Nikhila Henry has covered education, student politics and youth unrest for over a decade. She is also the editor of Caste is Not a Rumour: The Online Diary of Rohith Vemula. In her latest book, The Ferment: Youth Unrest in India, she documents the ongoing protests and unrest of students and youth across the country.
“We are a nation that continuously ignores the fissures in our society,” she says. “We prefer covering our bullet wounds with Band-aid, just to go about living our lives.”
In this interview, the author describes how young Indians have ripped off the band-aid and forced us to look hard at the wounds we inflict on each other.
Young people across the country are protesting over jobs, reservation policies, and personal freedoms. Is this a new phenomenon, or has it been simmering for a long time?
We are a nation that continuously ignores the fissures in our society. This unrest was always simmering on the many faultlines of caste, gender and religion in our country. Often, they did not register on our collective consciousness because of our sheer apathy towards the major conflicts in our land.
It was when Rohith Vemula killed himself that we were forced to wake up to caste in modern academic spaces. There were enough instances in the past where Dalit students killed themselves – pointing to the same chasms which Rohith’s last note revealed. But for us, anti-caste politics meant the Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh – until the Bhim Army rose to prominence in Saharanpur.
We were relieved that menstruation was hushed-up – we might even have preferred to pretend that women, who form half our population, did not menstruate at all – until girl students started pinning up sanitary napkins on trees within campuses.
The recent protests are only eruptions that have surfaced. The simmering continues.
You have covered education and student politics for a few years. How have these fields changed recently?
When I started out, the most difficult task was to convince editors that education means more than the academic calendar or the cycle of exams and results. As journalists we too tend to pontificate and tell our student readers to stick to their academic goals and job prospects; why bother about the larger problems in the society?
On the other hand, we chase stories of first-time voters and expect them to know all about our democratic process. Over a decade, what I have chronicled is a change in this narrative thanks to student leaders like Rohith Vemula and others who kept repeating that caste exists in educational institutions and that it was killing them one at a time.
Because of students like Mahesh Raut and Valarmathi, who were arrested by police under charges of sedition or under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), we are now attempting to say our students are targeted for their activism. This narrative was scarce in the recent past. It is possible now because students have succeeded in making their protests in the living rooms of the general public.
What about the issues that young people in Kashmir and the Northeast face – how different, or similar are they to those faced by the youth elsewhere in India?
I’ve tried not to disassociate the stories of youth from the histories of their lands. Both the Kashmir Valley and states in Northeast India are backward in terms of opportunities, infrastructure, connectivity and other parameters of development. But the struggles of the youth in these places are not just about these yardsticks of progress; not just about poor prospects of education and employment.
In these conflict-stricken areas, the value of humanity is questioned. One is not always treated as a human being. That becomes the central narrative.
What should worry us is that even in seemingly placid parts of our country, we harbour similar struggles and conflicts. One example – a well dug inside the University of Hyderabad to suit the beliefs of a Brahmin mathematician – is very revealing of how India’s modernity is marred by ancient dogma of caste. It is against this backdrop that agitations are taking place. When Dalit students celebrated beef festivals, they were not just building a discourse on food cultures and choices; they were telling the larger, dominant-caste society out there that Dalit-Bahujan were the rightful owners of this land and its resources.
In my book, I chronicle the tonal similarities between agitations of youth in conflict zones around the country – be it the hinterland or the heartland. The thread that connects these stories is the spirited militant nature of youth protest, and the advent of a new political language that our democracy feared.
Is there something that comes across as similar to the youth unrest that happens across the country?
The differences stand out, as many of these agitations are unarmed while some are. But I could not help but document the striking similarity in the language of protest.
The agitations I have witnessed so far harbour a radical and militant language. When Chandrashekhar ‘Ravan’ Azad stood up on a stage in Jantar Mantar swarming with young people, and asked the government not to force them (Dalits) to take up arms, I sensed a veiled threat.
Similarly, an Ambedkarite student leader of JNU, Rahul Sonpimple, had warned in one of his speeches that oppressed sections who have been peacefully protesting should not be forced to bid goodbye to non-violence.
In the mainstream, when an MLA and youth leader, Jignesh Mevani, raised the constitution in one hand and Manusmriti in the other asking Prime Minister Narendra Modi to choose one, he symbolised a defiance which is rare in Indian politics.
It was this nature of protest that the ministry of ministry of human resource development targeted with letters enquiring about “casteist, extremist and anti-national” activities in University of Hyderabad, after some students performed a funeral prayer for Yakub Memon.
Let me remind you – all these forms of protests fall very much within the purview of our democracy, even if they are militant in their tone. But going by the repression that youth agitations have faced so far, it seems our democracy is not ready for this language.
How far have government initiatives like the National Youth Policy been able to address young peoples’ unrest?
National Youth Policies (NYPs) are full of contradictions. The NYPs of 1988, 2003 and 2014 are tailor-made to manufacture responsible citizens. These responsible citizens are, however, not envisioned as persons who have their say in our democratic processes. ‘National integration’ is key to all these policies even though they reflect none of the concerns – caste, religion, territorial conflicts – that may have made the said integration near impossible.
NYPs want our youth to vote but they limit youth politics to music-band practice in cultural hubs and voluntary work in NGOs. The policies do not scrape the surface of the youth experience in the country. Our policy-makers seem to be the least interested in understanding why our young people are angry or depressed, dying or dead.
Towards the end of your book, you write that, “Like countries where the youth bulge resulted in prolonged protests and lasting dissatisfaction among youngsters (Brazil, Tunisia, Yamen, Nigeria), India too could be looking at bleak future of unrest and uprisings”. Why do you think so?
India has a youth bulge like many of these countries did in the past. About 50% of our population is below the age of 25-. Theoretically, the youth bulge should give us an automatic advantage and help us reap a demographic dividend in the economy. More people are within the working age group: productive and less dependent on the state for support.
But this is high hope if we do not have a plan to provide education and employment. Our future will be marred by unrest because the country seems to be clueless about what it can offer its youth.
Budget cuts have crippled our public educational institutions. We have not managed to generate the millions of jobs that our young cohort needs. Young people of oppressed communities are finding it more difficult than ever to access institutions of learning and employment.
Moreover, when our youth protest for their rights, we use surveillance and the police force to suppress them. We want our young to be patriotic but do not mind building a nation where lynch mobs kill children.
If we do not address the growing angst of our youth – who are strapped down by archaic practices like caste, who are displaced by our development initiatives, whose lands have become military camping – we face a future of agitation, militancy and armed rebellion. That’s what history has taught us. And going by the sheer number of young people who can organise behind one struggle or the other, the intensity of such protests will only increase. We’ll be stuck in an endless loop of birthing our young only to kill them.