India’s Youth Have a Right and Duty to Resist and Create; Elders Need to Enable This or Get Out of the Way

By Ashish KotharionMar. 12, 2021inPerspectives
Written Specially for Vikalp Sangam
Youth demonstrating against hunting of bustards in India by Saudi Arabian princes, 1978; Photo Mahendra Vyas

The dust has not yet settled on the Disha Ravi, Shantanu Muluk, Nikita Jacob and Shubham Chaudhuri ‘toolkit’ case. These young climate activists who have supported the ongoing farmers’ movement in India, are under police scanner, subjected to daily interrogations. At least for the moment the state is unable to take stronger action because of Justice Dharmendra Rana’s strongly-worded order granting bail to Disha.  Meanwhile young labour and Dalit activists Nodeep Kaur and Shiv Kumar have allegedly been tortured in jail, with both receiving bail only after weeks in lock-up. Apart from helping organize labour for its rights, they were also supporting the farmers’ movement.

The judicial system will take its own time dealing with the cases against these youth. Meanwhile, though, India’s honorable ‘elders’ are already counseling young people to focus on studies, to uphold national honour, and get into ‘respectable’ jobs. Writer Manu Joseph, while acknowledging the ‘over-reach’ of the state in arresting Disha, wrote that youth should “quit activism and go make money”. BJP spokesperson Sudesh Yadav said Disha and others were only “misguided youth” wanting to search for the “easier way to stardom”.

Climate Strike Rally Sep. 2020, Pune; Photo Ashish Kothari

Such advise is, firstly, downright patronizing; Joseph says they should not be “fighting battles they do not understand”, and implies they are pawns in global conspiracies. I won’t here get into the superficiality of an argument that is blind to the international corporate conspiracies behind agricultural laws and policies in India since the 1960s. But to say that young people don’t know what they are doing, and are only being used, is to insult the intelligence of a whole generation. Precisely what elders have done for far too long.

But we must realize that such an approach is also dangerous. It assumes that young people are in some way misled into taking up causes that are detrimental to India. It is profoundly ahistorical, ignoring that for centuries not only in India but worldwide, youth have often led movements for positive transformation. These actions have resulted in advancements in social, economic and cultural life, as also the protection of the environment on which all humans depend. If all these young people had been sitting quietly in classrooms, giving exams, and queuing up for job interviews to fit into the system, these movements would not have taken place, and the world would have been much the poorer for it.

In the 1970s, in the context of the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi, Jaiprakash Narayan called on India’s youth to step up for resistance to oppression and for social transformation. The resulting Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini (CYSV), in which thousands of youth joined, produced some of India’s brightest leaders. Many have helped transform lives for the better. I can immediately think of Rajendra Singh who has helped bring water self-reliance to hundreds of villagers in Rajasthan, and of Mohan Hirabai Hiralal who has been involved with self-governance, forest conservation, and livelihood security in Maharashtra’s adivasi areas; there is Chetna Gala Sinha, who joined CYSV as a 17-year-old, and went on to start India’s first women-run bank, Mann Deshi Bank, which now has a working capital of Rs. 150 crores and has led to empowerment and improvement in economic lives of tens of thousands of women. And there are the women of the Bodhgaya Land Movement in Bihar, emerging from CYSV, who enabled one of the first transfers of land titles to landless Dalit women, taking it from powerful religious and feudal institution of the Hindu Bodhgaya Math. In more recent times, young people in universities and colleges have called out the brazen communalism and anti-Dalit, anti-women actions of the currently ruling dispensation (their predecessors have done the same against previous regimes), bringing our attention to some of India’s longest-standing and deepest schisms.

In the 1960s and 70s, youth in hundreds of villages, especially young women, protested the indiscriminate felling of Himalayan forests in Garhwal as part of the Chipko Movement. This movement not only helped save invaluable forests in the Himalaya, but inspired similar movements in many other parts of India, and in other countries. Ironically, one of them, Devaki Devi Rana, all of 15 years old when she joined that protest in Reni village, now 62, has had to live through the trauma of losing her brother-in-law in the Uttarakhand flood disaster on 7th February. Residents of Reni have for years warned against the construction of the Rishiganga Hydroelectricity Project just below their village; it is the breaking of this dam that significantly enhanced the flood damage, and killed several dozen workers on the site.

In Nagaland, youth clubs have led movements to conserve local forests and wildlife, in the face of unsustainable hunting and tree-felling, in dozens of villages. Young people on India’s coasts in Odisha, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu have convinced their own communities and local authorities to protect nesting sites of endangered marine turtles. In the last year or two, youth campaigns to save fragile habitats such as the DehingPatkai Elephant Reserve in Assam, Pulicat and Vedanthangal bird reserves in Tamil Nadu, and Mollem National Park in Karnataka, from proposed mining, industrial or infrastructure projects, have included some of the most evocative artwork from students, and at least in a couple of cases helped stop the destruction.

