Role of the youth in nation-building: Why they must remain incorrigibly optimistic

By Professor Mohammad Sajjad for

The following is the text of a talk that Professor Sajjad was supposed to deliver at a college of B N Mandal University, Madhepura, in Bihar, but was unable to do so due to a very tight schedule, prior commitments elsewhere, and preoccupations of completing courses of semesters and conducting mid-semester examinations of the undergraduate and postgraduate courses here in Aligarh Muslim University.

“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven”. [William Wordsworth]

In the entire human history, youth have always been a crucial demographic segment and change-agents for progress and development. Their contribution in nation-building, therefore, is indispensable. They are not only the leaders of tomorrow but also shapers of the present.

At the moment, India is said to have got highest proportion of youth in its total population. This demographic reality makes it all the more necessary to assess their role in the society. Nandan Nilekani, the co-founder of the Infosys, India’s biggest IT firm, in his wonderful book, Imagining India: Ideas for the New Century (2010), called it “demographic dividend” for new India.

The foundation of a nation, its economy, its ethical and cultural aspects, all depend upon how well the youth is educated, in real sense of the term, and not only in terms of obtaining the piece of paper called degrees and certificates. Moreover, regardless of the disciplines of studies a young mind prefers to specialise in, he or she must also develop a taste for reading and appreciating creative literature in prose and poetry as well as philosophy. Without such readings, it is difficult to protect and promote culture and heritage, constructive values and emotional assets. Thus, merely obtaining degrees in medicine, technology, higher sciences, etc., won’t do. A passion for reading literature is as much necessary for the science graduates as for those studying humanities and liberal arts. The writer, Tabish Khair says that primary reason for the growth of hate-filled fundamentalisms is due to the fact that there is a total refusal to engage with texts and stories in a contemplative, critical and historical manner.

Once this conception of education is accepted, the youth would automatically turn into greatest asset of the nation-building process. Such inquisitive minds would be passionate, strong-willed and motivated, besides being motivator. They have to understand and comprehend the politics, the government, its policy priorities and failures, etc. The local cultures, traditions, the need for social harmony, environmental protection, equitable economic development, reaching all segments of the society, and all these issues need a probing and critical look by the youth.

Allama Iqbal, in his famous poem, “Khitaab Ba Jawaanaan-e-Islam” (Address to the Muslim Youth), in his Baang-e-Dara, said it more clearly. The poet did not mean it for Muslims only. The universality of the appeal is certainly there, which is quite relevant for all, across religions and regions.

Kabhi ae naujawaan Muslim tadabbur bhi kiya tu ne
Woh kya gardoon ttha tu jis ka hai ek toota hua tara

GaNwaa di ham ne jo aslaaf se meeraas payee tthi
Suraiya se zamiN par aasmaaN ne ham ko de maara

Hukumat ka to kya rona ke woh ek aarzi shay tthi
NahiN duniya ke aain-e-musallam se koyee chaarah

Magar woh ilm ke moti, kitaabein apney aaba ki
Jo dekhein un ko Europe meiN to dil hota hai Seepara

In the above-cited poem, the key word is tadabbur (ponder). The youth have to ponder over the issues of pressing concerns today.

The youth need to speak out against the evils of poverty, unemployment, proper health care, equality of opportunities, special protections to those segments who have been left out because of historically ingrained systems and practices of discriminations and subjugations.

The history of the anti-colonial struggle in India suggests that the movement gained strength and momentum after the 1920s only when the youth joined in. From the Swadeshi Movement of 1905-08, the students jumped into it and by the 1920s-30s, the likes of Bhagat Singh, Ashfaqullah, Rajguru, and Sukhdev not only made the supreme sacrifice of their lives but also envisioned a free India which will be socialist, secular and democratic republic. They studied, struggled, spoke out, and wrote. They wrote against the ideologies which discriminated and subjugated the people on the basis of caste, religion, region, language, and every such marks of identity. They celebrated plurality and harmonious co-existence of humanity. They abhorred exploitative and iniquitous socio-economic order. This is how they built the foundations of new India.

At the moment, global capitalist imperialism is deepening the economic divide. This growing inequality is creating social tensions, hatred and violence. Sadly, a very large proportion of the youth are increasingly becoming less critical and less informed in their understanding about the issues of the day. They consume the plethora of information without subjecting these to critical scrutiny and rationality, and without identifying the multi-layered complexities involved in the issues served to them by the self-serving ruling elites. The young minds are becoming victims of motivated propaganda circulated by the powers-that-be. “Unthinking” young minds are dangerous liabilities. Such unthinking young minds would be very detrimental to the national progress. Vigilant minds are most necessary requirement. As the saying goes, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”. This was the daily punch-line of the prestigious English daily of Patna, “The Searchlight”, which closed down in 1986.

