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The Seventies, Once Again

The Seventies, Once Again

Author: Sudhir Kakar
Publication: The Times of India
Date: October 5, 2009
URL: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/opinion/edit-page/The-Seventies-Once-Again/articleshow/5087138.cms

Introduction: Today, let's try and make sense of yesterday

The late 1960s and early 70s were witness to an unusual sight: a wave of revolutionary protests by young people all over the world. What made this revolutionary militancy remarkable were two factors. One, that it was independent of the ideologies and social structures of different countries. Two, it was expressed not by an oppressed class or the deprived masses but by a privileged section of youth with the best education that its society could provide. In other words, it was the very group of men and women society had selected as its potential leaders which had risen in open and, at times, violent revolt.

Naxalism was the Indian manifestation of a worldwide phenomenon. Like other violent student movements, it, too, fed on developments in mass communications which permitted young protesters all over the world to instantly identify with each other, lessening feelings of isolation and confirming the rightness of their revolutionary stance. Depending on local conditions, privileged youth in each country - that had risen in rebellion - searched for dispossessed masses in their own societies who might welcome revolutionary liberation. In India, the Naxals zeroed in on landless peasants.

Psychologists tend to relate revolutionary protest of youth to the young person's struggle for a cohesive sense of identity at a stage of life that demands, among others, the support of a vigorous peer group and an ideology that can attract total commitment. It is true that youthful revolutionary movements with strong ideological underpinnings like Naxalism derived their virulence in part from the emotional upheavals associated with this phase of life.

It is also true that much like a scaffolding that can support a crumbling building, Naxalism provided some young people suffering from identity confusion and its associated mood swings the framework of a convincing world-image and the use of new symbols and slogans - ''China's chairman (Mao) is our chairman'' - that were needed to achieve a cohesive sense of self and identity. One must further admit that there are ageing Naxalites who, like ageing hippies, cling with desperate determination to their youthful division of the world, as black or white. Now in their late fifties or sixties, they continue to maintain the 'all or nothing' quality that characterises youth, loath to let go of a phase of life that endowed them with rare verve and freshness of vision.

It would, however, be wrong to reduce Naxalism merely to a well-studied phenomenon in the psychology of youth without a psychological understanding of the historical moment that provided some of our best young people a focus for their protest.

The 1970s was a time when it was clear to the highly educated sections of our youth that the older generation had failed to live up to its ethical ideals, whether of Gandhian Ram Rajya or Nehruvian socialism. The patrimony passed on by the older to the younger generation in a society is not only its material development, its power plants, industries, roads, military might, state of environment and so on, but also its moral compass and ethical goals. Naxalism, then, was an attempt at the recovery of ideals that an older generation had surrendered at the altar of economic and political expediency. The Naxals succeeded in tapping into the guilt of parents in betraying their own youthful ideals.

The reaction of the older generation to the evoking of guilt was varied. At one extreme was rage, played out in many families as fierce conflict, especially between fathers and sons, which found collective expression in calls for the annihilation of the 'Naxalite menace' of the society's children. At the other end was the older generation's nostalgia for its own idealistic youth during the freedom movement, and the first years of independence. These fathers saw their Naxal offspring as 'delegates' who would complete the unfinished agenda of their own lives.

Besides forging a link with the older generation, based on the latter's guilt, the Naxals were successful in tapping into the transient unrest and disaffections of young people, especially students, which are otherwise expressed in banal ways of dissent bordering on criminality: taking drugs, ragging, breaking university rules, ignoring traffic laws and so on. They elevated the normal unrest and protest of youth into the realms of heroism and martyrdom by holding aloft images of the struggle of an unarmed or poorly armed 'people' against the hyper-armed might of an oppressive 'state'.

However, once the violent struggle took on its own momentum, the empathy for the 'people' in whose name the revolution was undertaken was soon lost. The 'people' were reduced to mere objects of history, 'collateral damage' in terms of the other, militaristic end of the spectrum of violence. This loss of empathy, sensed by both the older generation and sympathisers among the youth, snapped psychological bonds that had nurtured the Naxals. Bereft of the recognition of their identity and emotional sustenance provided by parents and peers, their individual pasts emptied of human ties, the Naxals were thrown back into the isolation and arid intellectualisations of their own sub-groups. The road to evermore violence, paved with oversimplified and obsolete ideologies, was open.

- The writer is a psychoanalyst and novelist.


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