The Verma Committee Follow-up: Delhi and the Bhaiya Problem
It’s not clear to me at which point the word ‘Bhaiya’ entered my consciousness, living in Delhi. In its literal meaning, Bhaiya means brother, but its usage suggests distance, not familiarity. For the middle class growing up in Delhi (and some other North Indian cities) Bhaiya is the all-consuming word to connote drivers, cooks, cleaners; it distinguishes itself by reinforcing a class difference between the person who uses the word and the one the word is used for.
Perhaps that is why men in other parts of India, in Maharashtra for instance, don’t like being called Bhaiya. Bhaiya then needs to be combined with ‘saab’ (meaning sir), to form the wonderfully complex term, bhaisaab: which can mean older brother, or uncle, or simply, sir. It is a term of respect, and it suggests someone older than you, greyer, perhaps wiser. The word bhaiya has no such limitations. It can connote any age, any experience, and any level of pejoration.
The reason I bring this up is because I believe it is important to look at the idea of juvenility through the lens of how we perceive, picture, and treat men of a certain class in Delhi and other cities. I believe it is especially relevant if we restrict this further to just the city of Delhi, the backdrop to so many gendered crimes.
I want to start with the notion of the youth which is valorised so forcefully by the political class, social media and any form of ‘young’ accomplishment, be it scientific, cultural or creative. ‘Young achiever’ is a term bursting with so much currency, the word ‘young’ seems to be losing its upper age limit in the enthusiasm over its usage. Ex president APJ Kalam spoke repeatedly, idealistically (and rightly) about the power of the youth, about the hope, the promise and the potential of young hearts and minds. Rahul Gandhi in his speeches- including his latest at the Congress Chintan Shivir- also spoke of a similar transmogrifying quality of the youth. It appears that the youth has such magical possibilities that dirty, gritty reality may get obfuscated, with relative ease, simply by being young.
And yet, while I agree with all these ideas, I must sound a note of caution. This is not solely the caution exercised by a young girl living in Delhi, facing the threat of sexual violence, each day of her life. This is a note of caution I strike towards a society that has an intensely qualified idea of ‘youth’. The youth that politicians, commentators and society as a whole- valorises is the youth that is middle class or above. Or, it is the youth which has achieved remarkable or astounding achievements, like a Lal Dora boy clearing the IIT. What about all the young people who live in the slums near Delhi’s prosperous colonies, the ones who meld seamlessly from children to bhaiyas, held in highest consideration only when they are invisible?
In the matter of the Delhi gangrape, two questions come to mind: is it worth looking at the social profiles of the perpetrators, and two, how do we deal with the juvenile accused (who has admitted to his crime)? The first question leads to the second- all the accused come from poor, tough backgrounds. See for instance, how the slum they lived in has been called a ‘breeding ground’ for rapists’ cheap jordans. Facing a harsh life, I would argue that the juvenile accused is not really a juvenile: he lost his childishness perhaps many years ago. For a case such as his, there may be merit in him getting a sentence fit for an adult. Think about why Slumdog Millionaire or Chandni Bar make us profoundly uncomfortable: I would argue that it is not the dirty, stinking ‘underbelly’ these movies expose that rankle, but the corruption of the youth they show. The brutal end of innocence of the son and daughter of the bar dancer in Chandni Bar and the rape of childhood in the protagonist’s brother, the real slumdog in Slumdog Millionaire.
This brings me back to the central concern. We do not treat youth from economically weaker sections with the consideration they deserve, and even more specifically, the consideration politicians and social scheme implementers announce that the youth deserve. I want to propose two ideas which state governments need to take up with gusto, if they are to stay true to their oft used and abused ideas of youth power.
The late teen years are tough, for all young people. Age fourteen onwards, with rapid and bewildering physical and mental changes, distractions from routine (sports or studies) appear more beguiling that ever. The UPA government’s flagship education scheme is the Mid-day Meal under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, meant to keep young children in school by offering one hot meal a day. I would like to see similar creative energy into keeping teenagers in school. Some of the highest drop-out rates are at very young ages or at the level of senior secondary school. There is an intense need to recognise this period as one of difficult transition. We must find a policy and implementation answer for retaining teen students who come from underprivileged backgrounds in schools, particularly if they do not have parental support to be in school. As ancillary to this, private schools must necessarily enforce quotas for the economically weaker sections- this needs to be monitored continuously and forcefully.
Secondly, the terms of juvenile justice have to be dealt with in a more age appropriate way. As a journalist, I remember what I saw in juvenile justice homes. It struck me that several ages of boys were mixed together- from wide-eyed 8 year olds to 15 year olds with no dreams in their eyes. As every young person knows, mentorship is important while growing up, particularly mentorship of older people of the same gender. The opposite was true in what I observed: smaller boys were subjected to bullying and torture, because in a way, the older boys were no longer children at all: they had none of the transformative qualities of the youth that a Rahul Gandhi for instance talks about. That is why I believe it is so important to immediately reform the way children are kept in this homes: impressionable children be kept apart from the older ones. As an evolution of this, a system of mentorship should be actively created, for two reasons- firstly to foster the older children—the ones who can take on the responsibility—and secondly, to provide guidance and counselling to pre-teens or young teens.
Finally, I would like to end with Rahul Gandhi’s observation at the Congress Chintan Shivir this weekend. He said: “The youth is angry as it is alienated. Until we start to empower people, we can’t change anything in this country.”
I don’t believe these words were uttered for the demographic that lives in slums, and the demographic that brutalised that innocent girl. I believe this was for the benefit of the more endowed, and young, protesters at India Gate. But his words have a particular sense of tragic irony for what and who we consider the youth to be. I would argue, that now more than ever, it is the youth of the poor and disadvantaged that needs empowerment and opportunity, much more than the demographic the Congress and other parties, so fashionably refer to.
Questions of changing juvenile age from 18 to 16 years which states are now considering will forever be incomplete and ineffective if we do not place the idea of youth in the bracket it deserves to be in: age-specific, not class-specific. Fostering this youth is the harder, tougher challenge. We must rise to it.