Written by Jean-Thomas Martelli.
A decade after its first round, the results of a survey on Indian youth attitudes, conducted jointly by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS), prompted several outraged newspaper headlines. The generation of 15-34 year olds was resoundingly labelled as homophobic, paternalist and bigoted. Though the wide acceptance of parental cultural codes and restrictive social intercourse by the youth was already revealed by two previous surveys, the reporting of the younger generation’s conservative mores can be easily explained. It is due to the more explicit emphasis given in the study to the socio-political culture of youth, which represents one-third of the urban population of the country and two-thirds of rural India.
…the “creolisation of democracy” since the 1990s and the consolidation of Dalit and OBC (Other Backward Classes) politics continues to fuel the cynicism of many urban, educated and upper caste sections of youth.
What we get is a reminder that economic liberalisation and civic liberalism have very little in common, and that it would be wrong to link changes in the lives of the youth (increasingly urban-based, educated, and exposed to social media) to transformations in their understanding of politics and society. By emphasising continuity over change, the report unearths six running trends that make the Indian youth markedly distinguishable from their global counterparts. They are as follows.
Youth in love with conservative gender roles
As shown by anthropologists such as Ritty Lukose, the deepening of consumer identities, marked by the emergence of leisure-based activities, has boosted the practice of pre-marital romance and flirtation. However, contrary to many youth in other Asian countries (East Asian ones in particular), such practices in the public space are still precarious and have not significantly shaken the normative structure of gender relations and gender roles.
While male-female friendships decrease the chances of discouraging women from working, wearing jeans or challenging male leadership, the overall occurrence of patriarchal and hetero-normative opinions remain very high among India’s youth. Prejudices such as the disapproval of same sex affairs by three quarters of respondents and the still strong condemnation of inter-caste marriages are lined with more customary forms of conservatisms, mainly weaved around marriage as an institution. It follows that a majority disapproves of men and women dating or living together. While more accepted than a decade ago, love marriages are – and will remain for a long time – a niche phenomenon.
The weakness of liberal youth-based politics
The continuation of the family’s grip over large sections of the youth is not the only factor explaining the weakness of their liberal values. The mild impact of activist initiatives addressing these issues is also to be blamed. As explained by sociologist Virginie Dutoya, queer groups in India are still bound to the academic elite, and anti-moral policing initiatives such as the 2014 Kiss of Love protest in Kerala, the Pinjra Tod movement in Delhi and the numerous ‘love’ campaigns against anti-Valentine Day statements (such as the Pink Chaddi Campaign in 2009) were unable to penetrate the lower classes and rural-based cohorts. The episodic campaigns led by women in order to reclaim public spaces – such as the Why Loiter, the Meet to Sleep or the Happy to Bleed initiatives – never resonated in the ears of the lower classes.
The results of the survey confirm that those experiencing more of the ‘otherness’ of the other gender tend to loosen the patriarchal knot. However, most student organisations prefer rallying around the question of women’s safety instead of promoting more heterosocial environments. Even Leftist student groups such as the CPI(M)-affiliated Students’ Federation of India (SFI), CPI(ML)-backed All India Students’ Association (AISA), otherwise active in promoting gender equality, were reluctant to support the self-proclaimed “(In)decent Proposal” initiative at the very liberal Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), which at the end of 2014 started advocating a relaxation of the rules on gender division in campus accommodations and on drinking alcohol in public.
Such timidity towards proactive gender mixing is explained by the long-running fear of mass Left organisations of appearing “too elitist.” A 1973 anecdote recounted by the then Registrar of JNU, N.K.V. Murthy, is particularly telling. One day, Prakash Karat, SFI leader and soon to become General Secretary of CPI(M) entered the office of Vice-Chancellor Shri G. Parthasarathy, requesting that boys and girls should have unrestricted access to each other’s hostel room, but then visited the next morning again claiming that, because of the fear of scandalizing lower sections of students, the Students’ Union wished to withdraw its demand. From then on, several attempts to challenge certain conservative social norms arose in the same university, including in 2012 when Leftist student organisations opposed the initiative to organise a beef festival on the campus premises.
Protesting university spaces going missing
Outside electoral politics, students demonstrate only moderate interest in participating in demonstrations and political events. This is in sharp contradiction with most recent political science findings, such as the ones of sociologist Michael Biggs. Studies confirm that contrary to sections of the youth who are busy with work, students tend be more protest-friendly, mainly because they possess a higher sense of efficacy and can rely on both politicised social interactions and on lower material constraints to political participation – political scientists call this ‘biographical availability’. In contrast, the CSDS-KAS figures show that the Indian youth involved in business participate twice as much in politics as those engaged in education. Even if the household-based methodology used by the survey tends to underrepresent the youth migrating for education, the data is solid enough to deflate the mainstream picture.
