Rethinking Youth Activism

By Anjali DalmiaonMay. 21, 2021in Environment and Ecology

Written specially for Vikalp Sangam

हो गई है पीर पर्वत-सी पिघलनी चाहिए; इस हिमालय से कोई गंगा निकलनी चाहिए | आज यह दीवार, परदों की तरह हिलने लगी; शर्त थी लेकिन कि ये बुनियाद हिलनी चाहिए | हर सड़क पर, हर गली में, हर नगर, हर गाँव में; हाथ लहराते हुए हर लाश चलनी चाहिए | सिर्फ हंगामा खड़ा करना मेरा मकसद नहीं; मेरी कोशिश है कि ये सूरत बदलनी चाहिए | मेरे सीने में नहीं तो तेरे सीने में सही; हो कहीं भी आग, लेकिन आग जलनी चाहिए |

~ दुष्यंत कुमार

This mountain of pain must melt; A Ganga must burst forth from this Himalaya. Today, this wall of apathy is shaking like curtains in the breeze; But its very foundations need to be overturned. On every road, every lane, every city and every village; The corpse of our conscience must march on, waving hands. It is not my purpose to merely create a ruckus; My intent is to change the situation. If not in my heart then in your heart; Wherever it may be, this fire should remain burning.

~ Dushyant Kumar, Translation by Manish Modi 

Dissent. Activism. Protest. Nowadays youth doesn’t think! It just acts impulsively without understanding and kids can’t see beyond their smartphones. They just want to rebel and create a ruckus. They’re all anti-national.

This is a common opinion expressed in several Indian societies when young people say that they are activists or news blows up about protests; maybe you’ve had this same thought before too. Activism is often seen as a waste of time, a poorly thought out fit of anger, or a bunch of urban kids holding posters and standing around when instead, they could be doing something productive and contributing to the GDP. However, activists, i.e. active citizens, are not only required in order for a nation to remain a constitutional democracy, activism is also a crucial tool to ensure a just, inclusive, diverse and beautiful world for us and future generations, and hence, it is imperative that we understand it and take it seriously. 

What is activism? Activism literally refers to “direct and noticeable action to achieve a result, usually a political or social one” (source). Therefore, making policies is a part of activism, art is a part of activism, education (when imparted meaningfully and holistically) is a part of activism, daily acts of subtle resistance are a part of activism, having conversations is a part of activism, and self-reflection, healing, growth, and empathy are also a part of activism. Activism is shaped through living experiences, and encompasses being active, aware (of yourself and your surroundings) and pushing for social and ecological justice against oppression, violence, exploitation, and discrimination. 

“To me, activism means putting your wholehearted effort in reviving something good which is lost.”

~ Ashish Birulee, Co-founder of Adivasi Lives Matter and Fridays for Future Jharkhand; from the Ho Adivasi community of Jharkhand

In his pointed article on the right to youth activism, Ashish Kothari (an Indian environmentalist working on social and environmental justice and alternatives; co-founder/member of Kalpavriksh and Vikalp Sangam) addresses how “India’s honorable ‘elders’ are counseling young people to focus on studies, to uphold national honour, and get into ‘respectable’ jobs. Manu Joseph (an Indian journalist and writer) wrote that youth should ‘quit activism and go make money’ [and] BJP spokesperson, Sudesh Yadav said [youth activists] were only ‘misguided youth’ wanting to search for the ‘easier way to stardom’”. Kothari highlights the patronizing nature of such advice which implies youth are pawns in global conspiracies.

