If there is one emotion that has predominantly marked the social and psychological landscape of middle and upper middle-class India over the last four years, it has been fear. -- Fear of speaking up and speaking out, fear of running afoul of the powers that be, fear of consequences.
The outcome of the general elections of 2014, in many ways, birthed that fear. Many who had been speaking loudly and indignantly against the social and political ills that bedevil India, suddenly fell silent as a new dispensation took the reins of government. Apprehension settled like a miasma on many who value India’s secular and pluralistic traditions and those who voiced their sense of alarm and deep disagreement with the ethos and ways of the new government found themselves being shushed by friends and loved ones and told to keep their heads low and stay out of trouble.
It was almost reminiscent of Gabbar Singh’s dialogue in the movie ‘Sholay’, “Yahan se pachas pachas kos door gaon mein ... jab bachcha raat ko rota hai, toh maa kehti hai bete so ja ... so ja nahi toh Gabbar Singh aa jayega.” (“Even in a village fifty kilometers from here ... when a child cries at night, the mother says sleep my son ... sleep or else Gabbar Singh will come.”)
The fear, it seemed, first infected India’s role models and opinion makers – its film stars, sports icons and media personalities. Many of them, known for their free and frank critiques of the previous government, now lined up at the door of the new occupant of the highest office in the land to present their credentials (some would say, pledge their fealty.) Many proceeded to endorse the new dispensation’s schemes and programmes.
The fear was not unfounded. Aamir Khan, not just the darling of Bollywod but also the new brand ambassador for social change apropos ‘Satyameva Jayate’ was suddenly declared ‘anti-national’ and lost brand ambassadorship for Snapdeal for daring to criticize the growing climate of communalization in India. Strike one, as they say, and the rest will fall in line.
The fear spread outwards rapidly, and in just a matter of months, huge swathes of middle and upper class India decided it was better to keep quiet and not risk trouble – whether at the hands of the rapidly burgeoning internet ‘troll army’, or the supporters of Narendra Modi who now seemed to take every criticism of the Prime Minister more and more personally, or at the hands of the custodians of the law, so-called.
But then something began to shift. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it began, (some would say it was in 2015-2016 with the students’ protest at the Film and Television Institute of India against the appointment of their new director) but the fear that had chilled the hearts of so many who were middle aged and older, lost its power on many of the younger generation who now began to band together and give expression to the voices of those wanted to speak out but could not quite find the courage to do so.
The last four years have seen the rise of a brand new crop of thought leaders and opinion makers across the country who have not held back from speaking their mind or criticizing what they feel is wrong with the government, despite strong opposition and pushback. As a student and teacher of social psychology and someone who works to counter and end bullying in schools, I am intrigued by those who have the ability to stand up to negative societal and peer pressure.
In an endeavor to understand the roots of the courage of some of these young people, I interviewed Dhruv Rathee, who has been called “the Ravish Kumar of the internet.” The comparison is not misplaced. The young You-Tuber has 5.7 lakh subscribers to his political commentary channel and has become a major shaper of political opinion in the Indian social media space.
The first thing that strikes you about the 23-year old is his equanimity and ever-present smile. For someone who provides regular, incisive and hard-hitting commentary on the most explosive issues in Indian politics today, Dhruv has a remarkably calm demeanour. One could even call it fearless.
Dhruv, what inspired you to first start making your videos?
I made my first video in April 2016. That was the first time I showed my face on video. That video (“Reply to Delhi Boy”) was a response to a rant by one of those propaganda sites where a guy was raging against Kejriwal and praising Modi, and I felt that whatever he was saying was totally wrong. So, I made a video response with point-by-point and line-by-line rebuttals that countered him. The video got 30,000 views and I realized that people wanted to hear what I had to say. By the time I had made the next 10 to 15 videos, my viewership went through the roof and I realized there was no turning back.
In a day and age when many are rather afraid of raising their voices against the government and its policies, where do you get your courage from?
From telling the truth, I suppose.
But most people are afraid that they will get attacked if they speak too much truth nowadays.
I don’t think it’s even a fear of being attacked physically as much as it is a fear of being mocked and abused. Most people are afraid that if they speak up, then they will not be accepted anymore in society. That is the primary fear for most people. It’s similar to when you go against something that your family says, it might make you feel embarrassed. But I am happy to say that over the last few years, that has changed a lot.
In what way has it changed?
Back in 2016 when I first started, my videos used to get an equal number of likes and dislikes. But now it has come to the point where there are 95% Likes and 5% Dislikes.
That’s a huge shift!
Minds have changed. Even though the mainstream media has tried very hard to bury the truth, other voices have come out, thanks primarily to the opportunities that social media provides.
What were you like when you were in school? Were you the outspoken rebel even then?
(Laughs) Hardly! I was not the person who would speak up, much less protest against anything. In school I wanted to be as much part of the crowd as possible.
What do you feel a young person or any an ordinary citizen for that matter can do, to stem the rising tide of hate and bigotry and fake news?
Young people in particular can encourage their families and friends and others in their close circles to focus on the facts and think critically, instead of blindly believing fake WhatsApp forwards and other propaganda messages. If everyone can do that in their sphere of influence, on the whole I believe it will make a huge impact.
