City City Bang Bang, Columns

Distrusting the Young?

Does the Modi government have a fundamental problem with universities and the young people studying there? The recurring episodes of unrest at different University campuses seem to point in that direction. The specific causes that spark off the problem might be different in each case, but by now, a pattern is emerging in the way in which the state reacts to these incidents.

Often, what triggers unrest has a strong political dimension. In the case of JNU, the stoking of the unrest may have been deliberate for it helped serve the party’s strategic ends in adding flesh to the nationalism discourse. But in Rohith Vemula’s case, the party, through its response to the suicide, tied itself in knots, trying all kinds of maneuvers- bullying, bluster, obfuscation, counter-attacking, denial (challenging Vemula’s caste), and ended up with a protracted and extremely messy fall-out.

But beyond politics, there is deeper discomfort. Nobody can claim that BHU is a hotbed of communists, but the fact that a case of molestation ballooned into a confrontation between students and the authorities reveals something about the kind of attitude that this regime harbours when it comes to the youth. At its core, beyond the specific political dimensions of these episodes, there lies a more fundamental disconnect that the party has with the idea that young people have a mind of their own.

The paternalistic grounding of the Sangh cannot but show itself in such situations. The young are meant to learn and obey. They should study, follow rules and respect tradition. Young people cannot be trusted to take decisions about their lives. Parents are right and know better (unless you are Jayant Sinha and your father is a pesky remnant of the old guard). If the young make mistakes, they need to be punished. If elders do something wrong, it must be respectfully ignored. Young followers who add muscle to the cause are welcome, but the idea that they can ask any kind of questions is a source of great discomfort.

The attempted recasting of Valentine’s Day as ‘Parents’ Respect Day is particularly telling. It seeks to replace the fantasies of the young with those of the old. A world where children revere and pay ritual obeisance to their parents, head bowed in supplication. Initiatives like Anti-Romeo squads are another manifestation of the suspicion with which the desires of the young are viewed- the idea being that those that seek the freedom to mingle with the other sex outside the institution of marriage or the supervision of elders are fair game for self-appointed guardians of morality.

The situation becomes even more pronounced when it comes to young women, as can be seen from the words uttered by none else than the Vice Chancellor of BHU, who said that in trying to talk about sexual harassment, the girl students “have put their modesty in the market”. The fear of female independence and the desire to exercise control over their movements and speech is visible in the words and actions of many different party and Sangh functionaries.

The BJP lives in a world of paternalistic certitude. Even within the Cabinet, the code is of unquestioning obedience and frequent invocation of loyalty to the leader. There is little room for dialogue, and feedback too is sought within a tightly regulated space. The PM’s unwillingness to answer questions but otherwise communicate profusely in one direction only come from this mindset. A device like Mann ki Baat, which is again kindly and avuncular in tone underlines the fact that the dispensing of wisdom to those who don’t know better is seen to be a key part of the role that leaders must play.

But if this is so, what explains the fact that PM Modi and the BJP are in general quite popular with the youth? How does this hypothesis sit with the fact that this government is an avowed believer in technology and the answers it can provide? Its use of digital media has been pioneering, not just as a way to communicate but also in planning and organizing elections. Does talk of a disconnect with the youth carry any real weight?

This is the paradox at the heart of the issue. The current regime has a problem with young people. Even though young people by and large, may not have a problem with this government. The party cannot handle even the slightest sign of youthful independence and comes down with disproportionate force whenever it happens. If a widespread movement against the government gets triggered by such repeated state overreactions, the responsibility for the same will lie entirely at the government’s doorstep.

There are reasons why this has not happened so far. Foremost, would be Mr. Modi’s personal popularity and his ability to speak in the idiom of the new by embracing the symbols of progress. The use of technology and social media, the reaching out to the world, a great comfort with branding and marketing- he has managed to present an old mindset in a dramatically new form.

The other reason is that the prevalent mood of the young in India is that of pragmatic docility ; they are not particularly keen to rebel. They are looking to be lead, and in 2014, Mr. Modi’s promises created a pathway for their burgeoning aspirations. Besides, the respect for the older generation is genuine and deep, and there is no intrinsic urge to buck tradition. But that does not mean that they will not resent attempts to control them beyond a point.

Given this and the fact that prospects of employment in the future look very gloomy, the chance of a dramatic shift in the mood of the youth is a real possibility at some stage. In Mr. Modi, the BJP has someone who has given them cover and bought them time, but the RSS-driven party cannot change in a hurry, perhaps it cannot change at all, and that might turn out to have material consequences in the future.

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