Has India’s Tunisian-fruitseller moment arrived?
The death of the 23-year old Delhi student on December 29 after a brutal gang rape in New Delhi has many asking this question. Just as the 2011 self-immolation of the young Tunisian fruit seller, an educated unemployed youth who expressed his frustration in what he saw as a hopeless future, set off uprisings across the Arab world, this recent demise could trigger a series of events in India that its ruling government is unprepared for.
The similarity of these protests is considerable. Both involve the youth, the middle class and an unresponsive state. Both reveal the humiliation felt by citizens, so deep it has robbed them of a sense of normalcy and justice. Through the Arab uprisings, the young especially in Egypt, used social media to communicate, as have the student demonstrators in New Delhi. The outcome in West Asia has been earth-shaking, immediately toppling three governments in the region and resulting in continuing protests in several others whose populations crave justice and equality.
But what makes India stand apart, and what makes the New Delhi demonstrations so powerful is this: India is at an advanced stage of democracy in the developing world. It is seen as a democratic model in the Arab and emerging world, a model to emulate and to learn lessons from. In this, Indian citizens have shown maturity by leading largely non-violent movements through the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008, through the anti-corruption movement of 2011 which still continues, and through the on-going demonstrations for gender justice in Delhi.
The most significant part of the current movement is that it is driven by youth, which comprises 55% of India’s population, and by the middle class which is re-emerging so visibly on to the public space for the first time since the movement for Independence. The middle classes in this case include the aspiring middle classes – the cohort which belongs in the same bracket as the young woman who was raped, those who are amongst the first in their families to be educated and who dream of a better, more equal life in the new India.
It is a matter of time that given these two forces – youth and the middle class – the movement will acquire the intellectual underpinnings that are so important to convert raw energy into tangible policies and their implementation and institutionalization.
India’s governance and newest social revolution is nigh. The ruling coalition government, unable to lead or comfort its people, is worried – but still thinks the old electoral arithmetic will win it the Parliament. Like the autocrats in West Asia who did not believe that their time was up, like the court of Louis the XIV whose disconnection from the public mood cost the aristocracy their lives and their kingdom, so India’s dynastic rulers see not the deluge.
The world is watching India step up to the next stage of its democratic evolution. Being a truly global role model requires India’s young protestors to change their thinking and values at home and in society at large. It will also require the government in Delhi to respond with emotion, not with apathy. At the moment, it does not see the necessity to empathise with its citizens – putting it at risk of landing in the same dustbin of history as West Asia’s ousted rulers.
Manjeet Kripalani is the Co-founder and Executive Director of Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.
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