On March 12, 2017, after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept the State Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke at a victory rally in Delhi about his dream of building a New India by 2022. He said he was confident of achieving his mission because of the signs he saw around him. Modi mentioned two of the signs, “A New India that fulfils aspirations of its nari shakti [women’s power] is taking place… A New India of the dreams of its yuva shakti [youth power] is taking place.”
Disha Ravi, the 22-year-old environmentalist arrested for what is called the toolkit conspiracy, too has dreams. She wants the authorities engaged in building a New India to become sensitive to climate change, reverse environmental degradation, adopt the model of sustainable development, and listen to marginalised social and occupational groups, including farmers, about their woes arising from faulty policies ravaging their habitats. Until her arrest on February 14, she was willing to wage a struggle to realise her dream, which has as its focus not her own self, as is the case for most people, but the larger collectivity called the people of India.
The arrest of Disha would suggest that Modi’s New India is frightened of a woman’s aspirations—and has chosen to lock her up. Or that a New India unable to fulfil the dream of a young citizen has decided to demonise her as anti-national. Disha, the individual, represents those whose idea of New India is different from that of the Indian state. They must, therefore, be banished, or scared into silence. A Disha cannot be allowed to replicate. Modi’s New India is not unravelling. Rather, it seeks to exclude all those who do not share or disagree with his conception of New India. The message to them is that they should either conform to the state’s idea of New India or, at least, remain silent—or else prepare to meet the same fate as Disha has.
This message is primarily designed for the youth. It is they who are fired by idealism, and have the energy to propagate ideas contrary to those of the state. The compulsions of the generation elder to the young constrain them—they have their jobs to protect and families to provide for. They are unlikely to take to the streets to oppose the state’s idea of New India.
Indeed, from the time the BJP came into power in 2014, the state has been battling the youth. Think of the 2016 unrest at Hyderabad Central University and Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, which continues to simmer. Or of the agitation of women students of Banaras Hindu University demanding the same rights as men in 2017. Two years later, when the protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act broke out in 2019-2020, the youth found themselves caught in the crosshairs of the state as never before.
Take Amulya Leona, the 19-year-old journalism student in Bengaluru, who languished in jail for four months for shouting “Pakistan Zindabad” at a rally, even though, as her Facebook post showed, she wanted to take names of other countries as well, to establish that she would not “become a part of a different nation” just by saying “zindabad to that nation.” The anti-CAA protest and the police investigation into the 2020 Delhi riots have had the state incarcerate a bunch of youth leaders—Umar Khalid, Sharjeel Imam, Gulfisha Fatima, Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, to name a few. Munawar Faruqui, the stand-up comedian who was arrested for a joke he did not crack, is 32 years old.
The arrest of Disha and others convey to their peer group that emulating their activism can land them in jail, interrupt their studies, and disrupt their careers. They should study to become professionals or civil servants. Politics is not for them. Nor should they vocally express empathy for the suffering. They can rail and oppose the state at their own peril. For women, Disha’s fate conveys to them the dangers of entering the public arena to agitate against the state. This is not the aim of the state’s programme of Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (Save the girl child, educate the girl child), is it?
It is not that the public space is barred for the young, whether men or women. After all, they have the option of joining, say, the drive to collect funds for building the Ram temple, as has been witnessed in several cities. They can turn into social media warriors for propagating Hindutva, even post vile remarks with impunity.
They can join the movement to protect the cow, contribute to saving rivers and forests, do charity work for the poor and the unemployed, disseminate information highlighting duties of citizens, and fight untouchability, as long as their actions do not challenge the state’s own faulty policies on these issues.
The state, in other words, is like the proverbial patriarch indulgent of those of his children who are willing to subscribe to his ideas of the model child—and acts severely against those deviating from it, even to the extent of expelling them from the household.
By arresting Disha, the state has also sent a cautionary message, even though subliminally, to parents whose children are in colleges or are still dependent on them. It is the responsibility of parents to ensure their children do no harbour ideas that interrogate the status quo—and rage against the state. They must monitor the actions and social media posts of their children in order to ensure they do not speak or act against the state. Their age will not insulate them state action. It is, therefore, advisable for parents to take corrective measures at home lest they emotionally suffer on account of their children sent to jail—and exhaust their energy and money to have them liberated from the state’s shackles.
It would seem parents in BJP-ruled states have far more to worry about their children than those living where the Opposition is in power. Disha belongs to Karnataka, as does Amulya Leona. Faruqui was arrested in Madhya Pradesh. Both these states are ruled by the BJP, as is Uttar Pradesh, where, too, many anti-CAA protestors were arrested. The central government controls the police in Delhi, where a clutch of young citizens have been booked, as they also have been in Assam, which the BJP reigns. This aspect the voters of four states—West Bengal, Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu—ought to remember when they elect their new Assemblies in the next few months, for the politics around Modi’s idea of New India threatens to disrupt families.
The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.