Something is shifting. Young Indians, in growing numbers, are making it clear that they plan to take back their stolen future. In a country where half the population is below 25, two-thirds are less than 35, and which is likely to have the world’s largest workforce in the coming decade, more and more young people – especially young women – are refusing to be pawns in the politics of intimidation.
Young students out on the streets, in protest marches against a controversial citizenship law, young doctors who are volunteering to attend to those who may get wounded at protest sites if things get violent, MBA aspirants reading out the Constitution’s Preamble in premier management institutes, young mainstream actresses publicly taking a position risking commercial repercussions, are all part of this emerging trend.
It is too early to say whether any of this will influence electoral prospects. It is also too early to predict whether the trend — most pronounced in cities — will spread to villages. But it is clear that young India is unmasking and taking on the intimidators. And they are not waiting for any political party to show the way. They are charting their own course. They have age and courage on their side.
Last Sunday, in India’s capital, masked, lathi-wielding goons stormed into Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), brutally beat up students and teachers, and left. Much has already been written about it. Images of a savagely wounded Aishe Ghosh, president of the JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU), and JNU professor Sucharita Sen, with a bandaged head, are hard to forget. JNUSU alleges the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, had orchestrated Sunday’s attack. Amazingly, even as the violence was unfolding, the police were busy filing two First Information Reports (FIR) that named Ms Ghosh and other JNUSU members following complaints from the university administration about its server being damaged.
But to an ordinary citizen who has no direct connection with this world-famous university, what leaps out is the easy passage that masked intruders got into its precincts. Several conspiracy theories are making the rounds, including one that alleges that left-leaning students staged assaults on themselves to garner sympathy and to malign the ABVP. But the basic questions remain unanswered. In a university campus that has strict security checks at all gates in normal times, how do masked men with sticks and rods get inside, beat up students and teachers, ransack hostels, and leave? The FIR shows that not only did the police wait for nearly three hours before doing anything against the masked mob, policemen who actually saw the masked and armed rioters responded with a warning to cease violence and disperse, delivered by megaphone. “But they continued to indulge in violence and in defiance of the lawful direction they fled. The students who were injured were taken to hospitals immediately,” the FIR noted, reports news website Scroll.
Equally inexplicable is the role of the JNU administration. What was it doing while the mayhem raged for so long and while students and teachers were being assaulted and property being damaged by masked intruders?
JNU students say the police remained standing by as the stick-wielding intruders exited the campus without any resistance.
I was in the vicinity of JNU the next day. The place looked like a fortress. All approach roads had been barricaded and the police presence was overwhelming. They did not allow anyone to get inside the campus without a JNU identity card. But watching the scene from a nearby terrace, what was astounding was the huge gathering outside the campus main gate and the chants against “leftists” and “anti-nationals” along with “Jai Shri Ram”. An ordinary citizen may ask how such a crowd was allowed to gather and chant provocative slogans when Section 144 is clamped routinely to deter protesters, those who don’t see eye to eye with the government on the Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Register of Citizens, or anything else.
This is astounding, coming as it does soon after the violence in another Central university, Jamia Milia Islamia, where the police used teargas and hit with sticks students sitting inside the library, usually considered the safest of places. I used to be a part-time teacher in Jamia a decade ago and many of my students, now Ph.D. research scholars and doctorates, are part of the movement that is asking sharp questions about their future.
This movement to take back what they see as their stolen future is no longer confined to one institution or one community or even one issue. Last week, policemen entered the prestigious Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and tried to disrupt a student-organised event called “IIMA stands up for democracy”. The event was meant to be a candlelight vigil and a session where students would read together the Preamble to India’s Constitution.
“The policemen pushed us into a classroom. It was an event by the students inside the campus. How can the police come and stop us from holding the peaceful event? We have no idea who informed them or why they came here,” one student, told the media. The police did not fully succeed, since the students did go to a classroom and read the Preamble, loud and clear.
In recent days, I have also met several young doctors like Harjit Singh Bhatti, an alumnus of the prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences. These doctors have formed a group and are reaching protest sites to tend to the wounded, along with nurses and medical volunteers. Last Sunday, they reached JNU on hearing about the violence. But the mob outside attacked their ambulance.
Dr Bhatti tweeted: “Our team of doctors, nurses & medical volunteers who reached JNU to give first aid to injured students & teachers, was attacked by hundreds of goons. Mob manhandled doctors, nurses & threatened them. Our ambulance’s glass & windows broken, this is totally inhuman & insane.” This is not the first time that medical volunteers have been targeted.
Another group, Medic Aid Support/Street Medics India, also on Twitter, seeks to share medical aid resources during the ongoing protests against the CAA and related issues.
Libraries, hostels, ambulances, there are no safe zones immune from those who know only to intimidate vocally and physically, and also know they can count on police support. But many among India’s young are standing up to unmask the intimidators. They want to take back their stolen future.