At a time when rampaging crowds and lynch mobs have become a barometer of present-day politics, one is reminded of noted Hindi writer Harishankar Parsai’s prescient warning about the dangers of a restless crowd, captured in an article titled ‘Awaara bheed ke khatre’, written in 1991.
Within our group of four or five writers, we were talking about the growing disillusionment of youth. Lakshmikant Verma, who is from Allahabad, narrated an incident that took place last Diwali. A sari shop had placed a beautiful mannequin in its window. All of a sudden, a youth picked up a stone and hurled it at the model. The glass shattered. When bystanders asked him why he did what he did, his face flushed with anger and he snapped back – “she is too damn beautiful”.
We debated the reason behind the young man’s action. What does it mean? What kind of a mentality does it highlight? How and why did this mentality come into being? In the latter half of the 20th century, this question is being raised all over the world, from the developed nations of the west to the poor nations of the third world.
From America, vagabond hippies as well as youths make their way to India, the latter chanting ‘hare Rama hare Krishna’ to show their disillusionment with their system. India’s youth nurses a perennial thirst to live in America, even if it means taking up menial jobs there. Going to the USA is like bathing in the Ganga all 24 hours – so goes the script.
But this scenario is an exception. The crowds that mill are of youngsters who are dejected, jobless and angry. There’s a world of a difference between the youth of the prosperous west and India.
The question remains – why did the youth throw the stone at the face of the beautiful mannequin, saying, “she is too damn beautiful”. Why should the mannequin’s beauty be a cause for anger? Why doesn’t a response such as “Wow! How beautiful” escape the lips of such youths?
The young man in question was wearing an ordinary kurta pyjama. Listlessness was writ large on his face. The only time his face had lit up momentarily, like a spark from a dying ember, was when he hurled the stone. Educated and jobless, he was thrashing around in search of a job. He had absolutely nothing to occupy him.
The young man’s family was going through hard times. Facing insults at home and indifference outside, he was full of angst, suffocating anger and negativity – nursing a grievance against the whole world.
In such a frame of mind, the mere sight of beauty is a sore irritant. Flowers in bloom seem obnoxious. Someone’s beautiful house becomes an object of hatred. A stylish car makes you want to spit on it. Hearing a melodious song is to suffer distress. One feels alienated from friends who are well-turned out and well-to-do. Anything that carries an echo of happiness, beauty, prosperity, success or prestige triggers rage.
The complaints start from the time when the son of mature, aged parents reaches middle school. They ask in bewilderment, “What have these boys become? It wasn’t so in our time. We used to bow before the wishes of our fathers, guru and venerable members of society. Now all these boys do is argue, engage in contestation. They don’t care two hoots for anybody.”
I recall instances when I thought my father was wrong, but I never argued with him. I did not argue with my gurus or the upholders of society either. We were adolescents then, we didn’t know any better.
Our town used to get 10-12 newspapers. There was no radio, though. It was the time of the freedom struggle. We hero-worshipped all our political leaders – the local ones as well as Jawaharlal Nehru.
We had no idea about the weaknesses of our fathers, gurus and leaders of society. I came to know much later that my father used to exploit the Gond labourers who worked in the coal mines.
But now, my grandson, who studies in the fifth standard, reads the morning papers, watches television and listens to the radio. He is aware of the skeletons rattling in every politician’s closet.
He critiques Devi Lal and Chautala and argues in the same tone if you tell him to do something at home: “You must hear me out. Having spent the entire day studying I have just returned (from school) and you want me to bury my nose in textbooks again. If I don’t play for a while, I won’t be able to study either. That is what out textbook says.” He knows exactly when the elders of the house resort to lies.
When university students pursuing higher studies scan the morning papers, they devour every story of corruption and degeneration there is to read about leaders in politics and society. The newspapers are bursting with stories about the hypocrisy, skullduggery and depravity of people who run the country and are pillars of the society.
The lack of character that afflicts these so-called upholders of morality and duty is highlighted in other ways as well. In every speech, every sermon they deliver to the students, these leaders pontificate: ‘It is your task to build this nation (because we have destroyed it); it is you who must be morally upright (because we are depraved); the end goal of education is not to make money but to develop an ethical character (because we learnt how to be unethical and make money out of education and ignorance). How can students be expected to believe in them, look up to them?
Students know everything about their professors – the fact that they take home high salaries without teaching, indulge in factionalism, pull one another down, act mean, fail students out of spite, play favourites and make use of students in their factional spats.
Nothing remains hidden from students these days. They even know how teachers conduct their private lives. In such a situation how can students have firm belief in them? The gurus drone on that the students must engage in revolution. If they do that, their first move will be to do away with their teachers. A majority of students despise their teachers.
The older ones know their parents well too. They can see that the father’s salary is all of Rs 3000, but the comforts in the house bespeaks an income closer to Rs 8000. The son thinks, my father takes bribes but teaches me lessons in honesty.
Our young boys and girls have access to so many avenues of information and knowledge that they know the truth about their elders in every walk of life. Hence, to expect unquestioning obedience not just from the youth but even from children would be unrealistic. There’s an old Sanskrit saying that when your child turns 16, stop being their parents and start being their friends.
At most, one can talk to them, reason with them. A couple of days ago, my 12-year-old grandson was playing outside. His exams are over and the long vacation has started. His uncle called out to him a couple of times to return home, giving the boy an earful.
