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July 14, 2011

The better tomorrow?

The young and the ugly

Over a decade ago, when I was still working in a factory in Chennai making automotive parts, a team of Japanese hibakusha—atomic bomb survivors—came to Chennai. I do not remember now if they had come to India to mark an occasion of some kind. More likely that they were a team of anti-nuclear activists who were going around the world trying to tell anyone who would listen to them—teenagers, school children, people in a shopping mall—that nuclear weapons were not the solution but the problem. My memories of the general details are somewhat hazy. But I remember thinking at the time that their strategy was sound.

There was no point telling adults with their ossified world view that nuclear weapons had to be abolished. They would never listen as long as they had certain inviolate justifications deeply ingrained in their minds. So why not start with the kids? Why not fill those blank slates with some good common sense and hope they remember when they grow up and perhaps reach a position of power or authority. What if one of those Chennai kids became someone powerful like the president of the Congress Party, a yoga guru or the Lok Pal? Maybe this seed of an idea of a nuclear-free world might take root.

One of the stops on the hibakusha road show was a primary school somewhere in Chennai. And there was an interesting report on this trip in the weekend supplement of the Indian Express or the Hindu. (I don’t remember if there were many 7-letter words or not.)

After a presentation on the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they asked the kids if the world needed any nuclear weapons. The kids enthusiastically denounced the idea. Then they asked the kids if we should use them in any circumstance? Of course not, the kids said, not this horrible thing. Not in any situation.

What about Pakistan? asked one of the hibakusha.

“Oh, Pakistan is a special case,” said the primary school children. We can use nuclear weapons on them.

For many years I used to retell that story to friends and family. Usually during Indo-Pak cricket matches or some other situation when the flag-waving jingoism seemed particularly meaningless. How funny, I used to say, that we indoctrinate our young so early.

But in time I have begun to realise that the incident is neither rare, limited to little children nor even particularly funny.

Over the past few years, as I have spent increasing amounts of time on internet forums, social networks and as a journalist whose work is primarily read on the web. A large part of my work involves poking fun at people and institutions. Upset readers and inflamed comments come with the territory. There is almost no topic in India that you can make fun of without leaving someone in some remote emotional or geographical corner of the country enraged.

Go ahead. Try.

So much so that every day we find new reasons to push the scope of humour deeper and deeper into a dull, xenophobic corner that thrives on stereotypes.

(Except maybe Pakistan. Pakistan is open season every season.)

This does not worry me in general. After all, the history of human civilisation is usually one of a reviled few trying to somehow control or redirect the madness of the many.

But what does upset me is the relentless, deep hatred that I see in the educated, cosmopolitan young. Take any contemporary issue that has excited young people recently.

The recent Lok Pal bill comes to mind. At one point it was impossible to criticise the bill in a column or even a social network update without receiving a barrage of—there is no other way to put it—hate. If you disagree with Mr Hazare then this clearly means that you are a stooge of the Congress who is being paid by the Italian empress of the nation.

It was inconceivable for many people that you could be anti-corruption and anti-Lok Pal.

Image: Irfan Intekhab

But look at their profile pictures. Look at their professions. Read their blogs. See what else they talk about. These are young people. Some of them are still in college. Presumably they are literate enough to read and intelligent enough to think.

Yet they are incapable of disagreeing gracefully. They are incapable of reconciling with the fact that another person can have a different set of priorities. You are either with these people. Or you are against them.

Take the example of MF Husain. When the painter passed away recently Rediff carried a series of articles and retrospectives on him.

The comments sections on Rediff’s articles are notorious for the sheer hatred and polarity that resides there. These are not people that disagree with each other. They hate each other.

After Mr Husain’s death the comments section did not disappoint. To one commenter’s request for his remains to be brought back to India, another’s response was: “Those who claim there was nothing in his painting should consider getting nude paintings of their m0the1r and displaying it in public.” (The typo on ‘mother’ presumably to avoid Rediff’s spam detector.)

One of the constants of human existence is the belief that each generation will somehow make things better than the previous one. It seems a central notion to our species that the youth and children of today will take the decisions, make the compromises and ask the questions that their parents and grandparents could not because of their technological, political, cultural or social myopia and illiberalism.

This is why we are fascinated by the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge, the Spanish Inquisition or the Mongol hordes. Because we know that such a thing is impossible today. Because we know that we have evolved from that brutality. Because every successive generation is less brutal and more humane the one before it.

Yet look at the hate on our social networks, websites or under our newspaper columns. Look at the recent data which shows that the female foeticide increases with education or income. Look at the massive involvement of our younger politicians in scams and corruption.

Does this give us any security that the next 60 years will be any better than the last 60?

Let me cite one personal incident that has left me extremely sceptical.

Three or four years ago a good friend visited me in Mumbai. Not only does he have an excellent education but he is also extremely well-travelled and, at that time before economic chaos, spent more than half the year zipping around in private jets. A worldly wise chap if there ever was one.

As usual one topic led to another and we began to speak about the global problem of terror, and the increasing marginalisation of Muslims all over the world and in India. It was a pretty heated discussion which my friend brought to an abrupt close by saying: “Those guys are a problem. Muslims cause problems wherever they go. We are better off if someone would kill all of them.”

Our tomorrow looks awfully, terribly entwined in our yesterday.


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