Youth action throughout history has shaken the status quo. In recent times, young people have been the heart of citizen mobilisations across the world — against authoritarian regimes in the Arab world and Chile, global finance and corporate impunity in the Occupy movement, racism in the US and elsewhere, mining and pipeline projects in North and South America, and the climate crisis with networks like Fridays for Future. In India, they have mobilised against communalism and religious hatred, abrogation of democratic rights by the state, and environmental violations.
In all these cases, there is state backlash, often siding with powerful corporate interests. And in this, it has ample support from a pliant media and reactionary forces aligned with it or forming its base.
Environmentalist youth across India have legitimately supported the ongoing farmers’ movement, recognising the intricate connections between environmental, social, economic issues. Now, the government has used the violence that marked one day of the farmers’ movement (which the farmers’ coalition, even if not directly responsible, has denounced and apologised for) as an excuse to defame this multi-pronged movement.
At the centre of the controversy is a “toolkit” and an exhortation to “action” that were contained in a tweet by climate activist Greta Thunberg. What does this call to action contain? It asks supporters of the farmers’ movement to take up Twitter storms, physical actions wherever relevant, solidarity messages, and so on.
Delhi’s Special Commissioner of Police reportedly believes that: “If you go by the unfolding of events, including the violence of January 26, it reveals a copycat execution of the action plan.” If indeed he did say this, it is a stretch of the imagination that would make a rubber band blush. Any call for protests, digital and physical, and a toolkit that lists out such actions, cannot be automatically assumed to be a call for violence. The actions recommended are a time-honoured part of non-violent dissent for centuries, including Gandhi’s during India’s independence struggle and Martin Luther King’s in the black rights movement in the US. All political parties have at some point been out on the streets protesting, blocking roads, doing gheraos and dharnas, to voice their dissent. Many in the current government were on the streets in the India Against Corruption movement. The right to dissent non-violently, including physically, is a fundamental part of democracy. The Supreme Court and many high courts have upheld this in many judgments. Toolkits, for all the official and media bluster, are not weapons of mass destruction!
Heavy-handed state actions are an attempt to scare dissenters, create a “chilling effect”. Over the last few years, the state has used laws like UAPA arbitrarily and spitefully, or tried to defame movements by linking them to “anti-national” or “terrorist” elements like “Maoists” or “Khalistanis”, and now the Prime Minister’s coinage, “andolanjeevis”. This is an easy but illegitimate way to defame entirely legitimate citizens’ movements acting within the bounds of India’s Constitution.
These are also deliberate diversions from issues of substance. Recently, young people have been vocal on environmental issues, pointing to the folly of government decisions allowing mining, industrialisation, expressways through ecologically-fragile areas, and its inadequate attention to air and water pollution that kills or maims millions. Every political party has in its manifesto or other documents admitted the seriousness of the environmental (including the climate) crisis. And yet, here is what a news site close to the current dispensation, which attacked young environmentalists, is saying: “India cannot afford to pay heed to environmental concerns… cannot afford the lack of sustainability and high production costs of currently available sources of sustainable energy, and also hope to raise 50 million people out of extreme poverty. India also has the fifth highest coal reserves in the world, which should be utilised for the development of India, not discarded in favour of renewable energy.”
Apart from factual distortions (renewable energy worldwide is now cheaper than fossil fuels if full costs are integrated), does this contradict the environmental concern shown by the BJP as the party in power? On paper, yes. In actuality, no. This government’s actions over the last 6-7 years have shown it to be least concerned about the massive loss of livelihoods, hunger and malnutrition, displacement and other impacts caused by environmental damage. The grossly unscientific draft EIA notification of mid-2020 and the 2021 Budget exemplify this. In decisions relating to projects of several big corporations, environmental laws have been blatantly bypassed. Having inherited a legacy of unsustainable “development” from the Congress, the BJP is taking it to new depths. Crony capitalism continues to rear its ugly, undemocratic, corrupt, head.
In a “business-as-usual” scenario, today’s youth will inherit a world with all rivers and lakes polluted or drained out, air in cities not fit to breathe, no prospects for satisfactory and dignified livelihoods (given the “jobless growth” that India has witnessed for over two decades), so-called “natural” disasters waiting for them at every turn, and complete subservience to the diktats of powerful corporations and the state. Why should they not protest? They have every right to do so, and if activists abroad support them, this is not evidence that there is an international conspiracy, or that anything is threatening India’s security. Indeed, the real anti-national here is a government that undermines the country’s ecological present and future, and the democratic rights of its citizens.
The writer is with Kalpavriksh, an environment research and advocacy group in Pune. Views are personal