Taming the activist within: Role of Indian society, media and education


Most of us are not stoics yet. Injustice caused to us evokes strong reactions and whenever we feel empowered enough to effect a change in our circumstances, we do. The critical element here is the personal nature of the impact of such an injustice; and this is the key focus which I address in the situations of social movements.

Our country boasts of excellent institutes of higher education. While some of them have demonstrated interest in political and social protests (like JNU, TISS), a wide network of technical and management institutes (like IITs and IIMs, institutes the author comes from) have non-existence of similar movements. This absence of individual and collective action requires a diagnosis.

In my opinion, there are four critical prerequisites for an individual action to happen- awareness about the issue, a personal involvement (physical, emotional or psychological), availability of resources (tangible and intangible) and an encouraging ecosystem wherein the fear of reprisal is low. All these factors when realized togethertranslate into both, a willingness and ability to act. The collective action is not dissimilar and is significantly impacted by the last two factors highlighted above.

In light of this preliminary analysis, a look at the Indian society and specifically the institutions mentioned above (IITs and IIMs) can be revealing to see how these forces emerge (or not!)

Fears of the Third Estate

In my opinion, the issue emanates from a colonial (or even earlier) hangover of the mai-baap culture. There is an inherent adhere to power structures in the Indian society which has a high degree of stickiness. While something like a caste might represent an extreme situation of this stickiness, the present situation is also problematic. It robs an individual of the agency to act, both from due to veneration for the power structures and more importantly from the perspective of creating an ecosystem of fear at an individual and collective level. The ability to challenge the authority gets affected and silence iteratively takes the position of tacit approval to everything the power structures do.

This is further compounded by the class design of the middle classes in a developing nation like ours. The roti-kapda-makan to bijli-sadak-pani to now health-education-employment paradigm shift represents the evolving aspirations of the masses (middle class with all its hue and subcomponents). It is interesting that in this context, education and employment is read together. There is an inherent teleological logic to such an education, one in which anything that disrupts the material end is undesirable. This is a return on investment kind of thinking wherein the focus is on securing of the future, especially in middle class aspiration havens such as IITs and IIMs. In such a schema, there is limited scope to develop a social conscience (I do not say it is not possible but just that it becomes difficult to do so).

Failure of the Fourth Estate

There is a two-fold issue when we talk about the conventional media.

The first deals with language. Language is rarely neutral and some words are value-laden. To take an international example here, the movement of Arab communities to displace existing autocracies and walk towards democracy was labelled, “Arab Uprising”; a moment of silent contemplation makes one realize that the word “uprising” typically invokes a negative emotion. Seemingly innocent acts like these play a role in psychological priming of feelings of negativity against similar collective actions.

Secondly, in the times of sensationalism in media, news has to be eventful to receive attention and screen time. This basic characteristic of the media is exclusionary of everything that is not eventful. Thus, the silent march of farmers or a 100+ day hunger strike will get limited to no attention but any police action at India Gate will get extensive coverage. This disproportionate attention on violence amongst other things potentially corrupts the understanding of social movements for the precepting minds of the youth. This has a detrimental impact on the willingness to even attempt to participate in any movement.

While talking about conventional media, I think it is pertinent to mention one particular pernicious effect of social media on willingness to participate in such movements. Till now, whenever participation has been referred to, it has the specific connotation of developing a collective of bodies in a physical space. Social media however allows “participation” through means of likes, upvotes or comments and gives us a false psychological and moral comfort that we have done the right thing. The difference in impact is not hard to realize; imagine receiving personal messages on Facebook by fifty people insulting you versus fifty people actually standing in front of you and insulting you- the latter case, the physical presence, is profoundly more impactful.

Fallibility of education institutes

All of this brings us to the fallibility of education institutes. The external environment as described above already negatively impacts the perception of social movements. Education could have had a role to play in reversing that but it fails from the very beginning.

In our formative younger years, through iterative use of rewards and punishments, we are made to realize that discipline and following orders is a moral virtue and respecting authority always is the right things to do. Priming done at that age is difficult to undo for most people later in life and vestiges of the same remain.

This initial development continues throughout the school years for most students. Higher education is definitely a period of time when the individual is mature enough to deal contrarian ideas and deal with them intelligently.

However, the structure of pedagogy of some of the higher education institutions (described above) has limited coursework to provide the initial exposure to the correct meaning of social movements and the need for them. Similarly, there is limited or no practical training wherein students can engage with less privileged communities and try and understand their issues, so that they might be able empathize and potentially be moved to act.

The lack of top down exposure is coupled with two worrisome additions. Firstly, the parameters of success are teleological and while ethics are emphasized, the bigger picture is missed out upon. As a friend who studied Civil Engineering from one of the IITs commented, “IIT taught me how to construct a reservoir and dam, but never taught me what its human or environmental impacts were”; my contention is that even if that was taught, it would be not a felt experience but a tale of numbers without a human face or expression.

Secondly, the curriculum is made particularly intense. This definitely is useful from the subject matter perspective but it leaves precarious little time for reflection for an individual to place their learning in the larger context of the world. In the constant focus on the “how”, the “why” and “why not” are mostly lost.

Fastidious future

In my opinion, one aspect of the solution lies in the problem itself. The solution has to start with the first step articulated above, awareness, with mechanisms to ensure that other necessary conditions are met. Definitely, changing the ecosystem in which reprisal is limited or changing middle class sensibilities will take time but awareness can be positively impacted fairly quickly.

The solution derives itself from three existing mechanisms which suggest that arguments of infeasibility should be taken with more than a pinch of salt. Nations like Israel have compulsory military conscription, in India itself medical students taken rural stints post their MBBS and in IITs and IIMs, students undertake compulsory curricula enforced corporate internships and/or trainings. In light of these existing developments, my suggestion is to set up a compulsory rural immersion program for students of centrally funded institutes, starting with the IITs and IIMs. (It should be added that the author’s intent is not to provide an extensive model of the solution but merely suggest a direction)

The program need not be an engagement beyond a period of two to three weeks nor focused on developing a solution. The intent should be awareness and exposure only. Maybe the next day of their return from such a program or maybe a few years later, the other three conditions mentioned above will also be favorable, and we will have another activist, a much-needed addition. However, without the first step, the other three will not matter much.

As a friend recently told me, “Caste in IIM Ahmedabad is very different from caste in UP hinterlands” – it is time that the understanding of this difference is a lived reality for more students.

Education institutes have to lead the way in this. It has been time enough in India.

Aaditya Agarwal is a graduate from IIT Delhi and is currently a second year student in IIM Ahmedabad


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