Indian youth is a strange mix of conservative and liberal attitudes: Survey

By Charmy Harikrishnan

New Delhi : On a warm summer evening, Ruchika Goswami steps out of a South Delhi mall after a quick shopping. The 19-year-old Delhi University student has darted out of a Forever 21 store and snagged a couple of pieces from H & M. It is a Thursday and the mall is in a weekday stupor. She holds another shopping bag from Happily Unmarried. Would she want to get married, someday? Yes, she says with a laugh. Love marriage or arranged marriage? Love marriage. Does she think a woman should work after marriage ? Of course, says Goswami, who is in the first year of bachelor’s degree in biological science. Should a woman listen to her husband? Not at all, she says firmly, as dusk falls over the mall and the trees glow under the lamps. Does she think there should be reservation in colleges for Scheduled Caste/ Scheduled Tribe students? No, there should be equal opportunity for everyone.

Goswami, who is from Nainital, lives with her cousins, Monika and Suman, and watches movies once in a while with them. But there are films that hurt religious sentiments. Should they be banned? No, she shakes her head. Does she eat out? She is a health freak, her cousin Suman pitches in, and doesn’t go to restaurants. Is she a vegetarian? Of course, not. Should beef be banned? Certainly, she says. And her cousins agree. “Cow is like our god. It should not be killed.”

That very morning, just 10 kilometres away, in Lajpat Nagar, Bharathi Janardhanan was almost done cooking and cleaning a house. She works in five houses, and there were two more to go that day. Do men make better leaders than women? No, of course not, says the 21-year-old, wearing a golden-yellow kurta, her hair in a braid. Should women work after marriage? “Of course. I make over Rs 12,000 every month — and that is important,” says Janardhanan, who had to stop studying after Class V. Will she get married? Maybe after a year. Will it be a love marriage or arranged marriage? Arranged marriage, of course, says Janardhanan, who is from Viluppuram in Tamil Nadu and has been living with her parents in Delhi for about a decade now. She keeps a vrat on Thursdays and Fridays when she won’t eat non-vegetarian food even though she would cook it for others. Should beef be banned? Yes, she says, although her family enjoys beef for their Sunday lunch. Her objection is not due to religious reasons. No animal, she says, should be killed for food. She is not into watching films, but should they be censored or banned? Yes, if they hurt religious sentiments. She hasn’t seen the inside of the mall Goswami shops at. Instead, she occasionally goes to the market in Bhogal. She hardly eats out but often buys her favourite momos. Has she ever felt discriminated against? No, she says and she presses the elevator button to go down and rush to the next house.

But there was that one time when the owner of the building stopped her from taking the lift and insisted that she takes the stairs to the third floor. She shrugged it off and had pressed the elevator button. Then as well as now.

The Indian youth is complex, many-layered, varied, often carrying the remains of the past and clinging to traditions, and yet forging ahead, pressing elevator buttons, breaking a few old rules, and making new ones. To find what the Indian youth thinks, the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in Delhi, along with the German political foundation Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, conducted an exhaustive Youth Survey — a sample survey of 6,122 respondents aged between 15 and 34 years across 19 states in April-May 2016. They put to them about 80 questions, including the ones posed to Goswami and Janardhanan. The report, “Attitudes, Anxieties and Aspirations of India’s Youth: Changing Patterns”, has just been published.

Janardhanan and Goswami are two of the over 422 million youth in India — about one-third of the population. Most of them carry the double helix of modernity and traditions. “Only a few are very liberal (14%) and very conservative (11%),” says Sanjay Kumar, director of CSDS and principal investigator of the sample survey. About 75% of them fall in between — 38% are somewhat liberal and 37% are somewhat conservative.

Suhas Palshikar, political scientist and director of Lokniti, who was an adviser to the survey, says: “The crucial takeaway is the internal differentiations within the category called ‘youth’ — there is only a sketchy existence of the mythical youth as a homogenous category.” Youth in India, he adds, is both different from youth in the advanced societies of the industrial world and, at the same time, different from the older generation of Indians. “The youth is different from that in the industrial world in the sense that it has not yet fully gone through the process of individuation — it retains family and community ties — but it is different from the previous generation/s in the hope, expectations and aspirations that mark India’s youth of today”.

The youth are political and religious. They are tied to family and community even as they gradually, although not fully, become more accepting of other castes and communities. The survey shatters the myth that the Indian youth is not political.

While 48% of the youth (18 to 34 years) say they are not interested in politics, 51% say they do — which is 14 percentage points more than in 1996 (only 37% of 18-34-year-olds showed interest in politics, according to a CSDS National Election Survey, or NES). It also shows that the BJP is the most preferred single party. With just 4% of Hindu upper caste, 7% of Hindu OBC and 10% of Dalit youth identifying with the Congress, the Grand Old Party’s failure to capture the imagination of the youth of the majority community seems rather complete. If it is not BJP, they are looking at regional parties.

