India's Young Are the Real Heroes of the Year

The youth rose to the occasion when the rest of the country had quietly accepted the brutal march of the right wing.

The young of India have emerged as the undisputed champions of our times.

There is a strong tradition of youth revolt in the country, where the young have questioned – loudly and forcefully – the old, traditional ways, and demand that the system be changed, even dismantled.

In the year gone by, young Indians, by protesting out on the streets, have shown that they will not take things lying down. Facing repression and retaliation, often violent, they have continued to raise their voice at a time when privileged individuals and institutions tasked with upholding independent thinking, have buckled under.

Truth is, there was no real competition.

The usual role models – corporate tycoons, flashy entrepreneurs, film stars, cricketers – who get accolades annually by a hero-worshipping media, have chosen in recent years to be quiet or loudly endorse the establishment at every step.

The more powerful a person is, the more likely they will keep their mouth shut. So, even if their well-oiled PR machines keep promoting them and a willing media laps it up, they have no credibility left.

The media, allegedly the voice of the people, the conscience keepers of society, the questioners of authority, gave up the pretence a long time ago. Both, owners and editors, have not even a pretence of independence left anymore. Put bluntly, the Indian media is a joke; a cruel one, since their abdication of ethics and professionalism impacts on society at large, but mentioning the media in public invokes ridicule and laughter.

I wonder if there are parents who seriously advise their children to grow up and become like any of the television anchors?

Women students form a human shield around a man beaten by police during protests against new citizenship law, at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, December 15, 2019 in this screen grab obtained from a social media video. Photo: Ghulam Hussain/via Reuters

Independent institutions, including the judiciary, have shown an alarming tendency to bend towards the government’s point of view. There must be many judges and magistrates who continue to do be independent minded, concerned only with the principles of law and justice and unmindful of the political exigencies, but on issues that really count, judgements seem to have gone the way this ruling dispensation would like them to. The judiciary is no longer the beacon of hope it was.

As for political parties, they seem to have lost the plot. Most of the anger of our learned pundits is reserved for the Congress and specifically for Rahul Gandhi – makes a nice, visible scapegoat – but other parties too were not in the forefront. Many parties voted with the government but then, faced with growing public opposition, declared they would not support the CAA-NRC. They could change their mind again.

Also read: German Student Made to Leave India for Protesting Against CAA

But the protests prove that while politicians may think that the old caste-community matrix will see them through, their constituents are bound to ask what they will do to protect the most vulnerable when government agencies come calling. It is time politicians wake up to new realities.

BHU Students in solidarity with Jamia, AMU

BHU students protest against police action on students of Jamia Millia Islamia University. Photo: PTI

Where is the young Indian to turn for guidance? While teachers continue to inspire, the educational institutions have tended to stifle debate. And families are wracked with internal tumult, as once liberal uncles turn bigoted and parents worry – rightly – about their child’s future at a time when jobs are scarce and dissent is put down ruthlessly.

No parent wants to hear that their child was locked up in police custody for merely raising a slogan; and yet that is what is happening.

The young, therefore, took matters in their own hands. They didn’t wait for someone to lead them, but organised themselves, came out on the street and raised their voice, sending a notice to the powers-that-be that they would not take the complete destruction of the Indian Constitution and the country’s ethos. The upsurge of protests all over India was self-propelled, pushed forward by the anger and energy of the young, drawing people in of all castes, communities, religions. This was no leader/follower dynamic — it was a huge, cooperative effort, which makes it all the more credible.

Also read: Police Attacked Students With Intent of Maximum Damage: Fact Finding Report on Jamia

Whether in Jamia, where the students were brutally beaten up and treated like criminals, or Aligarh Muslim University where there was a brutal crackdown, or on other campuses, like the IITs and the politically aware Tata Institute of Social Sciences, the fire burned everywhere. Students independently decided they needed to get out there and register their anger.

It is clear that though the government’s CAA and NRC proposals were the immediate trigger, the young protestors were using the moment to release their fury about many other things that were going wrong in the country, from the constant interference in people’s lives, to the growing communalism and the silencing of critics, sometimes violently. Their opposition is to the divisive agenda of this government and its associates.

The Hindutva project has threatened and damaged educational institutions and poor economic growth has made jobs scarce—It is a frightening prospect for the young who are looking for work. That frustration spilled over in these protests.

Students and the young in general have always risen as one to fight perceived injustice. This has been true not just in India but also abroad, such as was seen in the 1960s in different parts of the world.

In the immediate past, the spark was lit by the students of the Film and Television Institute of India, and then in Hyderabad, Allahabad, JNU and elsewhere. JNU students, supported by their teachers, have been fighting against efforts to finish off the liberal spirit of their institution. The authorities remained uncaring and instead of reaching out to the students, doubled their efforts to undermine the universities and overhaul the entire education system to push through their agenda.

Also read: Jadavpur University Students Decide to ‘Rusticate’ Jagdeep Dhankhar

And now, the heartening outburst of angry passion has put the government on the backfoot. Though the police has been deployed in UP, Delhi and elsewhere, and many people have been beaten badly, the young protestors have not been discouraged. The furious back-pedalling and explanations of the prime minister and the home minister are an indication that they have been shaken by the protests and the worldwide coverage and condemnation these demonstrations have attracted.

Students at anti-CAA protests in Chicago. Photo courtesy: Hina Fathima

Today’s young are often dismissed as disengaged, more interested in their digital lives than real, worldly issues. ‘Hashtag activists’, ‘tech-obsessed and self-centred’, ‘entitled millennials’; many such epithets are routinely used to describe young people, not just in India but also abroad.

This is not unusual-over generations, the older generations have viewed the young with alarm and not a little disdain. At the time the parents of today’s millennials were growing up, the common phrase was ‘generation gap’.

But the young always show the way forward. India’s youth – and its students – have risen to the occasion when the rest of the country had lost its voice and quietly accepted the brutal march of the right wing which is out to transform the country in ways that will set us back by a long time.

We will not take this lying down, is the message that the young have sent to the establishment, loud and clear. The government will hit back, and simply wait for the furore to die down and try and bulldoze its way through. It won’t be easy however—the young are now alert and have fired their first warning shot. That should give the country hope.