The boy came home. Sobbing angrily he shouted, ‘What are we to do? Blast the government for giving such long vacations ’. How to spend the vacation poses a genuine problem for the boy; he is bound to do something after all. Come down on him heavily and he will rebel. If this is how a child responds, imagine how youths would react?
What young men and women are facing is a crisis of faith. Their elders stand thoroughly exposed before them. They see ideals, principles and ethics being thrown to the wind. They see deceit, unethical conduct, dishonesty and base behaviour succeeding, being profitable.
The young are also facing a crisis of values. They see a lack of values everywhere, from the marketplace to sacred sites. Whom should they believe in? In whose footsteps should they follow? Which values should they invoke?
The generation that was born during World War II was called the lost generation. There was scarcity and hunger, lack of proper education and healthcare systems. When adults are consumed by war, there’s nobody to look after the children.
The fathers and elder brothers of these children died in the war. Homes, properties and jobs were destroyed, so were values of life. In such circumstances, the children who grew up without proper education, refinement, nutrition, clothing and values became youths of the lost generation. Other than despair, darkness, insecurity, dearth and lack of values, they had nothing to hold on to. Their beliefs lay in tatters. The lost generation was disillusioned, destructive, anarchic, disaffected and nihilistic.
George Osborne wrote a play on the angry generation which was much read and also made into a film. The play was titled Look back in anger. This state of affairs continued even as Europe regained order and prosperity. A section of youths dropped out of society. The beat generation was born.
Industrialised Europe continues to face high unemployment; in Britain alone, unemployment has touched 18%. The United States of America may not have suffered World War II (in the manner of other Allies) but it too could not remain untouched by youth disillusionment with the system.
The USA has an unemployment rate of about 20%. On one hand are youngsters affected by unemployment, and on the other hand are youths affected by problems of plenty or excessive prosperity. In the US, as in Europe, the discontentment of young men and women expressed itself through rebellion, drug use, free sex and destructiveness.
Drug consumption in the West is a known fact, but it is widespread in India too. According to a Delhi University survey conducted two years ago, in 1989, 57% male students and 35% female students were used to taking drugs.
Fine, Delhi is a metro. But drugs have reached small cities and towns as well. In several places, paan shops are well stacked with all kinds of drugs. Smack and ‘pot’ are as easily available as toffee.
Students and youth are considered the force of revolution and social transformation and for good reason. If they have the strength of ideas, a sense of direction, organisation and positive energy, and they are able to comprehend the ills of the older generation, then they would neither inherit the weaknesses of their elders nor add some of their own to take the tradition of degeneration forward. Mere angst is self-destructive.
The ideas of noted thinker Herbert Marcuse were hugely popular and influential in the 1960s. He had great faith in the idea of ‘student power’. He was of the firm belief that students can bring about a revolution. The truth, however, is that by themselves, students cannot bring about a revolution. They need to educate other sections of society, conscientise them, include them in the struggle, set a purpose and a goal.
Most importantly, what needs to be changed has to be decided first and foremost. In the US, students influenced by Marcuse engaged more in dramatics – taking out marches armed with huge posters of Ho Chinh Minh and Che Guevara, and indulging in acts perceived as indecent, unrefined and uncouth, in order to be provocative.
The education of French university students inclined them towards a more serious and thoughtful response. They started a movement in Sorbonne University during the time of President Charles de Gaulle. Writer, philosopher and political activist, Jean-Paul Sartre supported them. Student leader Daniel Cohn Bendit was a serious intellectual.
To bring about a political revolution was not possible for the students; they were not supported by workers’ organisations. But the demands they put forth, such as for a fundamental change in the education system, were sound, unlike our students’ revolutionary demand that copying be allowed. In Pakistan too, a young student leader, Tariq Ali, created an uproar by raising the cry of revolution. Then he went to London.
The reasoning employed by youth that ‘when everybody else is degraded, why not us too’, is fallacious. If people are mired in quicksand, then those from the new generation should be to trying to pull them out of it, not get caught in the quicksand themselves.
In all the revolutions and social transformations that have taken place in the world, the youth have played a big role. However, a generation that is content to adopt or embrace the degradation of their elders, because it is convenient and offers pleasurable comforts will never be able to bring about any change.
Then there are youths who stage plays with a revolutionary message ad nauseum but take humungous dowries without fail. They are ready with a reason too – “I couldn’t care less about dowry but what to do, I had to bow before my father’s wishes.” If youngsters have a sense of direction, ideology and resolve, as well as the ability for organised struggle, then they can surely bring about change.
What I am seeing is something else – a new generation that is even more inert and conservative than the older generation. Maybe it has something to do with fatalism born of frustration that the son has turned out to be more of an essentialist and fundamentalist than his father.
A crowd made up of aimless, frustrated, nihilistic, destructive and jobless youths is dangerous. They can be mobilised by people or groups sworn to dangerous ideologies. Napoleon, Hitler, Mussolini – they all made use of this crowd.
This crowd starts following religious fanatics. It is prone to becoming part of any organisation that whips up fundamentalism and discord. Then this crowd can be made to indulge in all kinds of destructive acts.
This crowd can easily become the weapon of fascists. It is this very crowd which is on the rise in our country. It is being readied as well. In the times ahead, this crowd could be marshalled to crush and destroy all national, humane and democratic values.
Translated from the Hindi original by Chitra Padmanabhan.