The survey also confirms the suspicion that the Indian youth are more into religious activities than they were a couple of years ago. (For comparison with the NES of previous years, figures here are for 18-34-yearolds.) About 79% pray regularly or occasionally as compared with 73% in 2009 and in 2014. About 68% go to places of worship regularly or occasionally as opposed to 52% in 2009 and 56% in 2014. Which raises the question whether a right-wing government at the Centre since 2014 has led to a resurgence of religion and a greater assertion of religious identity.

The pull of the family too cannot be wished away when 65% live with parents. About 84% of married youth have had an arranged marriage.

Young & Illiberal
Meanwhile, women are asserting their rights in spite of restrictions. When 51% of married men say that women should not work after marriage, 54% of married women disagree with it and say women should work. The ghare-baire notions of women’s freedom are still prevalent. While only 37% of youth agree, fully or somewhat, that girls should not wear jeans, and 38% agree that higher education is more important for boys than girls, it becomes harder for women inside homes and in marriages: 55% of men agree, fully or somewhat, that women should listen to their husbands, while 46% women disagree with it.

Albeena Shakil, assistant professor at Jindal Global Law School, says, “The women’s movement in India has largely been engaged in confronting/reforming customary practices — dowry, sati, ‘honour’ crimes, son preference, triple talaq, etc, which are all steeped in kinship-based community beliefs and customs. The survey indicates that while there is relatively greater acceptance of women’s participation in education or work (public realm), domestic equations are still more heavily tilted towards customary roles.”

When it comes to issues like homosexuality and consumption of beef, the youth tend to be even more illiberal. Only about 25% approve of a homosexual relationship, with the majority either disapproving of it or refusing to comment on it. Should the attitudes of the youth define what the government’s policy should be on an issue? Shashi Tharoor, MP, who sought to introduce a Private Member’s Bill seeking to amend Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalises homosexuality, says: “I believe that we need to move India into a more liberal direction, in keeping with the values enshrined in the Constitution.

India’s young are not conservative, they’re confused — and their attitudes reflect to a great extent what they are told they ought to believe.” At the dawn of 1947 India would have been even more conservative. What is the significance of having a liberal leadership for a rather illiberal society? “A liberal leadership sets aspirational standards for the nation and teaches society to share those aspirations. Nehru and his generation of nationalist leaders used the political platform to educate and exhort; today most leaders prefer to pander to the prejudices of their voters rather than to raise the bar for them,” says Tharoor.

The CSDS-KAS survey was conducted seven-eight months after Mohammed Akhlaq was killed in Dadri on the mere suspicion of having beef stored in his fridge. Even so, only 36% of respondents believe that eating beef is a personal choice and should not be objected to. The responses on the basis of religion and region show how divergent the views are. While 69% of Muslims think consumption of beef is a personal choice and shouldn’t be objected to, only 31% of Hindus think so.

A state-wise study is even more revealing: in Kerala, where a plate of beef and parotta often passes for staple food, 88% agree, fully or somewhat, that eating beef is a personal choice. However, in Madhya Pradesh, only 8% agree with that. In Haryana, 77% disagree, fully or somewhat, with the statement that eating beef is a personal choice.

And yet the Malayalis’ support for beef seems a preference for a food that they are used to and have enjoyed rather than a sweeping liberal stand. When asked whether films that hurt religious sentiments should be banned, 67% in Kerala agreed, fully or somewhat. In Delhi, it was 68%. In Assam and Tamil Nadu, it went as high as 79%. In Bengal, only 30% said films should be banned, but that doesn’t mean they disagreed strongly with it. Only 23% opposed a ban, while 48% went for the comfortable hush of No Opinion.

How significant is the fact that India’s youth are mostly con-libs or conservative-liberals, conservative in certain issues and liberal in some others? Palshikar says this shows the inadequacy of these categories and their straightforward application to Indian context. “But it is possible that the Indian youth is increasingly trapped in the dualisms of contradictory nature. This contradiction will determine the social and political fabric of our society in the next quarter of a century if age does not make a difference and the same attitudes are held by the present generation of youth later in life. There is not enough research on stability of views across age groups.”

India is a young country — and democracy is a work in progress. It was just 100 years ago that Mahatma Gandhi walked into the indigo fields of Champaran and the misery of its farmers. The CSDS survey report says that while the youth are “modern in their appearance and consumption patterns”, their views reflect “a troubling inclination towards intolerance and conservatism”. However, sociologist Dipankar Gupta says: “I see the glass as half full, and it is filling up. Only 49% support capital punishment — which means that without any propaganda, about 51% youngsters in India are against death penalty. Over 80% of Indian youth are okay with people from another caste as their neighbours. If I am not mistaken, the writer Salman Rushdie once said that the true metropolitan experience is one where you cannot decide who your neighbour is going to be. If 81% of India is moving there, I see that as an important, positive development.”

About 25% of Indian youth may be checking Facebook daily, but the Indian youth is certainly not your carefully curated Friends list.

(Additional reporting by G Seetharaman and Rajiv Singh)

Source: Economic Times

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