India has changed dramatically in the last 30 years, and with it has evolved the idea of what it means to be free in this country. With limited opportunities and a closed economy, our measure of independence remained circumspect at best in the 1980s and before that.
Then came liberalisation, and things turned on their head. The economy opened, and the careful, pragmatic, practical ways of being were replaced by a heady sense of possibility and optimism. Liberalisation not only opened up the economy, but also gave an entire generation a new set of economic and social freedoms.
A refrain commonly heard against young people is how they tend to take these freedoms for granted, since they didn’t have to fight for it. This is at best the cynic’s view. Sure, unlike the previous generations, this generation doesn’t have the memories of the Indian independence movement in their DNA, but that doesn’t make it any less patriotic. In fact, if anything, being completely unshackled by the colonial mindset makes the younger generation all the more unencumbered.
From the JP movement in 1974 to the recent protests happening in universities across the country, India’s youth still continues to be at the forefront of all social change.
So, what does freedom mean to this new generation?
Constituting 34.8 percent of the population, it would probably be naive to ascribe a single meaning to the aspirations of 421 million people. It would also be simplistic, since young people in India are not a monolithic group.
They fall under two broad groups. The first is an urban, affluent minority that has access to education, social mobility/capital and the benefits the standing accords. Propped up on the ladder of privilege, for this section, freedom translates to rising further up the ranks: finding fulfilling jobs, chasing entrepreneurial dreams, earning social capital, and generally having the independence to pursue their goals and passions without impediment and social pressures.
Then, there are the hundreds of millions of youth that constitute the rural, poor majority living in small towns and villages — excluded not just from an increasingly digital society, but also from access to institutions and social rights. To this second group, freedom translates as the necessity to climb out of a life of deprivation and poverty, of social and economic discrimination to a better, more stable place.
So, while there exists a huge disconnect between the lived realities of these two groups, there is also something that connects them: aspiration.
This is a generation of dreamers, hungry for success and desperate to achieve it at any cost. While this young generation supports many liberal values, one value above all else matters most to it — economic independence, and the promise it holds to build a life of one’s choice.
Sadly, the road to getting there is far from easy. India’s youth may be hungry for change, economic independence, and the freedoms that come with it, but the majority of them fall in one of the three categories: uneducated, unemployed, or unemployable.
This is also what constitutes the contradiction of sorts. Liberalisation exposed this generation to the dreams of a better future, but India’s growth story hasn’t been able to keep up with their aspirations. In that sense, this is a generation of Indians hanging between extremes — desperate to succeed at all costs, but having limited support systems to seek help from.
Presently, they also seem to have dim chances at making it big — one million Indians enter the job market every month while perhaps a small minority find steady jobs — but carry the burden of the grandest notions about success and societal pressures to achieve that.
They are also increasingly getting convinced that if they want to succeed, they can neither rely on governments or corporations.
Technology, which has grown and matured with this young India, has proved to be a game changer to some extent flattening the inequities. However, considering things like reach and affordability, technology alone isn’t nearly enough to power their aspirations.
Not that it is likely to stop this generation from aiming big. No matter how poorly placed they find themselves, this generation is irrational in its thirst for a better life, and it sees absolutely no reason why it should settle for less. Unhinged by practicalities and expectations, in that sense, this generation maybe truly free.
So this August 15, when India celebrates its 74th Independence Day, a young India will celebrate the freedoms it enjoys, aspire for newer freedoms, and agitate for denied freedoms.Shikha Sharma is a New-Delhi-based independent journalist and photographer. Twitter: @ShikhaSharma304. Views are personal.