Is Standing with Young People Yet Another Fad? Reflections on the Young and Kiss Protests in Kerala
BY-JDEVIKA , KAFILA.ORG
My arguments supporting young people in some recent debates, notably, the ones around the International Film Festival of Kerala and the ongoing Kiss protests, have apparently irritated a number of people, especially friends who belong to my own generation. From more than one source (hardly ever directly, though) I hear that they grumble that I am biased towards the young. That, apparently, is the latest fad. And Devika, it appears to them, has a tendency to support fads.This means, by implication, that the range of political actions I have supported, for example, in my writing on Kafila since 2007, are all likely to be ‘fads’ . If so, by implication equally, the grumblers are likely to be supporters of the mainstream political parties who generally console themselves that nearly all challenges to the political mainstream that unfold outside formal politics must be ‘fads’ that will pass. And they hang on to their illusion despite the ever-piling evidence that these challenges are not fading, but becoming more and more complex. I am of course not obliged to respond to disgruntled middle-aged intellectuals whose intolerance of youth is a sure – and sad – sign of their ageing. But this is surely a question that should be raised at the present moment and therefore I want to try to offer a response. Fortunately, I am not a ‘public intellectual’ who, to my mind, is the Romantic Genius in less-dramatic guise. I am an interdisciplinary social researcher, and do believe that ultimately , the work that social science research and teaching in India is that of making available knowledge that strengthens democracy in India. I am doing just that : I have no claims to being a self- Sacrificing genius who has deep insight that transcends the merely empirical. So if I support some group over another, I have reasons for doing it, and often very mundane ones, that require no genius and no deep insight.For example, if I am defending youth in Kerala, it is because they are indeed, whether middle-aged friends in my generation like it or not, a very significant group in our population. As my friend and colleague, the demographer U S Mishra, points out, according to 2011 census the adolescent population of Kerala between ages 10-24 constitute 24.2 per cent of population. The 2011 census reveals that the adolescent population of Kerala between ages 10-24 constitute 26.5 per cent for ST population as against the same in case of SC population remaining same as in general population. Further, the young are a very important chunk of the literate population of Kerala. In the literate population, the adolescent (aged 10-24) share goes up to 28.5 per cent. The share of male adolescents among the literates is 29.4 per cent as against the share of female adolescents of 27.7 per cent in Kerala.Equally undeniable are the facts about the flow of resources in this state, which inevitably favour the middle-aged and senior age-groups. If we were to take government expenditure on salaries and service pensions as a proxy for resources that flow to the middle-class middle-aged, the group that makes the most disgusting noises about young people (and for that reason I don’t include the welfare pensions), and treat the government expenditure on education as a proxy for resources that flow to the young, then one can have hardly any doubt about who commands more clout. For the former clearly have good access to fungible resources which can be quickly converted to other sorts of resources. And in any case, even in education-sector spending, the larger share of expenditure is often in salaries and pensions which obviously flow to the middle-aged, and the developmental share is very often shrinking (as another friend and my colleague the economist Vinoj Abraham pointed out to me). Worse, the educational sector in Kerala is hardly welfarist any more and much more dominated by the private sector. The investment in it by the private sector can hardly be treated as resources flowing towards the young in the sense evoked here. It may be argued that the resources accruing to the middle-aged and seniors are used to educate the young and so they flow indirectly to them. True, but then it is undeniable that the young often have little say regarding this. That is, just because such indirect flow does happen, it does not mean that young people have a guaranteed right on and choice of those resources. Indeed, the availability of such resources to the young itself is not a matter of right but a matter of chance, depending on the willingness and especially, the preferences of parents and other guardians. Thirdly, while there is little rigorous research available on this, (indeed, there is little research on the young outside some official agencies — the exception being Ritty Lukose’s book on young people in Kerala, based on field work from the 1990s) young people in Kerala do suffer considerable violation of human rights. I have myself written a lot on Kafila on moral policing in Kerala, and the extent to which a range of forces, from the religious right-wing goons, to local goons who call themselves nattukaar – local people, literally but ‘local moral police’ actually – and the ‘guardian angelic moral police’ of the law which tries to infantilise young people and keep them under constant surveillance. I do believe this pressure, which at times borders on the pathologically crazy, is connected to the fact that human power is now Kerala’s largest export and there is an entire apparatus – in which homes, schools, tuition centres, skill-building programmes,coaching classes, self-financing and government institutes of technical education, placement centres, and the regulatory machinery of the government form interconnected sites and nodes –which is now fully entrenched in