By Titas De Sarkar:
By now more or less everybody has an opinion on something that had happened in Jawaharlal Nehru University on 9th February, even though what precisely had occurred remains very much in the realms of conjecture and hypothesis. What has ensued is well-documented, from which the obvious leaps out: the government is highly invested in the actions of the young. When it comes to the cries against the privileging of a religious majority, or that of downright violation of the rights of the tribal population over their natural resources, the head of the State maintains a steely silence. In contrast, a handful of young students with a certain political stand (which is neither of their own creation nor are they its sole upholder) have managed to shake the government out of its stupor.
‘Youth’ in itself is a contentious notion, and like ‘Nation’, a construct. At first instance, it could come across as commonsensical as to who a young person is, but it was and is constantly defined according to the evolution of the society. The collective, which forms the youth today, largely came into being with the rise of Capitalism. When the specialization of jobs stopped being hereditary and the household largely ceased to become a site for economic production, the young became those who were learning the ropes of the trade, without the responsibilities of running a family, and thus remaining under the directives of the patriarch. The opinionated youth, with which many are all too familiar in the present times, largely has its origins in the post Second World War period.
The huge section of young population, who had experienced the brutalities of the war, acquired economic self-sufficiency, which gave a voice to the new generation, no more depending on their fathers for their livelihood. A greater share in the economy would inevitably mean a larger presence in the market, and the latter too contributed to the growing belief of this distinct youth culture, by doing what they do best – commodifying and stereotyping the symbols of the youth and their lifestyle, reducing a generation to a handful of signs. Post independent India did not have this economic strength of the First World, but the importance of the category of the youth was desperately felt as they were seen to be the future of the Nation.
The major anxiety with the youth is its ‘structured irresponsibility’. Youth as a term or a phenomenon could mean nothing or many things because of the elasticity the concept guarantees. It is loosely understood as a transitory phase. ‘Youth’ means those individuals who have gained a certain degree of understanding of the world, but whose ideologies are yet to be hardened. This post-adolescence period comes with a certain amount of freedom of action – outside the restrictive structures of the family and the school. The university – which in this particular incident under discussion is seen as an enabler to the actions of the activists – becomes a space of co-mingling of minds created under a commonly shared cultural ethos propagated by the State and the media. Young people, with an awareness that they still have the better portion of their lives ahead of them, commit to certain actions with the idea that this is a stage in their lives where they will lose the least, even if their choices don’t work out. The ‘irresponsibilities’ would become more of an adventure, and at most an embarrassment. This kind of a construction is also encouraged by the State – but only till it suits their agenda. So, taking a chance by creating a start-up venture is ideal, but taking a chance by raising questions about the performance of the judiciary, not so much.
The greatest danger that the youth poses to the society is its elasticity with taking a stance. It could be the Nation’s great redeemer or its ultimate critic. Because of the fluidity of ideas, because of the flexibility of its understanding, because of the exposure it gets in an age of technological revolution and heightened accessibility of digitised resources, the State is always made to second guess their next move. The anxiousness of the Government to fathom the ideas that the youth are harbouring also emerges from a generational gap, which becomes starker when one remembers how life has changed post 90’s opening up of the Indian economy and then again in the 21st-century turn of information explosion. What it couldn’t comprehend is swiftly termed as ‘Western’ and by its very invocation – harmful and highly out of favour with ‘our’ tradition and ethics.
The youth matters simply because they are the vote bank. Currently, half of India’s population is below 25 years and 60% of the total population is below 35. As much as it dislikes, the individuals governing today belong to the demographic minority. For their very existence, they must form policies and ways to bring the young under their fold. It could arguably be said that the over-reaction witnessed across universities in India is more for self-preservation than upholding the sanctity of the State. The fear that a part of the young population is thinking alternatively and is ready to fight for their ideals is nightmarish to such groups who are prone to essentialising histories, identities, and orientations. The spaces which provide a platform for experimenting with alternatives thus become the areas of utter supervision. Hence, films are censored, school textbooks tampered with, and the universities are threatened with closure at the most or political recruitments in the least.
A word of caution. One cannot overemphasise it when it is said that the youth is not a homogeneous category. Every individual has a wholly different way of nurturing, of getting indoctrinated with different ideas from childhood and has an infinite set of cultural references to relate to or move away from. A country as diverse as India has a generation divided from within due to caste, class and gender differences, to name just a few. It is impossible to define these experiences with one category – the youth. Although the notion has expanded from merely something which talks of people from the same age group, and takes into account wider sensibilities at play, the collective consciousness of the youth in India (or, anywhere else) is too diverse to be fitted into neat boxes. And that is another ground of unease for the government. There will always be a significant percentage of youth who’ll be hegemonised by state propaganda, rituals instilled in them through families and, Bollywood. There will always be the ones who’ll be uncomfortable with the hypocrisies of the society, but will be too afraid to speak out. But another fundamental marker of the youth is how it reshapes the known and there will always be a few engaged with such re-configurations.
A new generation brings forth nothing unprecedented as such but reorganises the existing societal rules and orders. This is not to take away from the elderly academicians, authors or activists. But the point here is the different cultural fields that the youth explores, the possibilities that lie in front of them and how innovatively they make use of the assets that are at their disposal. It is a constant dialogue in which the generations are engaged, where the ‘new’ takes over from the ‘experienced’ and in turn, leaves its own legacy. And it is this dialogue which the government is just not ready to engage with at the moment. The fear of what such dialogue would lead to, the impossible propositions with which it has to deal with are too much for them. The obvious solution is to nip the flowering of ideas in the bud. Unfortunately for them, what they fail to realise is that they are going against the very nature of things of which the youth is composed. The youth will question the existing structures as they try to find a larger representation of their kind of ways to address the problems of the world, they will resist with the vigour which is often correlated with ‘young blood’, and they’ll look for a new order simply to keep up with the changing times. These alternatives could be an individual challenge, condensed in a work of art, or it could be a collective resistance put forward in the form of a political agenda.
The youth often betrays tendencies of over-ambition, of recklessness in its bid to find that elusive balance between progressive politics and instant inversion. It was there during the Young Bengal Movement, in the radicalisation of the anti-colonial struggle of the early 20th century, right down to the Naxalite Movement of the 1970’s. If history has shown anything it is this – that these challenges to the government or the society were always dealt with violent assault, that areas of dialogue and debate were shut down leading to further acts of aggression. The government has once more taken it upon itself to fight an impossible war – a conflict which is of its own making. Instead of listening, it has taken recourse to cleansing. It has only helped in bringing a large section of the youth together across the country and worldwide, and has muddied the ‘holy’ waters with possibilities of such solidarities and scope of action that has never existed before.