On February 7, when thousands of students from different corners of the nation marched united in the national capital, the mighty State could not afford to turn a deaf ear. With their primary demands centred around the crisis of employment and the decline of public education, the march of India’s youth from the Red Fort to Parliament represented the widespread disillusionment and turmoil that anguishes India’s young people. The mobilisation brought together young people from more than 70 youth groups, students’ unions and united bodies.
The ability of the movement to bring together young people from all corners of the nation and mobilise them around the overarching issues facing the youth, irrespective of caste, class or religion — such as the inadequate filling of seats in government jobs, the need to dedicate at least 10% of the country’s GDP for the education sector, the proper implementation of the policy of reservation and the critical requirement of taking notice of underfunded public education in the country — comes at a time when the ruling political regime has taken all possible measures to divide the youth in the name of caste and communal politics on the one hand and in terms of access to quality education and employment on the other.
Since the last few years, we have seen a steady decline in public education and the crisis of public sector employment -- the withdrawal of the State from both these domains has meant that both education and employment are becoming increasingly limited to the elite sections who can afford education in private universities or depend on the private sector for jobs.
Since the last year, we have seen the rise of student dissent and widespread mobilisation of the youth, who have asserted their concerns over employment and employability, the privatisation of public education and the quashing of academic freedom. But the recent ‘Youth Adhikar March’ saw an unprecedented resonance among the nation’s youth and united the demands of young people from different states of India under the ‘Student Youth Charter’, which they describe as essentially a manifesto that is against the present government’s anti-student and anti-youth orientations.
The march and its success in mobilising thousands of young people, coming as they do on the heels of major farmers’ protests throughout last year, becomes crucial when parliamentary elections are not far away. The taking to the streets by thousands of farmers and students points to the utter negligence and denial of the welfare and well-being of the two most important constituents of the Indian economy. No wonder their demands point toward a structural discrepancy, accompanied by failure of the State.
The march truly became a platform for the articulation of the growing anguish among India’s young people when there is rampant ‘jobless growth’, the shrinking of public sector jobs and a sustained onslaught on public education and the right to dissent.
The march is an important reminder that even in these dark times, the youth have not been subdued into inaction. We are indeed witnessing a politico-cultural turmoil accompanied by widespread disillusionment that has managed to convey a very powerful and timely message to the ruling establishment that they will no longer be seduced by its propaganda machinery or be fooled by empty rhetoric.
The youth have decided to come face to face with the reality that ‘achhe din’ was an empty promise and what prevails is the corporatisation of the public sector, rampant unemployment and the politics of communalisation. The youth have come to understand that young people in every corner of the country are united by collective anguish.
The politics of polarisation can no longer divide them. This indeed is a positive development for a society where pitting young people from diverse backgrounds against one another, rather than being encouraged to cooperate, has become normalised; where acute anxiety over careers, mixed with parental pressure, train people into narcissist obsession; and where nationalist pride and communal hysteria accompanied by the seductive logic of consumerism have blinded us.
We increasingly find ourselves in a world where pragmatism is about keeping oneself away from the murky domain of politics and private universities are being seen by India’s emergent upper-class as sanitised institutions which are free from the ‘distractions’ of Marxism and Ambedkarism. There is a rampant culture that wants to destroy critical thinking and lead the youth away from a nuanced political debate that concerns their future.
The culture industry is being aided by the seductive logic of the market to make the youth so preoccupied in the temptation of mythical success, gadget-induced technological spectacles and the obsession with a pornographic mindset that it is becoming increasingly easier to unite young people over fake news and lynching but difficult to bring them together across caste and religious boundaries.
The Youth Adhikar March reveals that the youth are still able to realise that there are far greater challenges facing India than the urgency of building the Ram temple or insulting the enemy nation through surgical strikes.
The youth bring hope because they are marching together for quality education and dignified employment, revival of public universities that don’t fragment young people on the basis of caste and religion and, above all, for a nation where critical sensibilities are encouraged and democracy is celebrated.
What else will it mean to grow up in a democratic nation like India if the youth don’t raise their voice of dissent and don’t retain their vision to see beyond the politics of fragmentation and appropriation?
(Vikash Sharma and Ananya Pathak are Founding Editors, The New Leam)