A powerful writer of our times, Pankaj Mishra, calls our age as an “age of anger”. Today’s youth lack patience. They are in hurry. They are dying to get rich quick. In this greed, they have become erratically angry, impatient, intolerant, and irrational too. These human beings have been turned into mechanical mindless puppets. Excessive consumerism and hedonism stimulate greed. Such greed and avarice combined with mental and physical laziness are creating huge problems in the society. Such tendencies discourage the youth from becoming a seeker of truth. This age is therefore condemned as an era of “post-truth”, where truth is destroyed and falsehood is paraded as truth. We therefore look at poor and the oppressed as if their poverty and oppression is a making of their own, not because of the cunning, smart oppressors. We blame the victims. We find ways of blaming the raped women, rather than the rapists. We therefore shed away our responsibilities to fight for justice. All this is happening by design, at the behest of the ruling elites across the globe. These dangerous power-players are uncomfortable with thinking and critical minds. They just don’t need thinking citizens.

We need to see through such dangerous games of power-play all around us. They are required to become conscientious and caring for the poor, for deprived, for elderly people, for all the weaker sections.

Let me become self-critical about my own community of teachers. Unfortunately, neither the politics of the teachers’ associations in the universities, nor the student unions are alive to such issues at the moment. The teaching, research, and therefore the politics of the campuses too, have largely looked away from the pressing problems of the immediate surroundings. There were, and are, caste-based oppressions, communal ideologies leading to recurrent violence and perpetual hatred, there are huge gaps in economic status, massive exploitation of forests and displacements of the tribal populations by the corporate, just in the name of development, there are atrocities against Dalits and women, at times sanctioned by certain motivated misreading of the religious texts. Ever growing rural distress, about which Phanishwar Nath Renu wrote a lot, no longer shakes us. There are growing crimes and corruption in society and in the structures of governance, not to say of the inter-regional and intra-regional imbalances. For instance, Bihar, for its politically perpetuated backwardness in economy, has been termed by the living socialist thinker, Sachidanand Sinha, as India’s internal colony. The campuses have not spoken out as loudly against all these evils as they should have.

They have not carried out adequate quantum of researches along those lines. Our universities are not producing enough number of public intellectuals. We need intellectuals who can speak truth to power, without fear. We don’t need perverted knowledge-sellers who happily sit at the feet of the sultan. We don’t need a journalism which wags tails behind the establishment. Our democracy needs brave practitioners of anti-establishment politics. These days, we are failing on these counts each moment.

As a result of all such professional failures of the campuses, the youth in our times don’t have role models to look up to, anymore. In this vacuum, the gangsters, the criminals, and the religious extremists have become their role models. This is a very sorry state of affairs. The humanity is exposed to unprecedented dangers.

These contrasts and ugly scenarios have been there around us since long. In the 1920s the youth had Bhagat Singh as their role model, in the 1940s, they had Jawaharlal Nehru, in the 1960s and 70s they had Jaya Prakash Narayan (1902-79) and Ram Manohar Lohia (1910-67), besides some of the self-less Left progressives. They had authority of knowledge and conviction of truth. They spoke like prophets, and therefore they were appreciated and admired even by their sharpest critics. This was reflected in our popular Hindi cinema as well. The movie-watchers loved the characters of angry young men fighting for justice.

In the subsequent decades, cynicism set in and the gangsters began to emerge as role models. Even in the movies, at times, we now applaud the villains and their power to prevail upon the good. Quite saddening, indeed!

Once again going back to Nandan Nilekani’s observation in his book,
“the opportunity of the global economy has highlighted our internal differences—between the educated elites and the illiterate, the public and private sectors, between the well and the poorly governed, and between those who have access and those who have not”.

This is better put by Ghalib (1797-1869)

Har qadam duri-e-manzil hai numayaaN mujh se
Meri raftaar se bhaagey hai bayabaaN mujh se

Yet, we must not lose hope. Youth must remain incorrigibly optimistic. If our nation has to become a global player, our youth, and their moulders, the teachers, have to come alive to these uncomfortable contrasts and evils.

If we educate, organise and agitate on all such issues, there is no reason why we would lag behind, and why we shall not move ahead in the world. For this, we rest our hope in the educated and thinking youth.
Jai Hind!

The author is Professor, Centre of Advanced Study (CAS) in History, AMU, Aligarh (India).