Save Mollem Protests 2020. Image from NewsClick

To anyone who feels youth activism is empty, meaningless, or pointless, consider all the youth activists, organisations and unions who are tirelessly compiling COVID resources and assisting with on-ground COVID relief day and night in the absence of state support. Last year, many youth groups provided aid and support to the thousands of stranded migrant workers. Note that some of these groups and youth are the same who have been previously branded ‘anti-national’ or threatened with criminal charges. Additionally, the recent success of Save Mollem Forest campaign has resulted in the Central Empowered committee, appointed by the supreme court, to recommend that the destructive railway double tracking is scrapped entirely, the transmission line is moved to a route that will avoid further deforestation, and the road widening can only go ahead once it has a proper Environmental Impact Assessment. And of course, the peaceful anti-CAA/NRC protests are an extraordinary example of youth action to secure basic citizenship rights for ALL citizens of India.

#WithdrawEIA2020 Protests in North East. Image from NewsClick

However, time and time again, the same narrative is spun about how activism, dissent and protests are anti-national and foreign. This is used to justify oppression of youth activists and critics, especially those from Most Affected People and Areas (MAPA), Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi (DBA), Trans, Queer, Muslim, and other marginalised communities. I want to strongly reiterate that peaceful criticism of state actions and policies ARE NOT and SHOULD NOT be equated to hate speech (which is usually fueled by personal vendetta and/or prejudice) or be deemed anti-national, as has been happening for years, and even more so in the past decade. This creates the false and dangerous notion that the government IS the nation, and it is widely propagated through tokenistic welfare projects, branding and publicity, violent and oppressive ideologies, putting the state and leader on a saviour, cult-of-personality pedestal, and creating a ‘common’ enemy (often minority groups and individuals branded as terrorists or other countries seen to threaten the idea of ‘India’). 

Additionally, the narrative that dissent and protest are ‘global conspiracies’ or ‘foreign’ to a subcontinent which has seen countless social and ecological movements makes no historical or logical sense. Indian movements have, of course, been influenced by global ideas and movements for decades. Yet, they have also emerged from indigenous movements that have influenced the global discourse and the course of human history, from religious reformers like Mahavir Jain and Gautam Buddha and recent revolutionaries like Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, to a myriad of anti-colonial, anti-caste, feminist, human rights, and ecological movements. It is a great disservice to brand youth activists as foreign funded or pawns in global conspiracies and use this to oppress and violently silence us.

I say this in context of the numerous attacks on fellow youth activists; some of the recent ones even leading to death like Rohith Vemula; many others leading to imprisonment, harassment, false charges, etc. such as against peaceful anti-CAA protesters like Gulfisha, Safoora, Umar Khalid, Meeran Haider, Sharjeel Imam, Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal, Asif Iqbal Tanha, Khalid Saifi, Ishrat Jahan, Sharjeel Usmani, Chandan Kumar; young environmental activists like Disha Ravi, Shantanu Muluk, Nikita Jacob and Shubham Chaudhuri in the ‘toolkit’ case; Adivasi activists like Hidme Markam, and young labour activists like Nodeep Kaur and Shiv Kumar who are amongst numerous others who have been unlawfully targeted, harassed and/or arrested. I also write against the backdrop of the second wave of the COVID pandemic, in which citizens and youth have been left to fend for ourselves and have shown immense courage, compassion, and solidarity, while many of those who should be responsible have been busy organising rallies and disastrous melas, misreporting COVID case numbers, helping corporates boost business, and squabbling over party and religious lines.

Any democratic institution needs to have the capacity to receive, understand, and work with criticism from the people, especially from thinkers, activists, and those who are most marginalised. It must have guaranteed space for dissent and criticism as well as well written and executed laws to uphold participatory democracy. The government must work with, rather than against, people from diverse demographics who have intellectual and/or grounded understandings of this country, people, policies, and histories to ensure a safer, more democratic, and more participative nation. In fact, the Constitution of India explicitly calls upon citizens to “promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people of India transcending religious, linguistic and regional or sectional diversities”, and “to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife, and to have compassion for living creatures” (source). Heeding this Constitutional call enjoins upon us youth to be activists when we see these principles being violated.

