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Young Indians have inherited the anger of their forefathers, and it isn’t going anywhere

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While angry young men of the 1970s ranted about opportunities that eluded them, youth in the 2000s were aware that society and politics needed an overhaul.

Unemployed, unproductive-idle youth operate as a burden in all countries. This segment was considered one of the most vulnerable populations for discontent and radicalisation. But the globally-recognised idle-youth syndrome alone could not explain the youth revolt in India. That educated youth with job prospects started protesting in universities and colleges alone undermined the idleness theory. India’s youth uprisings had more to do with fractured existence of young people in the country than a state of complacence or disinterest. Like the land, the living faced intrinsic conflicts which invariably erupted; existence itself was a quagmire here.

Sheik Karibul Hassan—a Bengali who lived in Jharkhand—was 25 years old when he fell in love. He used to cross the state border between Jharkhand and West Bengal each day to meet his lover, Kari, a 23-year-old Adivasi woman who lived in Salbadra. They had met at a Durga Puja Mela, even though neither celebrated the festival. After two years of back and forth, in 2010 Hassan and Kari finally decided to get married. Love suddenly seemed burdensome at that time. The young lovers—one a Muslim, the other an Adivasi—found it difficult to get the support of their families and communities.

They secretly registered the marriage in the summer of 2010, but their troubles did not end. Hassan had no job and was dependent on his father who owned a stone quarry near Salbadra. The Adivasi people, who were struggling for minimal wages and safe work environment in quarries, revolted against the marriage. Besides, in the preceding years, the place had witnessed many unregistered marriages between Adivasi women and people of other communities or states which ended in exploitation. In many cases, the non-Adivasi men had abandoned their wives after child birth. Armed with bows and arrows, Kari’s three brothers threatened to kill Hassan. Though they were shown the marriage registration papers, the dispute did not end.

For Kari, who was educated till Class X, her family’s imposition seemed unreasonable. She decided to elope with Hassan. Around the same time, the state government was struggling with its attempt to crush the Adivasi agitation in quarries by reducing it to a conflict between Muslims and Adivasis. Most mines where trouble erupted were owned by Muslims and the workers were Adivasis. With neither the state nor the family or community supporting them, the youth struggled to legitimise their union. They stayed separate for over a year till the hatred that raged all around them died down. It was in 2011 that they finally started living together. When I met them in 2016, the couple had a child. They were worried for the three-year-old’s future. When even love, which is believed to be a pure human emotion, was a site of conflict for those who deviated from the normal, it was but natural for life to be tumultuous.

India’s youth uprising took shape from this constant state of flux in the lives of young people. Be it Rohith Vemula who challenged caste status-quo, the university students who protested the incumbent government, or youngsters from conflict-stricken hinterlands who asked for separation from the nation, India’s youth uprising displayed a restlessness which was inescapably inherent in their life and experiences.

The Films Division of India released a documentary in 1967 titled ‘I am 20’ that captured voices of young people aged 20, all of whom were born in 1947, the year India became independent. One of the prominently featured 20-year-olds in the film was E.N. Subramanian of Tamil Nadu, who eloquently expressed his aspirations for the newly-born country. Speaking about India’s fledgling consumer culture and dearth of educational opportunities during a time of agrarian crisis, a gaping rural-urban divide, and slow industrial development, Subramanian said on camera, “It’s a question of restlessness also. A lot of new countries were born in the last few years and they (Indian youth) see affluence and exotica of the more developed countries. And they just want to snap their fingers and get to the level of these developed countries.” The film briefly revealed that Subramanian was better off than his father. “At least I don’t have to work in a mill in the morning to pay for my education in the evening,” the young man said.

In the 1960s, when the documentary was filmed, youth in developed nations which Subramanian imagined as rich and content, were only emerging from the phase of disillusionment that the 1950s had in store. Post-World War II, in the 1950s, “a wave of rebelliousness among young people had begun”, documented the book Western Civilization: A Global and Comparative Approach (II).

This was the age of the ‘angry young men’ and, as John Osborne put it in his play, Look Back in Anger, young people abhorred the complacence of conformity: “Get out while the going is good…There’s going to be a changeover,” Osborne, an angry young man himself, wrote.

In the 1970s, the Indian film industry featured its own angry young man, Amitabh Bachchan, with his films expressing the rage of undermined existence and the anger of the outlaw. After 30 years of independence, India seemed to have overcome the phase of turbulence, only to have a ghost from the past follow it into the 1980s.

The ‘self-made man’ became a term of adulation even though the country remained largely a welfare state. Young people were asked to make their own destiny in the free nation, even though society urged them to conform to existing norms. They were asked to be agents of change even though India was not ready to face the aftermath of this youth-mediated reconstruction. The suppression of student movements of the 1970s during Emergency, or the crackdown on radical youth outfits affiliated to the far-Left, were examples of this intrinsic contradiction.

It was not surprising that this inbuilt fallacy found its course into the new millennium. In India, which became a global force by its sheer population strength in the new century, the restlessness of the past remained intact, though agitations demanded an absolute societal transformation rather than tokens of change. While angry young men of the 1970s ranted about opportunities that eluded them, in the 2000s, India’s youth were aware that a fair chance at opportunities would come only if society and politics underwent a complete overhaul.

Excerpted with permission from ‘The Ferment: Youth Unrest in India‘ by Nikhila Henry published by Pan Macmillan at Rs 599, 284 p.

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1 COMMENT

  1. More crap with typical love jihad spice by suspected c**ts…why not a hindu boy muslim women, mirch laag jaati hai pichwadey main as for youth most indian youth is jobless & doing time pass or underemployed, what India need is a Universal basic family income of 120000 RS to 240000rs per family, time to tax rich & take back mean of production & into the hand of people.

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