our growing market economy. In other words there are enormously powerful vested interests that would actively work to suppress young people’s citizenship impulses through an array of instruments and turn them into saleable labour power. But besides, to my mind, there are other reasons to support the young now. The above statements may well be used in attempts to ‘save the young’, but I do think there is good reason that far from trying to save the young, members of my generation might need to learn from, or at least appreciate, the young. For the Kiss protests are evidence that the young are fully capable of articulating a far more sophisticated politics than my generation could conceive of. I have heard several whispers, some expressing genuine concern, some merely sneering, that the young people who are igniting the Kiss protests, are ‘immature’, ‘immersed in consumerist culture’, and so on. I read this criticism as essentially related to an old habit of ours – which directs us to acquire ‘theoretical maturity’ or at least a familiar political vocabulary, before launching into activism. This requires us to state our theoretical positions in the shared language of our specific group before any practical action. Often this leads us to sneer at others who may not understand us. The young people who have launched the Kiss protests don’t seem too bothered about the long gestation period of acquiring theoretical clarity; they seem to be crafting concrete responses to specific concrete manifestations of power, critical actions that rid the latter of their easy, everyday, normalized appearance. Their actions challenge these acts by exposing their violent underbellies so that they no longer appear to be ‘respectable’. This is what makes many of my generation appreciative of their actions but, in the same breath, suspicious of what they perceive to be a certain superficiality.As far as I am concerned, however, this is precisely their strength. A concern about structures is indeed important and need to be pursued especially in the spirit of self-criticism, but setting it up as prior to all political action may make us vulnerable to dogmatism (as we have often experienced in Kerala). The Kiss protest activists have not closed themselves of to such clarity, only that they do not set it up on a pedestal. They have remained strictly non-dogmatic, absorbing as much criticism as possible as a positive resource that aids self-transformation; they have remained stubbornly non-violent; they have not yet felt the need to assemble under some Central Committee; they have ensured that their protests are shaped by humour and light-heartedness, and this has gone quite effortlessly along with daring expressions of moral courage.More importantly, in my mind, while they may not spelt out the theoretical and historical implications of their strategy of foregrounding the body in challenging the Hindu underbelly of Indian secularism, they have, no doubt, managed to articulate in practical action, an extraordinarily illuminating critique of Indian secularism. By foregrounding the restrictions on the body imposed by high-Hindu inflected Indian secularism, they expose the violence of not only the high-Hindu individual, but also the Cartesian ego blending seamlessly and occupying the heart of Indian secularism. Not just other faiths, but also the body itself, is rendered minor within the framework erected around this potent combination. No wonder, then, that the police has been as violent to them as the Hindu right wing goons; no wonder the police authorities’ abusive statements against the Kiss protests have utilized the same moralistic reasoning as the Hindu right-wingers. No wonder many who claim to be secular in Kerala are claiming that the denial of touch in public space has nothing religious about it — it is, according to them, just ‘decent behaviour’. I hear a lot too about how the young are not ‘realistic’ in their political goals. Well, such a remark reeks of old age. What is wrong about dreaming of another world which may not be real now? I myself dream of such a world, for instance. when I note that female-headed households in Kerala are nearly one-fourth of all households. Allowing for under-counting (quite likely in a society in which women have to ashamed for worthless duffers leaving them) and adding husbands whose presence is inconsequential, this share is likely to rise to at least forty per cent. Now, I dream of a revolution which this fact could undergird, one in and through which people would be free to choose between matriliny, patriliny, or mixed systems and female-headed households would be automatically matrilineal. That way matriliny would be freed from its association with the hierarchies of the caste order (but even that association is really not accurate – since many middle and lower castes did follow matriliny) and all forms of lineage would gain equal dignity! If being ‘unrealistic’ is the sign of youth, then being realistic and old seems to me the sign of the attainment of a certain level of comfort and a certain level of resignation within and about the structures of power that shape our everyday lives. The toll that it takes is surely on our capacity to dream.Maybe the person who hinted that I was pursuing some personal gain running after something trivial, a mere fad, was not entirely wrong. I indeed am trying to fight the sort of old age characteristic of people who have lost the ability to dream. Maybe I will reach a time when I too will lose that ability. But to my young friends, let me promise: if I ever reach such a time, I shall step back into my inner self, prepare for departure from this world, and spend the rest of my time with the wild plants in my garden and the butterflies and the bees there, suspending myself in their gentle, restful, radiant, ever-present yet ancient — actually timeless– world.
wriiten by- JDEVIKA