This is a book not just to be read but also to be cherished. And, there couldn’t have a more opportune time than this to have a hardback on the tumult that the youth in India are facing. Nikhila Henry’s debut book on one of the most important segments of the population is sensible, well-researched and up-front. ‘The Ferment–Youth Unrest In India’, as the Preface says, presents the stories of the country’s disenchanted youth,reverebating a thousand voices, cries and protests that came together to give a rise to a youth movement of great magnitude in the world’s largest democracy.’
For quite some years now, Nikhila has been reporting on education, youth agitations, gender struggles and of course student politics. That makes her eminently suitable to write a book on the turmoil with frightening details.
India today has the largest youth population of any country in the world. By 2020, it will have some hundred million in its working population, equivalent to the combined population of the United States of America, Indonesia and Brazil. No matter how deplorably they are positioned, India’s youth constitutes the world’s largest ever cohort and they see no reason why the world shouldn’t run by their diktat.
‘The Ferment’ records, in astonishing details, the battles that India’s youth is fighting day-in day-out. She tries to argue that the youth who have grown distrustful of the country’s legislature, executive, judiciary and the superstructure had no other choice but to take upon themselves the task of bumping these institutions out of their catnap.
Rohith Vemula’s suicide in the University of Hyderabad, students’ unrest in Jawaharlal Nehru University, the beef festival in Osmania University, Patidar agitation in Gujarat, Bhima Koregaon march in Pune, Jammu and Kashmir’s stone-pelting incidents 2010 onwards and left wing extremism — all this and more find vivid description in the book.
India’s youth swell continues to churn out angry adolescents who make up about thirty-five per cent of the country’s population; yet their voice is considered deleterious to the nation’s development. Example: Rohith Vemula, Burhan Wani, Umar Khalid, Kanhaiya Kumar, Jignesh Mevani, Chandrasekhar Azad et al. Nikhila argues that there exists a connection between the youth’s joblessness and escalating discontent that India is witnessing at the moment.
Some of the top issues affecting India’s youth today include corruption, food insecurity, healthcare and unemployment. Political grandstanding thus only perpetuates a vicious cycle, creating a whirlpool that sucks their hope and aspirations. Drawing parallels from youth agitations elsewhere in the world – she calls it The Butterfly Effect – Nikhila says unemployed, unproductive–idle youth operate as a burden in all countries; but she is unwilling to be of the same mind that the ‘globally recognised idle-youth syndrome alone explains the youth revolt in India.’
The book – running into nearly three hundred pages and divided into four meticulous chapters – explores how the Indian society is unable to sustain the enormous workforce it has created over the years. She tries to weave a narrative in a most convincing manner. If India’s decades-long social and cultural prejudices have given rise to an unwavering young citizen bent on changing the system, books like ‘The Ferment’ goes only to expand that storyline away from a particular time-frame. One cogent point that she makes in the book is that the youth rebellion has more to do with the disinterest of the ruling class and, so, ‘they could no longer ignore its young citizens.’
For several years now, the caste system in India has come in the way of social development and overall progress. In the process, it has set rigid boundaries for social inclusion. These limitations have now sown new seeds for caste-based discrimination to prevail. In 2016, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) had data showing 40,801 crimes had been committed against people from the Scheduled Caste groups. States like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar recorded the highest incidence of crimes against people belonging to these historically oppressed backgrounds. Possibly for this deeper perspicacity, Nikhila’s book has Vemula echoing time and again in the book. ‘The Ferment’ deals with several other newly emerging solidarities across castes and communities .For instance: the Dalit-Muslim unity.
Reportage is often regarded as the most exalted form of journalism. With post-truth becoming the buzz word and exploratory book-writing fast catching up, ‘The Ferment’ is a must-read for anyone who is worried about India’s youth. The book makes a fascinating and compelling read combining on-the-ground reporting with big data to examine the issue of the youth strife. Nikhila’s fondness for the subject and the balance of her arguments make it an extremely critical work.
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(The writer is a senior journalist and Consulting Editor of OdishaLIVE)