Book Review
The book begins with the outburst of nationwide protests that followed Rohith Vemula’s death.

Over the last decade, the ‘demographic dividend’ that was the basis for excited predictions for India’s future, morphed into a threat to the ruling establishment when youth stepped out on to the streets to demand their rights to life, liberty and freedom – on campuses across the country, and in Telangana, Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh.   

Young voices that could no longer be silenced found ways of articulating their aspirations through slogans, songs and video channels. This search for voice, this assertion that the system dare not confine them to the margins, became universal, infectious. Heady slogans for freedom from the JNU campus, became at once a symbol of subversion and assertion, depending on which side of the power-fence one located oneself.

Nikhila Henry, through her various encounters, sheds a humane and warm light on this ferment among the youth. The ferment that can sometimes lead into the galaxy of unlimited possibilities of Rohith Vemula’s dreams, or throw you head-long into a dehumanising armed conflict.

The book begins with the outburst of nationwide protests that followed Rohith Vemula’s death and how these myriads of voices of young Indians call into question the basic ideas of nationalism, patriotism and citizenship. The changes that swept the Indian economy and polity since the turn of the century sharpened the fissures of caste, class, religion and gender, and left little choice before the youth other than to dismantle the old certitudes.

But even as we are taken through the protests that followed Rohith’s death, we also get to meet a Chaitanya who associates with Bajrang Dal to transcend his OBC status and “though the Bajrang Dal did not give him a casteless life, it provided him the promise of a political community which had power, both electorally and socially.”

The book walks us through the newly emerging solidarities across castes and communities – the Dalit-Muslim solidarity, for instance – and to the emergence of the Bhim Army and Chandrasekhar Azad.

Image credit: Deepu Myneni

The intense political churn also leads to a whole new set of strategies, creation of spaces for independent voices through efforts like Dalit Camera in an attempt to re-shape public representation. The countless ways in which the experiences are memorialised through poetry, songs of resistance, and naming of significant spaces (Raju-Venkatesh Park) and annual events (Senthil-Balraj Cricket Night cup), both in the University of Hyderabad. The author captures the spirit animating the challenge to status quo from different locations through colourful slogans that have become the rallying points.

Tracing the path of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle in IIT-Madras, the author gives us insights into the way technical education has shaped itself in India. She says: “When IIT Madras branded a beef festival organised to assert food choices, ‘unbecoming’, it further reinforced its own inability to grapple with India’s tensions. Institutions of higher learning wanted students to engage with social change without being a part of it. IITs, like other technological and management institutions, assigned themselves the role of spectators in Indian democracy.”

The section called “Conflict Bound” in the book deeply resonated with me. This section takes us through the lives of the young men and women caught in the mesh of political conflict and their troubled responses to it. We get to meet people from Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Kashmir, Manipur and Nagaland, who are struggling to change the course of history. I hope the author at some point develops this section into a separate book.

The Ferment also looks at young women coming out to seek education and employment, inter-caste marriages that face brutal sociopathic response from parents and communities. Young men and women, first-generation educated, aspiring for employment who have to confront and deal with the inevitable precarity of existence imposed on them by a neo-liberal economy are also a part of this churn.

Speaking about nationalism and the channels’ co-option of the army with hashtags like #ArmyFirstNotNetas, #AnswerTheArmy by the advertisers like Patanjali and Malabar parottas, the author says, “the nation suddenly seemed to be a unicellular organism capable of mutation. Voluntarily or involuntarily, India’s youth was in a constant conversation with this entity, in an unending loop of breaches and negotiations.”

The discontent that the book tries to map through the stories of individual lives shows starkly the limits of our democracy that restricts access to politics, culture and economy; the limits of a nationalism that cannot satisfactorily contain within it the caste, community, or subnational consciousness. The youth unrest seems to be redefining nationalism and democracy in its essence, by confronting the strategies of entrenched power structures.

The concluding part of the book, as does the preface, tries to put these issues in global perspective. Discussing the Demographic Dividend, the author says, “Unemployed, unproductive, idle youth operate as a burden in all countries. This segment was considered one of the most vulnerable populations for discontent and radicalisation. But the globally recognised idle-youth syndrome alone could not explain the youth revolt in India. ... India’s youth uprisings had more to do with fractured existence of young people in the country than a state of complacence or discontent.”

The book is interspersed with data on the national and global economies, crime, status of women, implementation of social legislation, education, that puts the narrative in perspective. The stories of the gutsy, intelligent youth who are shaping the future of the country, and the style of narration make it highly readable.

Underlying the broad canvas of this ferment of youth sweeping across India, the book captures the basic aspiration for a life of fulfilment and peace. Not much to ask for, really.

When I read The Ferment, two things struck me. First, the objective, neutral voice that’s chronicling this remarkable phase in Indian history – the decade of 2010. Second, the voice of the author is full of empathy – whether she is talking to the student leaders, Adivasi victims of violence, or the young men in the security forces.

This probably is the biggest message the book has to give. With so many failures, shortcomings, struggles and contestations, the one thing that can redeem all of us is this empathy to stop and find out why a young person is compelled to rise up in protest.

Lastly, even a decade later this book will be a valuable resource as a chronicle of one of the historical phases of youth ferment in India, almost reminiscent of the global uprisings of youth in 1968.

You can buy the book here.