This might suggest that beyond the few places of higher learning, in which the culture of argumentation and value-based dissent is endangered but well-established (Jawaharlal Nehru University, Hyderabad Central University, the Film and Television Institute of India, Jadavpur University and a few other universities), protests are less likely to happen. If they do, they are more likely to arise over pragmatic concerns such as fee hikes – as exemplified by the ongoing protests in Chandigarh’s Panjab University. The results also indicate that many young profit-seekers and fixers find it potentially lucrative to become student leaders. As geographer Craig Jeffrey recounts in Western Uttar Pradesh, the organisation of student protests is part of a broader business strategy in which middle-caste entrepreneurs (Jats mostly) use their influence to act as intermediaries between private contractors and the university administration.
The lack of post-materialist values has to do with inter-generational conservatism
Cohort change does not necessarily lead to the development of values in contradiction to those of their parents. It has become common currency in the West to describe young generations since the 1970s onwards as “postmaterialists,” as an increasing emphasis on autonomy (rather than authority), self-expression and the quality of life has been observed, while the relative emphasis on economic security has dropped after two decades of sustained growth. This “silent revolution” as the political scientist Ronald Inglehart termed it, has not yet materialised in the fastest-growing major economy.
Even if the 15-34 age-cohort in the CSDS-KAS survey are not compared to older generations, there is no overt indication that the Indian youth are developing a postmaterialist ideology (which stresses the freedom of speech and participatory politics). For example, sixty percent of youth agree that films that hurt religious sentiments should be banned, and the fear of potential unrests resulting from their release cannot alone explain such high figure. Similarly, less than one third of young Hindus and Sikhs considered beef consumption to be a personal choice.
Because of deep-rooted social inequalities, and since the Indian youth have to navigate an uncertain professional future, unemployment and poverty remain their two primary concerns. Concomitantly, job security, epitomized by youth preference for government employment, is paramount. When visiting residential university campuses, one is struck by meeting students who obtain admission mainly to benefit from the infrastructure (hostels, messes and library) that will help them to prepare for PCS (Provincial Civil Services) and UPSC (Union Public Service Commission) examinations. Partly because of the endurance of material concerns, CSDS director Sanjay Kumar is right in noting after the 2013 round of the survey that, “on various parameters, the youth continues to think and act in ways similar to the older generation.”
The voice of liberal graduates is undermined by their electoral escapism
The patriarchal and conservative values of Indian youth are weakened by high educational attainment, but such ‘progressive ideas’ are not likely to be found in the ballot box. CSDS-KAS data from both 2006 and 2016 point to the endurance of absenteeism in which the voting turnout of illiterate youth exceeds that of graduates. This is a long-running puzzle of Indian democracy; indeed, political scientists (Seymour Martin Lipset being the first) have established that since the 1960s, better educated classes around the world voted more than less educated ones.
The fact that the on-going opening of Indian universities to the urban and rural youth has not eroded the electoral apathy of the most educated is telling. It is a sign of the continuing political culture in which educated middle- and upper-classes still believe in private enterprise more than in the “rule of plebeian political leaders” as coined by Professor Christophe Jaffrelot. Extending the argument advanced by the psephologist Yogendra Yadav some twenty years ago, the “creolisation of democracy” since the 1990s and the consolidation of Dalit and OBC (Other Backward Classes) politics continues to fuel the cynicism of many urban, educated and upper caste sections of youth. On the other end of the spectrum, poorer sections of Indian youth go to the polling booth because it is more empowering as it enacts, in the words of anthropologist Mukulika Banerjee, a social imaginary of empowerment, in which social inequality is temporarily annihilated. More prosaically, voting also brings caste-based benefits that are much needed to the survival of most deprived households.
The origin of youth conservatism is social rather than religious
The various avatars of illiberal behaviours of Hindutva-trained youth, ranging from couples’ witch-hunt (whether nicknamed Romeo, Durga or Majnu ‘operations’) to anti-love jihad expeditions should not make us forget that routine, banal conservativeness of Indian youth is often not – or only indirectly – linked with religious mindsets. The survey shows that, when it comes to expressing an opinion about same-sex relationships, religious youngsters from various faiths approve of them more widely than non-believers. This result serves as a cautionary note intended for political scientists (Samuel Huntington and Pippa Norris to name two) who suggest that, more often than not, religious identities best explain the values ascribed by social groups. The case of Indian youth shows that if conservative values and their spectacular resilience have some institutional and religious overtones, their origin is above all social, kinship-based and educational.
Jean-Thomas Martelli is a Doctoral Candidate at the King’s India Institute, King’s College London and a sessional lecturer in Sciences Po Paris. He tweets @jtmartelli. Image credit: Albin Mathew/ EPS/ New Indian Express.