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Could gang-rape protests mark beginning of an age of activism for India?

India’s youth bulge and its disillusionment with political leaders may have helped drive recent post-rape protests and an anticorruption movement. But it’s not clear the new activism will sustain itself.

The large-scale protests triggered by the gang rape of a 23-year-old student in New Delhi has renewed debate over the rise of a new urban middle-class activism in India.

The strength and longevity of those protests, sustained as they were over several weeks and undeterred by police water cannons and teargas, took many by surprise. Student activism has generally been on the decline since the early 1990s, when the economy was liberalized, and the Indian urban middle-class is notorious for its political apathy.

But the recent protests, coming on top of 2011’s massive anticorruption movement led by Gandhian activist Anna Hazare, has some commentators heralding a new social mobilization – one that is fueled by frustration with what is seen as an increasingly corrupt and out-of-touch political system, energized by a new generation of youth, and aided by both old and new media.

“A generation has come of age that has [previously] been linked to a class and an ethos that was supremely indifferent to anything but their own self-interest – consumption and making money,” says Aditya Nigam, a political scientist and senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. He points out that this generation grew up in the 1990s, a period of economic liberalization that saw rising prosperity but also increased corruption – there have been several high-profile scams in recent years – that was perpetrated with impunity. 

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Demographics are certainly a factor in the recent protests. More Indians are entering the middle class – anywhere between 70 million and 150 million, depending on the definition of middle class  – and more now live in the cities.

They form the spine of support for the Aam Aadmi Party, launched in October by Hazare’s former deputy Arvind Kejriwal. This segment is believed to have contributed to the recent reelection of controversial right-wing leader Narendra Modi, who courted what he called the “neo-middle-class” in the state of Gujarat.

There is a “new force on the Indian political landscape,” wrote a commentator in a leading business daily. “The middle class has sensed that its period of political irrelevance is over, with its numbers growing at a phenomenal pace.”

India’s population is also disproportionately young, a feature that is associated with both increased productivity and social unrest. The median age in India is now 25, while the median age of a national politician is closer to 60 – a generational and cultural gap that has been on display in the past few weeks as political and civic leaders have blamed sexual violence on everything from English education to short skirts.

The generational shift is evident to Arjun Bali, a 42-year-old filmmaker who turned up with his toddler for a women’s rights protest in an upscale neighborhood in Mumbai on New Year’s Day. Mr. Bali said he was no stranger to protests – he had attended many as a college student. “The generation born in the 1980s, they don’t know have the baggage or the fears” from, say, the Emergency, he says, referring to the period in the early 1970s when then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended elections and suppressed civil liberties.

Another young protester, Pallavi Srivastava, personifies that difference. Like generations of middle-class Indians before her, the urban planner left the country to study in the United States in 2003, but unlike her predecessors, she chose to return after eight years because of improved economic opportunities and the chance to be a part of a society in the making. “Things are in flux here,” she says, holding a placard that reads, ‘I pledge to use public transport.’ “There’s a lot of energy, but what this nation is going to be, nobody knows yet.”

Role of the media

The protest she attended was organized throughFacebook. Social media has been instrumental in mobilizing young outrage – Internet penetration is relatively low in India, but the bulk of the 135 million people online are under the age of 35. Still, the old media, especially English television news channels, have also played their part with wall-to-wall coverage: By contrast, a rally Tuesday of more than 1,000 slum-dwellers protesting the demolition of their homes as well as corruption in a government housing plan barely got any coverage. 

In earlier years, Indian television largely presented the public as a mob, says Arvind Rajgopal, a media studies professor at New York University. “There was always this fear of law and order being violated but now the public is assumed to be on the side of the good,” he says.

“There is a simmering sense of injustice that the media is building on,” he adds, empowering “the sense that moral authority lies outside the political institutions.”

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India has a history of effective social movements – the anti-Narmada dam movement of the 1980s, for example – but these have been mass movements dominated by the left.

The new activism isn’t allied to any political party, and whether it will be sustainable or effective without a unifying agenda or without reaching across caste and class barriers remains unclear.

Some have already criticized the recent protests for being incoherent and even displaying an authoritarian impulse – a charge also levied at the Anna Hazare movement.

“Their demands are very basic and undemocratic, they want immediate justice and have no understanding of democratic processes and constitutional requirements,” says Flavia Agnes, a lawyer and veteran women’s right activist with the group Majlis.

Those demands have included punishing rape with castration or the death penalty and fast track courts to try those cases – measures that women’s groups don’t necessarily support. Death penalties may deter reporting of the crime – most rapes go unreported, it is believed – and may cause the rapist to murder the victim, say many women’s activists.  Ms. Agnes also opposes fast track courts, which she says is more likely to lead to “fast track acquittals.”

Only about 25 percent of rape cases resulted in convictions in 2010, and conviction rates were less than 10 percent in some states last year.

“What is needed are nonsensational, small measures,” says Agnes. “Getting women better access to the police station, getting the medical reports done sensitively.”

Potential to be transformative

Still, observers like Nigam believe the new movement has the potential to be transformative, even if it is temporary.  Unlike the upper-caste youth protests of the late 1980s against affirmative action for lower castes in colleges, the present movement is not about “defending privilege” so much as “more general issues of governance and what is generally perceived to be a collapse of the rule of law and mechanisms of justice,” he notes. “The middle class is no homogenous and unchanging entity.”

Even Agnes believes that the protests are largely positive. Her group’s support program for rape victims has gotten new attention and a senior police officer recently called her for ideas to encourage women to walk into his police stations.

Meanwhile, one state party has pledged not to field candidates with rape charges – a third of national legislators have criminal charges against them, including two with rape charges.

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“For some reason, this rape has caught the national imagination,” Agnes says. “If that means the government and police cannot ignore this issue anymore, that’s a good thing.”