Rohith Vemula was the quintessence of 'million mutinies': Author Nikhila Henry to TNM

In this interview with TNM, journalist Nikhila Henry speaks about her book 'The Ferment: Youth Unrest in India' and how the discourse of youth politics in the country has changed in the last decade.
Rohith Vemula was the quintessence of 'million mutinies': Author Nikhila Henry to TNM
Rohith Vemula was the quintessence of 'million mutinies': Author Nikhila Henry to TNM
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Journalist Nikhila Henry’s book The Ferment: Youth Unrest in India is an attempt to capture the youth revolution that is spreading across the breadth of the country. Nikhila’s debut book covers youth struggles from Kerala to Manipur and Kashmir where youth have been raising their voices to restore freedom in democratic spaces. It also talks about youngsters who have taken up arms against the existing societal framework, where caste, religion, race and economic inequalities have caused widespread unrest.

The book begins with the aftermath of the suicide of PhD scholar Rohith Vemula in the University of Hyderabad and travels across the country, to academic spaces like JNU, Osmania University, and the red corridor of India till the Kashmir Valley. The book offers its readers an in depth view of the simmering anger that stems out of the angst among the surging young population of the country.

In an interview with TNM, Nikhila, who now works with The Hindu as a special correspondent in Hyderabad, speaks more about the book and how the discourse of youth politics has changed in the country in the last decade.

There have been many instances of campus suicides and agitations before and after the suicide of Rohith Vemula. But why do you think the Rohith movement was the tipping point of student agitation in the country? Why did the protest grab national headlines?

Rohith Vemula was not yet another student leader. His was the quintessence of the 'million mutinies'--caste, economic inequalities, race and even political unrest--which rage in a young democratic country like India. Rohith’s self, politics and writing gave a context and legitimacy to the stories of others. Rohith's story brought to light the stories of many others who would have remained in the shadows even after their death. The agitation was also the first time after the left wave of the 1970s and the 1990s Mandal agitations that the students in India's heartland challenged the discriminatory fabric of Indian society other than challenging entrenched discrimination in educational institutions they studied in. The Rohith Vemula agitation gave voice to and added on to other struggles in this country -- be it that of women who are raped, Muslims who are lynched or the Adivasis whose lands are taken over.

In The Ferment, you begin the book with the Rohith agitation, then you talk about India’s youth in the country’s Red Corridor. You talk elaborately about the death of Burhan Wani in the Kashmir Valley and you even mention the rise of the Malayalam Dalit actor Vinayakan in another section of the book. What is the common thread that connects all of them?

Our country is undergoing a youth bulge currently. At a time when our youth population has reached a historic level, there is also a widespread unrest among this segment of the population which they have voiced in diverse ways, be it in HCU or JNU or in a place like Kashmir where Burhan Wani was killed, where thousands of people gathered and attended his funeral. So, we can’t just dismiss these people saying they are militants or students who are idling away their time. All these stories of people from Kashmir to Kerala have repercussions in the larger societal framework.

If you ask me why speak of Burhan Wani, who was considered a militant, there are thousands of people belonging to different age groups in the Valley who rally behind him. He is referred to as ‘Burhan Bhai’ by the people there who are not bothered by the fact that he was someone who had taken up arms. We need to understand this sentiment that is driving more young people towards someone like Burhan.

So we aren’t judging what is right or wrong, my point here is to present the stories the way they are happening.

Vinayakan was introduced in the book because he is a youth icon who nobody is recognising.Vinayakan himself knows that he is a youth icon and that is why, unlike any other star, he mentioned the youth who are part of social movements in the media conference he addressed after he won the State Award. From multiplexes to single screen theaters in slums, Vinayakan has young followers who are eager to listen to every other rare interview he gives. So what connects all these stories broadly are the discourses that come in a country like India, representing an angst that is there amongst the youth today. It was a book that was waiting to be written. It was a book that was waiting to be written.

In the course of past 4 years, do you think there has been a change in the way the country’s youth perceives the word ‘patriotism’?

I wouldn't restrict it to four years alone. During the last decade, young people in India were instrumental in rekindling a discourse on patriotism. The youth today have collectively challenged the idea of a pan-Indian identity.

India, currently, is grappling with what is patriotic and what is not, thanks to the millions of young people who engage with the idea of nationalism. When Virat Kohli tells a lay cricket critic that he should leave India if he does not like Indian cricketers, and when Rohith Vemula protesters, holding blue flags, try to reach Jantar Mantar walking through a visibly irritated and hostile Lutyen's Delhi, they are both defining the limitations of this nation, albeit differently. When a gun was pointed at Umar Khalid, it is patriotism which is being violently defined. In the past decade, the forgotten idea of patriotism has been resurrected from the ashes of the independence struggle, state declared emergency, and the wars with Pakistan and China.

Being a mediaperson yourself, do you think the media in this country has added fuel to the youth unrest here?

The media has given voice to a lot of people during the youth movements in the country. Another section has also tried to suppress or misrepresent their voices causing the youth unrest to flare-up further. I look at it as a positive development because it revealed India's 'collective conscience'. The media hasn’t said anything that is already not there in the national psyche. It’s a general notion that people who pursue PhD or similar courses, especially in art colleges, are simply whiling away their time, living on the tax payers' money. What the media has ultimately ended up doing is to give a fillip to certain slogans and discourses in universities which were considered dying or dead.

When people who were born in the 1960s and 1970s watched the different television debates on JNU, what they actually heard were all the Lal Salaam slogans that were popular during a time when they were in campuses irrespective of whether they like it or not. I think these debates and discussions also created an immediate divide in the political spectrum in the country - the right wing and the left wing - that generated a debate on whether these two binaries are the only way to conduct politics.

In one of the concluding chapters in the book, you say that “it became apparent that India’s youth uprising will essentially remain a fractured phenomenon”? Can you elaborate? Why is it a ‘fractured phenomenon’?

Indian youth, despite attempts by students and political leaders, are not a unified community. For example, when a young person who hails from India's heartland reaches Kashmir, perhaps the first question they face would be: "Are you from India?"--meaning the youth in Kashmir do not identify with an Indian identity. How do you make alliances then?

Another example is the Rohith Vemula agitation and the JNU agitation. While the former was an anti-establishment struggle, the latter was an attempt to safeguard the freedom in democratic spaces. In more than one way, these two are two potent, energetic but often opposing struggles. The differences within the young demographic cohort make the "uprising a fractured phenomenon" even as I have said in the following line--"Collectively, thanks to their rigour and frequency, these agitations had troubling consequences for the nation. India’s unity came under question, globally".

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