As individuals and collectives, we have a large part to play in ensuring environmental and social justice. Even if the laws in India were thorough, inclusive, and just, we would still need activism and community awareness to ensure the laws were actually implemented. It is a privilege to be apolitical, and similarly, it is a privilege to choose not to be active, whether overtly or through everyday acts of resistance and awareness. Considering the COVID-19 pandemic, massive political and social upheavals, large-scale ecological damage, and threats to our democracy, we must note that we do not have the luxury to be apolitical and inactive. We must be active through self-education and reflection on our assumptions, political biases, and blind-spots. We should be aware of current affairs, have conversations with family, friends, and those not from our class or caste, volunteer our time with socio-political causes, and most importantly, be open to alternate discourses and opinions.

Unfortunately, in India, there are very few avenues for people to comment on and influence policy making in a constructive manner. These avenues need to be created through dissent, active bottom-up engagement, and a guaranteed safe-space for such engagement and dissent. Most of our laws have been heavily top-down and there has been very little room for citizens, especially youth, to raise concerns and suggest alternatives. While we earlier had laws for participatory democracy, these laws have been either removed or neglected by authorities and the police, and new laws to uphold the right to dissent and freedom of speech are not being brought in or enforced. Those laws which are being passed are being done arbitrarily and by violating legislative processes. Our judiciary system has also remained mute on or dismissed crucial issues pertaining to unlawful arrests, basic rights, environmental degradation, corporate atrocities and more. Additionally, there is a growing issue of lack of government jobs available, further reducing the avenues available to youth to engage with policies and systemic issues.

In such a situation, dissent has played a key role, whether it is physical protests (as we see now with the farmer protests and earlier with CAA/NRC) or online (as we saw with EIA2020). Democracy is about power being with people, so why, then, should youth not exercise this power in responsible ways? Activism and dissent are some of the most powerful tools citizens (not just those who have complete citizenship recognized by the state, but even those who are informal citizens or effectively not treated as citizens and are often denied basic rights) have to express our views.

Save Mollem Railway Track Protest

At a time when the nation is drowning under the second wave of COVID-19 and a lack of governance or planning, youth are suffering from rising unemployment and job scarcity, farmers are protesting the corporatization of agriculture, labour laws are being weakened, climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of droughts and cyclones, caste and patriarchy are still pervasive and oppressive features of society, numerous indigenous and local communities are being displaced, our environment is being ruthlessly destroyed, and democratic values are being erased, activism, which is actively addressing these issues, needs to stop being portrayed as an elitist, meaningless fight between the ‘senseless and globally motivated’ left and the ‘traditional and virtuous’ right.

This article is not to say that youth activism movements in India are perfect, all-inclusive or always correct. The term ‘youth’ itself, when coupled with activism, is largely co-opted by upper-class and upper-caste youth who have the social and political capital to make our voices heard. There is a lot more that all of us need to learn and come to terms with – patience, active listening, stepping away from the spotlight, recognizing privilege, understanding & learning at a deeper level before advocating for issues, sustaining movements, resolving our own internal conflicts and inequalities, and feeling discomfort.

However, it is shameful that the youth is asked to turn their faces away from the institutional and historical violence and oppressions that have been so deeply entrenched in our societies and ecologies, just so that the status quo can continue and the system can be left undisturbed and unquestioned. We have a right to raise our voices for injustices, for basic rights, and for our futures. We refuse to sit behind the wall of apathy. We call out, yet again, to those in power and to those who still remain apathetic, to wake up, get up, and work with us.

The author adds :

LinkedIn | Linktree All opinions in this piece are personal. I want to highlight that this article was written from the perspective of a privileged upper-middle-class, upper-caste, non-binary queer woman, and therefore is not all encompassing and does not aim to speak for individuals & activists from MAPA, DBA, Trans, Muslim, and other marginalised communities. Please email me at [email protected] or leave a comment below if you feel that something has been left out, inadequately or wrongly represented, or if you would like to provide your own opinion!

A version of this article is on Youth Ki Awaaz

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