On a pleasant day in February, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his arms folded across his vaunted chest, paced slowly on a red carpet on the front lawns of Hyderabad House in New Delhi, waiting for President Donald Trump’s motorcade to arrive. The butterfly-shaped palace, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and completed in 1928, was once a princely mansion belonging to Mir Osman Ali Khan, the last Nizam of Hyderabad. Nowadays the Indian government hosts glitzy diplomatic banquets here, amid the majestic courtyards, the marble fireplaces and fountains.
When the two men met to give a press conference, Trump read from the teleprompter: “This has been a very special visit. Unforgettable… and extraordinary.” He praised India’s democracy: the shared tradition of democratic institutions, rule of law, constitution, et cetera, as Modi beamed.
Just a few miles away from this scene, the news began to filter in: Riots had broken out in the northeast of the city. Initially the violence appeared to be related to a protest against the controversial citizenship act, passed last December, granting citizenship to illegal migrants to India from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan—but excluding followers of Islam. By the end of the day a darker picture had emerged: the violence was itself religious in nature.
Trump left that night, expressing awe and admiration about his maiden visit to India—“India gives hope to all of humanity”—and for the next three days and nights, Delhi’s streets turned into a battleground. When the dust settled, 53 were dead, most of them Muslims. Some of the dead were fished out of drains; some had been shot, burnt, stabbed, cut open.
On a fine evening in January in Bombay I visited a dive bar I like; custom was slow and Mister A., the doorman, had some time on his hands. He rested one elbow on a wooden shelf that held a few blackened stainless-steel ashtrays. Evening walkers sashayed along the narrow cobblestone road facing the bar. Mister A. studied the scene for a while, chipping in small talk that grew warmer as it turned to politics; he got fired up, rushing to empty all of his thoughts as if a dam inside him had broken.
“Why should these things come as a shock, baba? Tell me, why? This government has been gaslighting everyone with false hopes of prosperity since the day Modi became prime minister. Look at the state of the economy, look at our young people, they are all jobless, with nothing to do with their lives. Their faces look sad and sunken. And they are killing themselves…the farmers are killing themselves…India is becoming the suicide capital of the world!”
“The home minister of India calls Muslims termites… This government doesn’t want this country to prosper, they don’t want to give jobs to our children, everything is a lie… everything was a lie since the first day. They want to burn this country with this Hindu-Muslim thing. Today it is citizenship, tomorrow it will be something else. There is so much hatred in this country today… it will lead to something, hain na? Aise gayab to nahi ho jayega sab kuch, kyun? The hatred won’t just vanish in thin air, would it?”
“India is this… India is that… India will become a superpower. How? Just how? By killing each other?”
“I’m afraid to think of what would come next,” Mister A. said.
Cool sea breeze gushed into the city and entered the alleys and lanes, and the sound of rock ‘n roll poured from the bar. We shook hands.
In the winter of 1992, Hindu nationalism had captured the imagination of the young men of Mister A.’s generation. They too had climbed to the top of a mosque, the Babri Masjid in the holy city of Ayodhya, planted the saffron flag, a symbol of Hindu nationalism, and then proceeded to demolish the mosque—with sickles, stones, bricks, bare hands—an act of violence that ricocheted across the country, leading to widespread religious riots. From the rubble of that mosque emerged a renewed Bharatiya Janata Party, India’s present ruling party.
Photographs of the Delhi riots at the time of Trump’s visit showed groups of young men bearing stones, wooden sticks and iron rods, wearing torn slippers, cheap leather shoes, bright yellow Nikes: out on the streets to “kill each other,” realizing the fears Mister A. had expressed to me only weeks before. Some of the rioters climbed atop the minaret of a mosque in a poor neighbourhood and replaced the Islamic crescent with a saffron flag.
More than half of India’s population is under the age of 25. Economists have called this phenomenon a “demographic dividend,” the idea being that a young labor force is capable of working magic on a nation’s destiny: a jump to prosperity, like that experienced by Japan, China, Taiwan and South Korea in the latter half of the 20th century.
At the turn of the century it appeared that the “demographic dividend” was India’s to claim. Now, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund trumpeted, it is India’s turn, India is next, India has arrived.
Those were the wonder years. Rapid economic growth pushed up incomes and hopes after years of gloom and poverty; a whole generation came of age believing that free market capitalism would liberate them. Not the city-bred, well-educated, chauffeured-around little brown sepoys who already had it all; free markets would liberate the millions of disadvantaged youths in India’s small towns and villages. For the first time in the history of independent India, hundreds of millions of young people from poor and lower middle class families began to think that a prosperous future awaited them in India’s modernising cities.
Imagine that the year is 2005 in a nondescript town full of potholed narrow roads, crumbling low buildings, thick smoke from coal cooking-fires and the occasional whiff of garbage from open drains. School is about to end, but the English language teacher is reading out a scene from Julius Caesar. But you don’t want to hear about Julius Caesar. A better king has arrived in town: Microsoft Internet Explorer, and it is offering the whole fucking world to you, not just leadership lessons from ancient Rome by way of Elizabethan England.