Your most recent videos have earned you a fair amount of flak with threats of FIRs and arrests. Do you have days when your courage sinks?
Not till now, not as yet. As long as I am telling the truth, no one can harm me. I get my courage from my knowledge that I speak the truth.
And you don’t feel scared at all?
Why would I feel scared if I’m speaking the truth?
Journalist Gauri Lankesh’s murder scared a lot of people. Did that fear ever touch you?
(After a long pause) I think it only motivated people to speak up more. Because when the voices of opposition are silenced, more people than ever feel the tendency to speak up. People when they are told not to do something, tend to do the exact opposite. It’s human nature.
What advice would you give someone who says, “I try to share the facts with friends who are what might be called bhakts but they absolutely refuse to listen to me”?
Change is a slow process. It won’t happen with one video or with one telling of a truth. One intervention won’t change their mind. Any kind of change takes a lot of time and those who want to change things need to just keep at it. Even with my videos, it wasn’t one video that changed people, it was several. It was a slow process. Under my latest videos, people post comments like, “Dhruv, I used to hate you in the beginning but over time I understood that you were right.” So it takes time.
Let’s say you were given the opportunity to address the nation in a 15 minute TV broadcast that was watched by every person in India. What would you tell everyone?
I would tell people that a lot of problems in our society come from blind belief. In our culture we are taught to obey our elders and teachers without question. It’s primarily because of this way of living that there are so many blind bhakts everywhere!
And you don’t just see it with politicians, you see it with sportspersons, you see it with Bollywood actors. People always look to others for inspiration. That’s not a bad thing as such but people tend to end up worshipping their role models and treating them as gods! That’s really wrong. I would advise everyone to think for themselves. No one should dictate to you what you should be thinking. And once everyone starts thinking for themselves, then the ideals of liberalism, freedom and individualism will really take root in our society.
We shouldn’t borrow others’ opinions simply because they happen to be older or more popular. In fact, whenever I hear a talk on a certain topic and someone asks the speaker a question, I pause that video and think of what my answer to that question would be. And once I have formulated my own answer, then I listen to their answers and see if our thoughts match or not.
Having said that, do you have a role model?
I do. But just because someone is a role model does not mean I will emulate everything about that person. People are not black and white. Everyone has good qualities and bad qualities and I try and see the good qualities in each person. For example, I feel inspired by Mahatma Gandhi a lot especially his message and life of truth and non-violence inspire me. I was inspired by his famous, “Be the change you want to see”. I read his autobiography too. It’s not that I worship him but he has qualities I deeply admire.
Another person I admire a lot is Raja Ram Mohan Roy who brought about social reform at a time when everyone was ‘dissing’ him. At that time, Sati was as common as burning firecrackers is today and he changed all that. I would say he is pretty much what “anti-nationals” are today. If he was around today, he would definitely be branded an anti-national. So would Bhagat Singh, who was a communist to boot.
For that matter, even Modi has some good qualities. He is a very powerful communicator and can really influence people when he speaks. That is something we can learn from. Although I don’t think that he thinks for himself. He says what his speechwriter gives him. There’s no other explanation for why he makes the mistakes he does. For example, misspelling “strength’. Another time instead of saying “Mrs”, he said “M.R.S”. These mistakes only happen if you rote learn a speech. He is not someone who can think for himself.
What did you think about his book, “Exam Warriors”?
I have never read it. I’m pretty sure Modi didn’t write it himself.
Do you see a role for yourself in active politics?
Not directly. I am more of an influencer. Perhaps if I have a lot more followers then politicians will listen to me. I will support certain political parties only if they agree to do what I ask them to do.
Is there anything else you feel strongly about?
I feel strongly about the subject of nationalism. I don’t believe nationalism is something you should worship and be proud of. There are countries where nationalism is frowned upon. It is seen as an evil. Nationalism is what gave rise to Hitler. The first Chancellor of Germany said that nationalism is something we should eradicate from society because that is what led to the world wars. But in India people are so proud to be nationalistic.
Any final thoughts?
This might be off the topic, but there is one set of people I feel particularly inspired by, people who lived in 15th and 16th century Europe when the Age of Enlightenment started. Those people were the first to say that we should build cities that everyone wants to live in, beautiful cities. It started in Italy, I think. That’s why you see European cities that are beautiful in their entirety. It’s not just historical monuments that are great or grand. You don’t see that in India. There’s the Taj Mahal, there’s Qutub Minar but the rest of the city is not beautiful. I think we need to learn from the Europeans.
Do you think we can still pull that off, at this point, in India?
If people think of the collective good instead of just thinking about their own private benefit, then why not? We need a mix of both individualism and collectivism. It’s good to be individualistic as long as it’s within the broader framework of what is good for society as a whole. Unfortunately in India we are completely the opposite. When it comes to forming our own opinions, we look at other people, but when it comes to doing something for society at large, we end up thinking only about ourselves.
I am finishing my Masters’ in Renewable Energy. I now want to study the European political system and how the economy works and try and understand what Europe did to develop as much as they have in just 40 years. In the 1940s when India became independent, the European cities were completely devastated. Obviously they did something in these 50 years that has helped them to come out on top as they have. And I want to understand what that is.