I shudder to think where we would be if all these activists had meekly stuck their noses to textbooks and focused on getting 1st class marks so they could get into a government or corporate jobs. Indeed, even in such jobs, many who have taken up progressive causes, helping the poor or protecting the environment, have gone through some such grounded orientation as youth. I personally know over a dozen government officials who were part of environmental or social action groups in college (including the one I belong to), an experience that was invaluable in them going out of their way to enable positive transformation wherever they are posted.

The same can be said of some of India’s most prominent and progressive artists, poets, cartoonists, photographers, communication experts, journalists, lawyers, educators, and many other professions and livelihoods. This is apart from the youth who have stayed on in or gone back to ‘primary’ sector livelihoods like farming, fisheries, forestry, pastoralism, or others like traditional crafts, sectors that are dying because of government neglect (or worse, because of sops given to mechanized industrial production that is more polluting and less employment-intensive).

To dismiss such youth actions as part of ‘international conspiracies’ is to be profoundly superficial, ahistorical and, well, just plain wrong. That some of them, or some of the youth climate activism of today, would have been influenced by global discourse, is certainly true. For decades if not centuries, the global flow of ideas has influenced some of our greatest movements and thinkers, including Gandhi, Ambedkar; and in turn they have influenced progressive movements elsewhere. If we want to look at international influences that are regressive, we have to look at IMF, World Bank, multinational corporations, governments of the North … not to forget our erstwhile colonial masters … that have imposed Western, ecologically devastating processes which, to mention just one statistic, have caused physical uprooting of 60 million people in the name of ‘development’. And it is our governments who have bought into these alien ideas, which these youth activists are challenging.

Kalpavriksh members and other youth demanding protection of Delhi Ridge forest, 1979; Photo Mahendra Vyas

My own journey as a researcher-activist in the fields of environment, development and livelihoods, began as one of several youth who in school or college took up environmental activism. In those early years, when we ‘ought’ by these conventional narratives ‘ to have been quietly studying’, we were out on the streets protesting hunting of endangered species by Saudi Arabian princes (they had to go back due to protests by us and by the Bishnoi community), or demanding that the government protect the wonderful Ridge (Aravalli) forest in Delhi (which was indeed declared protected after a year’s intense campaign). If any of those elders who are asking the youth to desist from activism do live in Delhi, please know that the air there is at least a little less polluted because this forest still survives. Know also that if the government had listened to our demands on air pollution then (early 1980s), Delhi’s citizens would have been breathing much cleaner air today. In these last 40 years of my journey with Kalpavriksh, an environmental action group, I cannot claim any earthshaking transformations, but we have managed a few victories like the ones above, or the stopping destructive timber logging in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, and supporting communities to get collective rights to surrounding forests that has enhanced their livelihood security as also protected invaluable ecological functions for the country. At the least, we have contributed to a general discourse on the need to balance ecological sustainability and human needs. I do not for one moment regret studying less; or, after finishing college, not getting into ‘making money’; rather, I have found meaning and satisfaction in leading an activist’s life. The last I heard, I have never been part of any ‘international conspiracy’!

Of course, if schools and colleges were themselves spaces for meaningful learning, perhaps youth would learn a lot of this in such institutions themselves. If they were all like a SECMOL in Ladakh, or a Marudam in Tamil Nadu, or an Adharshila in Madhya Pradesh, entire generations of children and youth would grow up learning how to enhance their natural curiosity and creativity, how to become adults that are sensitive to and responsible towards others around them (and towards future generations and the rest of nature), and how to not think that the only things in life worth having are money, power and fame. But 90% of India’s educational institutions are meant to create an obedient workforce for the continued profit-making of corporations and the continued power-centredness of the government. It is natural then that youth would look for spaces outside, where they can find meaning and be innovative and creative. If activism is one such space, what right do adults have to snatch it away from them?

As elders, we need to get off the backs of our youth. As members of generations that have created or exacerbated global crises threatening life on earth itself, and shameful levels of inequality between the have-lots and the have-nots, we should be more circumspect. We need to enable the flourishing of the youth’s own agency, be available for guiding, give them a sense of history, facilitate a range of options, but also understand that they have a constitutional right to take non-violent actions they deem appropriate, and indeed a constitutional duty to help protect freedom, democracy, and the environment. This is not to paint an overly rosy picture of the youth – as we did in our times, they will at times make mistakes, be impatient and hasty, desire the photo-op, jump into actions without thinking through all the consequences. So let us counsel patience and nuanced understanding, help bring back some ‘slow knowledge’ displaced by the rapidity of ‘social’ media, encourage the building of bridges across class, caste, gender and ideological divides. Let’s build an atmosphere of mutual respect among generations. But let us not dictate to, patronize, or threaten them; when we do these, we endanger the coming of age of an entire generation.

Contact the author

Ashish Kothari is with Kalpavriksh and Vikalp Sangam, in Pune. Views here are personal.

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