It is young people who will ultimately determine what Indian society will be like in the later years of this century.
BY now we have become all too aware of what happened some weeks ago in Guwahati, when a young girl was molested, manhandled and humiliated while people looked on, doing nothing.
There is another, darker aspect to this incident the convenient presence of a television crew, which may not have been accidental, and the incident could well have been dressed up, so to speak, for the camera. That aspect, however shameful, will have to be put aside for the moment as one is looking at this incident in the context of the significant changes occurring in society.
The incident was highlighted in the media, and there was widespread anger, outrage and a sense of collective shame that louts could do what they did and, more importantly and shamefully, that a large number of people could stand by and watch, doing nothing to protect her. Did they secretly approve of what was being done? Or was it that they were all voyeurs, enjoying the spectacle of a girl being assaulted in public? These are questions that the people, particularly the men, of Guwahati must answer for themselves.
Some weeks later, a more or less similar incident occurred in Barasat, a once a small town that is now a suburb of Kolkata. A girl crossing a railway platform with her father was subjected to filthy comments, and when her father remonstrated with the louts, they physically attacked him. The difference was that local people came out in large numbers, thrashed one of the louts and chased the others away. The police later caught one of them. There was, however, no television news team present to record the incident.
After the Guwahati incident, Mamta Sharma, Chairperson of the National Commission for Women, said, among other things, that girls should dress appropriately and not wear provocative clothes, or words to that effect. After the Barasat incident, the Bengali film star Chiranjit made similar remarks about the need for girls to dress properly.
A week later, in Mangalore, a group of louts barged into a private party and began assaulting the men and women present as they felt the party was indecent, or that it was a den of prostitution or something they were incoherent about their objections, most likely because they did not, between them, have the brains to articulate their thoughts. In this case the police seem to have acted quickly and arrested a number of the louts from the venue of the party.
Even though the last incident is not similar to the other two, one has included it because, together, they make a statement about the way young people today live, ways that may not always conform to older, commonly accepted ways. There was a time when young people were made to conform, and they did so not so much out of compulsion as out of a shared belief in that older style. That has changed; young people are developing their own distinctive styles of living which are not expressed, simplistically, only in the way they dress, though that has something to do with it.
There are more young people today who are educated, and most of them live in a world that includes not just parents and relatives but also a wide circle of friends who may be from their localities or workplaces or educational institutions. These friends could be those they have met on the social networking sites that have registered a phenomenal increase in membership in the last few years. A leading journal reported that there are in this country 51.4 million subscribers to Facebook, 31 million to YouTube, and 16 million to Twitter. The same journal carried the results of a survey of children in the age group 13 to 18, which showed that two-thirds considered it embarrassing not to have a Facebook or Twitter account. These are just some indicators of the other factors that have begun to shape the lives of the young.
Add to that some other seminal factors. The fierce competition the young are engaged in right from the time they sit for the final school board examinations to university examinations and examinations to enter the Indian Institutes of Management, the Indian Institutes of Technology and medical colleges is not just about doing well but about doing better than their peers, otherwise they may not get to that magic cut-off mark. Many of them find extremely lucrative positions in IT companies, banks, financial institutions, multinational corporations, the media and elsewhere at a very young age. In one foreign bank that one knows of personally, the relationship manager is around 27 or 28; the overall head of relationship management is about 33. A vice-president of another foreign bank, who looks after client relationship, is 35. All of them earn several lakh rupees a month.
They start out at very high salaries, and here again the pressure of competition, the need not just to do well but to do better than others, leads to abnormal stress levels. The young grow up in surroundings social networking sites, the Internet in general, television, peer groups subject to the same influences, and working parents where stress from various sources is a constant factor, so they have this great need to chill out, to relax with friends.
There are, equally, other groups, not so well educated, but often just as well off, that inhabit a world dominated by television soaps and films and who also use the Internet. There is usually among them a suppressed anger at the openness of the first group, and on occasion it manifests itself in the ugliest of ways.
This is the change that one has a glimpse of: the ugly confrontation by a group that does not have the ability to think except in basic terms and that takes refuge in what it thinks are its sacred or revered and ancient traditions. The same ugliness and hatred lead to the incidents that are called honour killings. These are acts of vicious prejudice not just by illiterate people but also by those who claim to have had some kind of education.
But, finally, it is fear that leads to the appalling acts of inhumanity that occur, sadly, much too often. The media report only some of the incidents that happen through the length and breadth of the country. Graham Greene once said, If fear and love are indivisible, so too are fear and hate. Hate is an automatic response to fear, for fear humiliates. The fear is of what is new; of the inability to cope with change, particularly change that flies in the face of old, often meaningless, traditions.
What will the outcome be? That must be for the young people to determine. Ultimately, they will determine what Indian society will be like in the later years of this century. One can only hope that their decisions take society forward, keep it contemporary, original, creative and dynamic.