "But for a lasting movement, there should be more human interactions," he suggests.

State of things
On its part, the State has been deriving its traditional legitimacy from old institutions, which don't seem relevant now. "The State needs to reorient itself in diverse ways. Even its youth leaders are steeped in inherited ideas without an independent outlook. This is leading to a huge disconnect between the two (young Indians and the State) entities," says Ghosh. Whether it's the authoritarian nature of the regime in the Arab case or the indifference of the regime in the India's context, both are forms of the State's deafness and blunted imagination feels Visvanathan. Most political parties find it difficult to handle large diversities, adds Harsh Sethi, consulting editor with the Seminar magazine. "The more distant and removed you are, more the use of language of fuzzy generalities. Like a Rahul Gandhi making that beehive remark..."

In the case of Iran and India — both young societies — political power and political responses to the youth's problems are not what they should be, feels Nandy. "These unorganised spontaneous uprisings are not surprising. We will see more of them. For young people, ideological fervour and debate is important. It's a time in their lives when they search for answers related to ethical issues and personal faith."

A large range of disenchantment is present in every country especially in times of downturn, recession, unemployment says Sethi. "Such protests are common to societies in transition. Every generation produces its set of characters who look for more than jobs, security… and notions of how things could be possibly better."

While the sense of urgency has been more intense for other countries, the tipping point is yet to come for India. "Disaffection is growing everyday. I see more young urban Indians — who've grown up in an age of instant gratification - willing to cast off identities related to caste, religion, gender, etc and identify with the global populace. The sooner the Indian State wakes up to this and puts on their hearing aids, the better for them," says Ghosh.

First Published: Jun 08, 2013 23:26 IST