The revolution began with an argument over a crate of bananas and two crates of pears. Like each morning, local authorities had arrived at the market in the small Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, telling unlicensed vendors to vacate the street. Like most mornings, some had responded with arguments and taunts. The municipal police responded by confiscating one young man’s fruit and weighing scales. “Now what should I do,” the man shouted, “should I weigh my fruit with your breasts?”
Fayda Hamdi, the officer at whom the taunt was directed, wasn’t intimidated: She was long used to dealing with aggressive men, and responded with a slap to his face.
Later that day, the fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, doused himself with paint thinner and set himself alight. He would die eighteen days later, in a military hospital. The fire he lit that day in 2009, though, still rages across the region.
This week, Indians watched as mobs of young men—enraged by the Narendra Modi government’s decision to recruit soldiers on four-year contracts, with sharply-reduced benefits—burned down buses, trains and public buildings. Earlier this year, riots broke out over recruitment to the Indian Railways.
Economic conflict is just part of a larger mosaic of youth violence: ethnic-religious extremism, organised crime and sexual assault are all growing parts of India’s political landscape.
Little is needed to see what’s driving the conflict. Less than one in four Indians aged 15-24, World Bank data shows, now participate in the labour force, and twenty-five per cent of youth job-seekers can’t find work. The situation’s been getting steadily worse for decades, in a country where over half the population is now below 25. India needs to be creating a million jobs a month; its economy has never come close to meeting that demand.
The main occupation of many young Indians, as anthropologist Craig Jeffrey put it, has been waiting—for life to happen.
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Young, male and violent
Like India today, the Middle East, on the cusp of the Arab Spring, was also in the midst of a demographic crisis. Throughout much of this century, policy expert Nader Kabbani has recorded that youth unemployment in the Middle East was the highest in the world, touching 30 per cent. Even though educational access improved dramatically, the jobs on offer didn’t. Large numbers of those seeking work, economist Ragui Assaad and Ghada Barsoun observed in Egypt, could find only low-wage opportunities in the informal sector.
Anthropologist M Chloe Mulderig has perceptively pointed out: “The most basic of societal contracts—that children will one day grow up, begin to contribute productively to society, and then raise families of their own—has been broken for an entire generation of youth in the Arab world.” Instead, Mulderig notes, “their generation was living in an undignified, liminal state of pre-adulthood.”
In many societies, the state of ‘pre-adulthood’ has helped grow a toxic culture of gender aggression. Hamdi, the Tunisian police officer, made this insightful observation: “Had a man hit him, none of this would have happened.”
Large-scale ethnic violence in Kenya from 1991 to 1993, scholar Colin Kahl noted, was similarly rooted in demographic pressures. “The ability of the economy to absorb a rapidly growing labour force,” Kahl has observed, “declined as the private sector slumped and the number of jobs in the public sector, Kenya’s largest source of employment, stopped growing.”
Political scientist Ted Gurr observed, in a 1981 study, that cities with high youth populations had crime rates “higher than in times and places where the population is older.” “The coming of age of the post-war generation of youths,” Gurr recorded “is closely related to the onset of major increases in personal and property crime in the United States and Britain.”
In a 2005 paper examining violent conflict in India, researcher Henrik Urdhal concluded that the risk of armed conflicts and riots had a significant statistical association with youth bulges. “The risk of armed conflict,” he noted, “is particularly pronounced when youth bulges go together with great male surpluses.” A review of the global evidence assessed that “relatively large youth cohorts are associated with a significantly increased risk of domestic armed conflict, terrorism and riots.”
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The dark side of youth
Economic historians have long noted that demographic shifts underpin crises in history. The collapse of the English state in 1640-1641 came because of factional feuds amongst the élite, fiscal crisis, and economic distress. Each of these, sociologist and political scientist Jack Goldstone has proposed, was precipitated by a surge in population. Indeed, similar demographic pressures underpinned multiple European crises through to the revolutions of 1848—from which the Arab Spring got its name.
“Youth have played a prominent role in political violence throughout recorded history,” Goldstone has written, “and the existence of a youth bulge—an unusually high proportion of youths 15 to 24 relative to the total adult population—has historically been associated with times of political crisis.”
Academic and historian Norm Cohn’s work has shown that young people were, through history, drawn to millenarian movements, which promised a post-apocalypse utopia. Social histories of the First Crusade—during which large-scale pogroms against Jews were conducted—accord young people a central role in shaping events.
That was also true for many of the crises that shaped the modern world. The high proportion of young adults in pre-Nazi Germany, Herbert Moller has suggested, helped lay the foundations for the rise of fascism. Fascism’s rise in Germany came about just as the historically-unprecedented cohort born between 1900 and 1914 came on the job market. The Great Depression, and the closure of immigration opportunities to the United States, sealed their fate—and that of the world.
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Learning from violence
Even when nation-states succeed in crushing youth-led violence, experience shows it finds new languages in which to express itself. Tunisia was hailed as a model of democratic reform after the Arab Spring but proved to be the largest single provider of jihadists to the Islamic State, as well as of illegal immigrants to Europe. In countries like Syria and Libya, the Arab Spring led to a searing civil war—fuelled, just like the revolutions themselves—by a youth cohort easily seduced by violence.
For many in India, the prospect of large-scale, Middle-East style uprisings might seem implausible: the Indian State structure, after all, has survived protracted insurgencies and civil conflicts.
There’s no shortage of examples, though, where the State has been swept aside by violent youth mobilisations. Former police officer Prakash Singh’s official investigation of the Haryana violence of 2016 showed the police force itself disintegrated along caste lines. Largely under-resourced, India’s police system already struggles to enforce the law in large swathes of the country. The ability of the system to withstand new challenges is open to question.
From the work of social scientists Raheel Dhattiwala and Michael Biggs, there are suggestions that youth cohorts might be feeding the growth of Hindu nationalist violence. In Kashmir and the North-East, youth mobilisation has played a key role in precipitating ethnic-religious violence. There has also been a growth in youth-related gang culture, as well as violent crime.
Engaging with India’s youth crisis should be the biggest single task of India’s national security system—because the alternatives, history shows, are murderous coercion or chaos.
The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)