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Could gang-rape protests mark beginning of an age of activism for India? (+video)

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.

By Correspondent / January 3, 2013

Students shout slogans during a protest against a leader of the ruling Congress party, who was arrested on accusations he raped a woman in a village in the early hours of the morning, in Gauhati, India, Thursday, Jan. 3. Recent post-rape protests have renewed debate over the rise of a new urban middle-class activism in India.

Anupam Nath/AP

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Mumbai, India

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.

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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. 

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.

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