Indian youth may appear modern, but they are resisting real change

The reason why Indian society can often feel stagnant at times is the sheer weight of the past which new generations have failed to remove, says Amrit Dhillon

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Certain old habits of Indian family life are touching: the young still greet their elders by bending down to touch their feet, they defer to their parents by not answering back and not smoking or drinking in front of them, and they follow time-honoured customs obediently rather than sneer at them as old-fashioned.

But obedience and conformity to tradition can be taken too far. For a start, it shows a lack of spark. And if the young behave like middle-aged pragmatists opting for the line of least resistance, then youth is wasted on them.

The findings of a new survey by the Hindustan Times newspaper of young middle class men and women in India paints an intriguing picture of this generation. They like to shop and consume, are brand-conscious, socialise in bars and cafes, look out for the latest gadgets and largely approve (61 per cent) of premarital relationships.

To all intents and purposes they look and sound modern, even westernised. And so they are, superficially. But look deeper at their attitudes towards the things that really matter – relationships, behaviour towards the poor, expectations of women and marriage – and they are not as modern as they appear.

Of the 5,214 middle class men and women aged between 18 and 25 who were surveyed by the newspaper this month, only four per cent would override their parents’ objections to marry the person of their choice; seven out of 10 said the onus was on women, not men, to save a marriage from divorce; 67 per cent said they preferred joint families to nuclear ones; and 68 per cent said they always listened to their elders.

Alarmingly, more than six out of 10 said they felt the giving of a dowry was acceptable. Giving a dowry is a crime in India. It has been banned for 53 years because it reduces women to the status of a commodity. Yet, instead of rebelling against it as a custom that militates against equality and oppresses women, young Indians approve of it.

Had the survey asked about the caste system, I dread to think what the findings would have been. You would think the younger generation would be up in arms about a social system that degrades people purely because of an accident of birth and proceeds to humiliate them mercilessly. But there are no campaigns or protests against it.

A senior McKinsey & Company consultant who was in charge of recruiting in the Delhi office is said to have remarked on the difference between the company’s Indian and European graduates. “The Indians we recruit are brainy but so one-­dimensional and boring. They have never done a gap year, worked for a charity or taken up some wacky hobby. All they do is study and work for a lucrative career,” he said.

Now, I am not advocating rebellion for rebellion’s sake, the overthrow of customs just because they are old, the undermining of authority just for the hell of it, or the pursuit of rampant individualism at any cost because it is a “cool” thing to do. That would be tiresome and a waste of energy.

But I do believe that every new generation needs to bring in something new by questioning old certitudes and conventions and re-examining values. It is this which energises a culture and keeps it dynamic and vibrant.

Of course, too much change too fast can be destabilising. Most of us need some continuity to feel secure. Yet the reason why Indian society can often feel stagnant at times is the sheer weight of the past which new generations have failed to remove.

The point that middle-class youths have failed to understand, as they happily embrace “modernity” is that real modernity lies in the mind: how you behave towards others, whether you treat them with respect as equals, and how willing you are to discard customs because they are unfair and discriminatory and adopt new ways of being.

This unthinking acceptance of the status quo might be understandable if the status quo was in pretty good shape. But failing to find fault with a social order marked by all the poverty, squalor, and injustices of India? That is mystifying.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist in New Delhi