Angry young Indians: Nikhila Henry on documenting youth unrest, the need for a more humane society

  • Nikhila Henry's book The Ferment documents stories of young people who are protesting against authorities and the circumstances they are forced to be in, across India.

  • I am sure that this phase of youth unrest has introduced a defiant political language to the mainstream, she said.

  • On the subject of mental health among the young, she said that we cannot ask them to pop anti-depressants when the world they inhabit is driving them to depression or death.

Twenty-six-year-old Rohith Vemula, who loved science and believed people were glorious things "made up of star dust", entered the public imagination in several different ways — the story of his difficult days at the University of Hyderabad, his smiling face which became the emblem of a student movement, and his assertion that his birth was his fatal accident.

For many, the introduction to this young man and his ideals was his Facebook posts, which were compiled in a book titled #Caste Is Not a Rumour by Nikhila Henry. Interspersed between his writing is the context Nikhila provides, sensitively and non-intrusively, of his family; of why he wrote about caste; of what made him happy; of his more philosophical, romantic side.

Rohith's death sparked protests and a larger conversation about inequality and oppression on student campuses. It marked the beginning of a new wave of anger and unrest among young people, who were unhappy about different aspects of their country, at a time when India's population was experiencing a 'youth bulge'.

This forms the subject of Nikhila Henry's new book The Ferment, which features stories from across India of young people fighting the powers-that-be — in many cases, the State. "The most basic ideals of the State — nationalism, patriotism, and citizenship — which children grew up absorbing into their lives, was questioned and debunked," she writes. In this conversation with Firstpost, Nikhila discusses the methodology she used to document stories, India's failure to provide a nurturing environment to its young, and the ramifications of student unrest on national politics.

What prompted your inquiry into the subject of youth unrest and protests?

While covering youth agitations I always thought there will be an eruption point for these protests. I believed they would become a mass movement. And when in 2016 protests erupted across the country after Rohith Vemula’s suicide, I felt this phase of students agitations should be documented in narrative journalism. I also felt that student agitations should not be de-linked from the stories of youth, and I tried to figure out what the connecting channels were. Hence the probe and the book — The Ferment.

Did you employ a methodology to collect these stories? Or were you travelling across the country and taking notes?

I traveled across the country, but not aimlessly. I was looking for young people whose lives and movements could help us understand the churning. My work was mostly based on long interviews, observation and research. And I made it a point to revisit the places and people to get a sense of what changed and what did not. For example, when I first visited Maharashtra in 2016, anti-caste agitation led by youth was at its peak; huge rallies snaked across the city and Rohith Vemula’s face was on all hoardings and placards. The next visit was after the demolition of Ambedkar Bhawan, and the next after the violence sponsored by Hindu nationalists at Bhima Koregaon. These frequent visits revealed different tones of the same agitation at different times.

 Angry young Indians: Nikhila Henry on documenting youth unrest, the need for a more humane society

Nikhila Henry. Photograph by Mahesh Buddi

What would you say has caused this outpouring of dissent and discontentment in recent years?

We are given to believe that India is a rising global power which could do much better in the years to come, because close to 50 percent of our population is below the age of 25 years. But on a day-to-day basis, India performs duties of a khap panchayat. Here, communal and caste lynchings take place. It is a place where menstruating women are beaten when they try to enter the Sabarimala temple.

This inherent contradiction in our growth story and our modern existence is being challenged by young people.

And unrest is only the result of the clash of generations.

What do you see this unrest culminating into?

I will leave the specifics to the future. But I am sure that this phase of youth unrest has introduced a defiant political language to the mainstream. I hope it leads to change and justice.

What do you think unites the young people protesting in different parts of India?

Young people in different parts of India feel a sense of restlessness as they face injustices which are raging all around them. There are those whose lives are affected by these injustices, and then there are those who are angry that we have become an unjust society. I think both these groups of people are connected in more ways than they acknowledge — they are uniformly disconnected from our growth story. And they are not happy that the politicians and policy makers are trying to maintain status-quo. These youth have been striving for the opposite — change.

What did your travels teach you about the inequality in India?

In India, the ones leading agitations are the expendable citizens whose lives, death or disappearance do not seem to interest the successive governments. Be it those who are rotting in prisons under UAPA, or those like Najeeb Ahmed, or the hundreds of young men and women in Kashmir who have disappeared. Here lives are not valued.

You've highlighted a few suicides in the book. What is the sort of toll that protest and unrest takes on students’ and young people's mental health?

Most suicides I wrote about were caused by systemic failures which plague our educational institutions. I think mental health is more of a social concern than an individual’s crisis.

We cannot ask our students and young leaders to pop anti-depressants when we know that the world they inhabit is driving them to depression or death.

I think we should be bold enough to write and speak about our collective failure to be a humane and caring society which nurtures our young people.


You've also spoken about the fatigue that follows in the aftermath of protests and movements. Have you witnessed any students movements that have managed to sustain over the years?

It is true that youth movements find it difficult to sustain their fervour. But they have a lasting effect. For instance, the history of Dalit Panthers still informs various anti-caste agitations in the state though the outfit's presence is reduced to naught; even when some of the old rungs have taken a Right-wing turn. The radical Left student agitations of the 60s and 70s still inform politics in Indian campuses. I am sure the agitations of recent times will inform the future agitations too. This is a continuum.

Was being objective in tone a conscious decision you took? How does one maintain such objectivity when telling stories of great injustice?

In a violent land where many fault lines of caste, gender, religion and economic disparities exist, it is difficult to keep one’s cool. Given that, I tried my best to let the stories speak for themselves because the stories were that powerful. They required minimal mediation as their actors were the real narrators. I felt the best way to present youth unrest was to starkly expose the violence our society slyly harbours.

Could you speak about any two interactions with the young people in the book that stayed with you?

It's difficult to pick two out of the many. But, I think walking up a hill in the Manipur University campus to reach an army camp which was located on top of the hill was one instance which stayed with me — how dehumanising must it be for students to walk around that hill? Among others, I also cannot forget a young girl in Maharashtra who rode trains listening to a voice clip of Rohith Vemula, over and over again—she was a 26-year-old who cried every time she spoke of him. As a writer some tears haunt you. And the stark realities of everyday fights are morbid. Not everyone fits into the perfect grace of narrative non-fiction. Some live in the writer's nightmares.

Updated Date: Apr 20, 2019 09:35:16 IST