Enabled by technology, young Indians show what it means to be a citizen

This is the 28th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

What does it mean to be a citizen? I have had reason to think a lot about that term recently, in all its different shades of meaning. At one level, citizenship is a legal status. Our government has tried to sharpen its definition with the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB). At another level, citizenship denotes a package of rights that we possess, and a set of duties we have towards society and our fellow citizens. We saw a heartening demonstration of this deeper, richer kind of citizenship this week.

Young people across the country led protests to defend their shared idea of India, which was under threat from the state. I think of us as an apathetic people, quick to normalise oppression – but millions of Indians rose up this week in a manner that would make our freedom fighters proud. And, surprise surprise, technology and social media played an important role in bringing us together, instead of tearing us apart.

I have written before on these pages about the role that social media has played in dividing society and polarising our discourse. A quick recap: One, innovations like the Facebook ‘like’ button and the Twitter retweet increased the ways in which we could be validated online, one notification at a time. Chasing these dopamine rushes, we began to posture more and more, to get likes and RTs and raise our status in our in-groups. Two, this led to what the legal scholar Cass Sunstein calls group polarisation, as we divided into ideological tribes with firm boundaries. We took comfort in echo chambers, and all discourse was snark, abuse and lies.

Three, the innate bigotry and sexism of our society was validated by the discovery that many others shared these traits, which led to what sociologist Timur Kuran called preference cascades. We could express these feelings openly, instead of being sheepish about them. Our politics became polarised, and the rise of right-wing populism was enabled by social media.

But now, technology has come to the rescue to take us in the opposite direction.

I tear up easily, and I felt waves of emotion this week on reading about the bravery of ordinary citizens on social media. The slender women who saved their male friend from uniformed thugs, shielding him as they held up their fingers in the face of lathis. The Malayalee Hindu girl named Indulekha who went to protest in a hijab as a response to Narendra Modi’s jibe about how you could identify miscreants by their dress. The young girl with the cat meme on her t-shirt who offered a rose to a bashful policeman. It was Gandhianism for the 21st century, against a state as brutal as the one the Mahatma battled.

These protests were spontaneous bottom-up protests, not instigated by any political party – the entire opposition is inept and cowardly – but driven largely by students. In dozens of cities across 24 states, cutting across boundaries of religion and caste and class, the students gathered. This was heartfelt and fearless. Facing up to lathi charges is not posturing. 100,000 people in the streets of our cities is not an echo chamber.

During the Mumbai protests, a 94-year-old freedom fighter was quoted as saying that there were more people in August Kranti Maidan now than when the Quit India Movement was launched in 1942. How can one not be inspired?

The state has fought back. It has fought back with lathis. It has fought back with disinformation. It has the legal monopoly on violence, and more coercive force than the people at large. But coercion only gets you so far. A video that circulated on Twitter showed the frail, 61-year-old historian Ramachandra Guha being dragged away by three burly uniformed cops. But it was Guha who has the power of ideas with him – and the state that is scared. The more it lashes out, the more we smell that fear.

There have been great student uprisings before in India, most notably in 1973-74, which was followed by the imposition of emergency. Students were beaten, politicians and intellectuals went to jail, though there was no internet to shut down then. There is now – but shutting it down won’t work. The blunt tools of censorship and internet shutdowns cannot stop us from connecting to one another. There is a preference cascade in play, to use Kuran’s words, to show that our unity comes not in spite of our diversity but because of it.

I have been cynical for years, but this last week has filled me with hope. Our economy is going to hell, our society is polarised. And yet, the people of our country, led by the young, have stood up to say that they will no longer be subjects, and must be counted as citizens. Is this our demographic dividend?