The internet informed your teenage mind that the world was changing, that India was changing, its cities were changing. Who were those mysterious creatures called “software engineers,” who were powering India’s growth story, which was being realised in its big cities: Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, Chennai? The cities offered a breathtaking escape route to millions of young people who’d grown up without access to opportunities: a vision of lights, neon billboards, traffic, tall glass buildings that instantly erased memories of potholed roads and open drains. For them, the chaos was like an orchestra.
Everybody was saying that India would become the next China. And for a while, this seemed possible. India was surging ahead, selling itself as a blockbuster market to global investors.
Rapid economic growth lifted millions out of poverty, created a robust middle class, birthed a multiplicity of Chinese-style special economic zones, even sent a lunar orbiter to the moon. A churning began: people began moving from villages to cities. Farms were sold, transformed into billions of dollars’ worth of real estate. Income inequality increased but that was okay, it was only natural, it would flatten out as the economy boomed even more.
It was a magical time: You could switch on your TV and see the ace British Formula 1 driver David Coulthard speed away in his car on the newly built sea link, a magnificent cable-stayed bridge over the Arabian Sea in Bombay.
In October 2010, The Economist predicted in a flashy cover story that India’s growth would outpace China’s. Everybody cheered: politicians, economists and the country’s youth, the foot soldiers who would power this growth. But within a couple of years hope was turning into gloom as the economy slowed. In the runup to parliamentary elections in 2014, Narendra Modi—the three-term Hindu nationalist chief minister of Gujarat, one of India’s richer states—saw his opportunity. He sold himself as a muscular messiah who would bring the once-certain economic prosperity to pass, as his lieutenants spewed religious hatred in a bid to polarise Hindus against Muslims.
Modi’s success was spectacular. An estimated 150 million first time voters helped catapult him to victory. And India’s youth weren’t the only ones convinced that he would make India an economic superpower; he also succeeded in fooling a cabal of public intellectuals, who argued that he deserved a chance. They papered over Modi’s controversial past in Gujarat, where he had been accused of abetting anti-Muslim riots in 2002. Millions of Indians deeply believed that the boom years would be back; that demography is destiny.
But it was a mirage, and we know it now. India’s economy is slowing down. According to a government report leaked in January 2019, unemployment in India had risen by 2017-18 to a 45-year high of about 6.2 percent. (Since the coronavirus crisis hit, the number is currently estimated to be above 23%.)
All the growth of those boom years was not enough to lift everyone; it left untouched millions of miserable young people. Their dreams are broken, and so is their future; a toxic frustration has overtaken them. Many are depressed, and there have been many suicides. Some have gone back home from the city. And they are angry, but so far they are not expressing it in the manner of the youth movements demanding economic justice in Greece in 2010, in the US in 2011, in Spain in 2012, or in Chile and France in 2019.
This has puzzled textbook economists, sociologists and even some journalists who ask, “Why aren’t India’s youth protesting unemployment?” These questions fail to comprehend some of the underlying causes of the protests against the citizenship bill, which Mahesh Vyas, managing director of Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, addressed succinctly in January.
The angst against the new citizenship law and against the growing perception of a government machinery being pitched against young students in campuses is headed to soon meet a severe lack of jobs in the organised sector. This confluence of anger in the youth, an anger that has been vitiated as they seem to be pitched one against another, with a corporate sector that closes its doors to them, will give us the first screenplay of the demographic disaster that India may have created for itself.
Will millions of young people remain unemployed or in chronic underemployment for the rest of their working lives? So there won’t be any dividend? Hard luck India, you won’t become rich.
What happens when demography is revealed to be not destiny, but disaster?
Hindu nationalism continued to bubble up in India in the years after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. This is a deeply familiar historical pattern, repeated in the Middle East and the US, in Europe and in Latin America: again and again, all over the world, young men with no prospects, excluded from any kind of gainful employment, have proved to be the perfect recruits for violent right-wing extremism. In the case of India the phenomenon is well documented—for example in anthropologist Thomas Blom Hansen’s 2001 book Wages of Violence, a detailed account of the marginalization of the “semi-educated and underemployed” young men who “found themselves in the almost classical condition of harboring rising, but unfulfilled expectations, their social mobility blocked by what seemed an impenetrable and complacent political establishment.”
Wages of Violence painstakingly investigates the participation of unemployed Hindu youths of the lower middle classes in the anti-Muslim riots that rocked Bombay in the early 1990s. Hansen personally witnessed “many young men [standing] on the roof tops, with saffron flags [as] columns of smoke rose from multiple fires in the city.”
Instead of putting unemployed youth to work in factories and cubicles, as he promised, Modi is playing with their lives. What the prime minister doesn’t understand is that the promise of prosperity is not merely an election gimmick. These young people are the orphans of free market capitalism, and if Modi does not deliver on his promises to them, they will set fire to the streets in their own ways and at a time of their choosing.
In February, a few days before I left Bombay, I returned to the bar. Mister A. flashed a big smile when he saw me. He apologised for his heated monologue from our last conversation. I said it was okay.
We got to talking about the wonder years, and the hope and optimism of that time.
“I don’t think that time will ever come back now. It is all gone,” Mister A. said.