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#JNUrow: counter-culture movement or existential angst of India's millennials?

Wajahat Qazi | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:44 IST

In 1960, student activism hit the campus of the famed University of California, Berkeley. The motivation behind the Berkeley protests were civil rights for African-Americans, the free speech movement and anti-war (Vietnam) protests. All in all, the protests were in the nature of a counter-cultural movement.

The Berkeley protests find an eerie echo in the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) saga. The apparent catalysts have been the demonstrations on the anniversary of Afzal Guru's hanging, and then these devolved into other ancillary protest themes.

The Berkeley protests formed the premise of Professor Allan Bloom's 'The Closing of the American mind'. The core of Prof. Bloom's thesis revolved around the theme that "higher education in the United States had failed democracy, and that openness was a recipe for disaster".

I will, in the context of the JNU protests and the reflexive responses by the authorities, posit the opposite. In India, democracy has failed higher education. This is not to impugn democracy or malign it, but call into question the relationship between democracy and higher education in India.

Existential angst of the millennials

The JNU protestors could be said to fall under the broad demographic category of India's 'millennials' - roughly speaking, a generation that follows or succeeds 'Generation X' whose delineating datum may be held to be the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st.

These millennials have been incubated in an era where time and space stand compressed, and information has been commoditised. They are more aware, informed and even more aspirational than their forebears.

India's millennials have been incubated in an era where information is commoditised

For these reasons, Indian millennials may not be as conformist as their predecessors. And because they are aware, self-aware and more aspirational, it may well be difficult for them to accept and follow dominant narratives - political and social - that dominate the country contemporaneously.

Overlaying these factors are the transitions that these millennials are undergoing - the shift from quasi-adulthood to 'real' adulthood. From a psychoanalytic perspective, the Indian millennials' need to express and articulate, be heard and recognised, appears to be existential, especially in a society which privileges conformity and attaches a premium to age, which in the popular consciousness, is associated with wisdom.

The millennials of the country are defined by a certain existential angst. All these factors add up to what may be called a 'counter-cultural movement' against the prevailing culture and norms.

The anniversary of Guru's hanging and other related themes merely became a symbol and a metaphor for articulating a deeper existential angst. Unless, there are deeper and insidious motives that are playing out in the JNU saga, what the entire incident and its denouement suggest is that Indian millennials want space, respect and rights.

The JNU saga, then, is not about entitlement or nationalism or 'anti-nationalism'. It is about recognition in a society which appears to be increasingly at odds with the 'accommodative' and absorptive potential and capacity of society.

How the State misreads the saga

In this inner turbulence of the millennials and the outer 'reality', a rebel is born. Guru, or his hanging, and Kashmir become the lightning rod for a counter-cultural movement.

This has both positive and negative consequences.

In the positive schemata, the new and young millennials of the country are resisting to be conformist, are resisting other pressures and articulating a counter-narrative to the dominant ones.

Millennials are resisting conformism. But the State either misreads the whole saga or overreacts

But here they meet a 'reality' that jars against their aspirations and needs. The State either misreads the whole saga or overreacts; the result is the 'contagion' effect of these protests spilling over to other areas. A vicious cycle ensues and other themes get associated or collapse into the vortex of these protests.

It is here that democracy fails the millennials. The needs and demands for space, self-expression and self-definition are met by a reflexive response by the State which, in the first instance, has not altered the educational paradigm. It then misreads the mood, needs and aspirations of the millennials.

The consequence(s) are obvious: the crystallisation of binaries - 'national' and 'anti-national', conflation of disparate and unrelated issues and a controversy thereof.

The real issue and themes in the whole saga - the aspirations and needs of millennials in India - get obscured.

The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation.

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First published: 22 February 2016, 4:29 IST