In this post, Garima Sharma shares her opinions on youth dissent and protest. As a young person being witness to and having participated in youth protests herself, she reflects on what it means to be a dissenting young person in contemporary India where young people are often dismissed as a generation that has lost its way and purpose. It gives crucial insights into the political experiences of young people in the context of India, being one of the countries with the world's largest youth population.
When the young people question the system with great force, it becomes a sight to capture and decipher. The young in India has always been on the fronts whenever the nation required someone to stand and speak up. If we look at the recent events from the past two years, young Indians have made it clear that they will not stay quiet on the unjust and ills of the powerful. India is a country of youth, more than half of its population is under the age of 30. When young people take matters to roads and dissent, it naturally becomes a great threat to the residing party in power. The very image of Sitaram Yechury in 1977 as the JNU Students’ Union leader confronting the then Chancellor and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to resign, on the account of Emergency, is iconic in terms of youth unrest and protest. From this to the Mandal Agitation and student activism in full form during CAA NRC Protests, it is evident that predominantly youth in universities are exercising their right to protest and dissent. The youth in the postcolonial context mobilized majorly on the local grievances and campus politics within the context of national liberation. The contemporary young people find themselves to be a part of historical movements like Bharat Swabhimaan Andolan (Lokpal Andolan), Nirbhaya Movement, Rohith Vemula Protest, JNU Protest, and now CAA-NRC.
“Why do young people need to protest? Why are students getting involved in politics? Why students are even allowed to take over the roads when they should be in their classrooms studying like ‘normal’ students? Why aren’t there any strict rules to curb their nonsense? Take over the university space and reform, immediately!”
Above are some of the questions and statements commonly used and heard to criticize youth activism. Seriously though, why do we find students actively engaging in politics and challenging the system every other day? Youth is a period that finds meaning around social, political, and economic conditions. Concerning these conditions, young people gain a varied range of experiences resulting in the division of youth into different groups and identities. Therefore, youth is not a universal experience but social & political yet personal. These social & political experiences shape young people and their ideologies about the world. The social and political institutions contribute to determining what comprises adulthood, who becomes an adult, and who does not. These social institutions are ‘adult-run’ establishments pointing out a very peculiar power relationship between young and adult. It also suggests that a young person has little or no agency in making their own life decisions. The social processes affect youth’s experiences which leads to differentiating groups of young people from each other. This results in reinforcing sharper and deeper social divisions rather than breaking them down.
Why the university spaces are turning into fields of dissent? One of the reasons could be that there is more stress on the freedom of dialogue than the freedom of speech. A very obvious yet thin line distinguishes dialogue from speech, listening is an essential aspect of dialogue. You need to speak but you also need to give space for others to speak. I, personally, learned it a hard way to both speak and listen in a youth community. As a privileged young woman, I chose to listen before I started speaking. When you listen, you choose not to ignore but learn which facilitates the social understanding of the community. The core of youth’s political and social engagement is the solidarity with all the marginalized people of society and a drive to fight for equality. The discourse of majoritarian rule is incredibly rejected by the young people engaged in politics as the majoritarian ideology never proves to be inclusive of social justice and solidarity. There is a strong drive in the youth to reimagine and rebuild the social justice structures in a way that acknowledges the marginalization and marginalized communities. While the issues raised by the young leaders have been relevant to the local concerns, they also transcend their immediate location and appeal to the larger national consciousness.
There are predominantly two kinds of activism the youth is indulged in currently. First, the on-ground protests and second, social media activism. While the former has always been an existing form of agitation, the latter has gained importance in the last few years, especially since everyone is online. I, as a young woman, have been involved in both and can safely conclude that the latter is a newly found form of freedom (almost). While many social media activists are doing a tremendous job in spreading awareness and mobilize youth online, there is a solid challenge to the credibility of what you see, hear, or learn on social media. Moreover, multiple active online propagandist organs are doing a fair job of spreading hatred and false information creating much confusion and dilemma, especially among the youth. To express your disagreement with the majoritarian rule online, one must be prepared for the incoming conflict with someone disagreeing with you. This conflict sometimes becomes fatal both mentally and emotionally. The emotional and mental labour of explaining something as basic as human rights (which can be googled or easily learned about in the generation of information technology) to someone is unnecessary and tiring. The division based on ideologies is so sharp among the youth now because social media provides a platform to amplify your opinions and disapprove of others all along.
There is a continuous emphasis on how youth is the future of a nation and its progress is equivalent to the country’s progress. Youth is regarded as both ‘at risk’ and ‘risk to society’. Young people are ‘at risk’ not because of their vulnerable age, but because of the operation of social, economic, and political processes that failed the youth. Young people are also considered as ‘risk to society’ because they can disrupt the social pattern that is inherently and cohesively biased, unjust. This assumption of dual representation, of which the more negative image is prominent, provides legitimation for the state to intervene, control and protect. Mostly this intervention becomes the surveillance on the young people, be it in college, residence, or on streets. When the state intervenes with the intention of positive outcomes and progress, it usually costs the mobility and freedom of the youth. The constant shuffling of university spaces and its rules, to suppress the young voices is an example of state intervention. When we identify some groups of young people as ‘at risk’, it gives credibility to the notion that all other young people are mostly similar in a way. It tends to ignore the individual experiences of young people in contemporary times.
Can all the marginalized youth voice their challenges and opinions as freely as the university youth can? Youth who have the resources and capacity to access higher education can choose to mobilize themselves and voice their opinions. Whereas the majority of marginalized and institutionalized youth, who yet do not have access to university or educational spaces, are still struggling to define and voice their challenges and systematic oppression.
Youth is usually dismissed as disengaged, lost generation, hashtag activists, etc. However, the young always show the way forward, rising to the occasion when rest had lost their voice.
I'm a master's in education from Ambedkar University, Delhi, currently preparing for a Ph.D. Along with that, I work as an Educator in multiple child care institutions in Delhi. My interest lies in understanding the challenges and transitions surrounding the education of youth in child care institutions.