I suppose it is pointless to ask who Disha Ravi is. Or what is the toolkit for which she’s in trouble. Instead, the question really is whether the Disha Ravi phenomenon is as innocent as it seems to some or as sinister as it sounds to others?
Is it just about youthful idealism and healthy dissent? Or is it part of a global conspiracy to defame and destabilise India? Coming to the infamous toolkit, does one of its objectives, “Disrupt ‘yoga & chai’ image of India in general” mean much more than what meets the eye? Do “yoga & chai” actually stand for Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Prime Minister Narendra Modi?
I hesitate to jump to quick conclusions because I suspect we shall never know conclusively. Moreover, a part of me is always 21 or 22 years old. Or, to put it even more strikingly in the words of a famous Bryan Adams’s number, “18 till I die”.
That is because 18-21 is the average age of every new batch of undergraduate/postgraduate students joining our universities. During my nearly 40 years of teaching such students, what has never failed to strike me in a fresh batch is the spark of some idealism, the desire to fight for a bigger cause, or simply the urge to make the world a better place.
A commitment to justice and equality is what our youth have in common with those in the more advanced countries of the world. Hence, the natural bonding between these two groups of young change makers. Especially in this day and age of virtual communities, which can be more closely bonded than real neighbourhoods. It is easier to find common cause on the Internet and social media than it is to organise youth in your own locality, city or state.
The temptation of easy activism with maximum impact, not to speak of rewards, is rampant. The metamorphosis of young idealists into activists is only to be expected, but, alas, it is not always innocuous or normal. There is an elaborate mechanism of spotting, recruiting, indoctrinating, training, deploying, and incentivising.
Gradually, the novice is both radicalised and professionalised into becoming what our Prime Minister called ‘andolan jeevi’. The phrase, although somewhat facetious, if controversial, has a double meaning. It can signify those who live to protest and those for whom protest is a livelihood. That is, professional protestors or paid protestors. No wonder, there are pictures in circulation on social media of protestors protesting because they were not paid as promised to protest.
The recruitment of activists is an outcome of carefully chosen criteria, such as caste, community, social background, gender, looks, and of course individual familial or communal sensitivity or vulnerability. Unfortunately, from my experience at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, what is sadder is the betrayal of ideals, the hard and calculating cynicism, and the sometimes sorry end that some of these campaigners come to. Several of them trade their idealism for calculated social, political or even monetary considerations.
My worry is that instant fame, promoted stardom, and fake heroism can be all too attractive baits to trap and scam the youth. For every Disha Ravi who has made international headlines, there are many who lose precious time and best years of their youth in futile or foolish pursuits. Trapped in false narratives and fake ideologies, instead of acquiring the competence, education, or skills to contribute something meaningful to the world as well as earn decent and honest living for themselves, they end up with little to show for their wasted years.
This brings us to the role of the state, which needs to distinguish between real threats to the nation and commonplace rebelliousness. Of course, there is a grey area in between. In fact, even known agitators, promoted or sponsored though by national or international networks, need not be targeted or suppressed ham-handedly or indiscriminately.
Arresting all and sundry on charges as serious as sedition will only boomerang. Not only will it make such malcontents overnight sensations, it will also bring disrepute to our laws and enforcement agencies. While it is important not to play into the hands of those who are maligning Indian democracy abroad, it is also vital not to encourage those who would be happy living in an authoritarian state simply because the authorities happen to be on their side.
What might be more effective is to put into the public domain information, following meticulous investigation, about who these hidden persuaders are. Exposing their power as well as the proven collusion between them and the activists they sponsor will better discredit both. In addition, it will deflect blame from the state or its agencies for unnecessary and excessive force to curb protests.
To come back to Disha, where will she be five years from now? If our experience of fly-by-night heroes or sheroes is anything to go by, she too will disappear from public memory. Unless her passion for change is matched by knowledge and perseverance. It is not that easy fame and cheap publicity are not attractive. But they have to be backed up with real accomplishments and contributions to the world. On my part, I am happy that she has been released from police custody. I hope this proves to be a positive lesson for her and other youth activists.
Director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. Views are personal