Having missed the whole Delhi University experience (I left for college in the US), I was treated to an unlikely immersion in college life through UDAAN Utsav 2016, a nukkad natak festival that debuted on campus this year. For an outsider to higher education in India, the politics that one hears of on campus and the accompanying sloganeering provide a dramatic view of the experience. Furthermore, the over emphasis that the media places on these activities make one wonder if this alone is the college experience? I have spoken to friends who had an apolitical time in university, but that was many years ago. Has college life changed all that much in 2016? With Udaan Utsav I was introduced to another aspect, one that newspapers and TV channels hadn’t familiarised me with, that of free expression and creativity. Often in our debates on free speech, we focus primarily on the right to offend, this is considered to be the valiant employment of free speech and unleashes the persuasive “right to offend” argument. All this is well and good, if only it were applied to all such “offences.” However, we see this defence rise on particular occasions, making the free speech battle one that has all too often been treacherous to its core principle – freedom. One can list the “oversights,” to use a gentler term for this selectivity, but that is not the purpose of this article. The interesting thing about UDAAN Utsav was that it turned out to be a forum that used provocation to make a point without the apparent purpose of causing offence, this proved useful while resisting alienating the audience that it hoped to engage. The credit for this artful balance must go to the students, especially since they have come of age in an era when triggering “outrage” is the surest way to get attention in our noisy world. We see it on TV every day, the more strident the delivery of a point, the more persuasive it is assumed to be. However television works for viewership, queering the pitch of debate to a decibel that ricochets and occupies mind space. But genuine change or rather a transformation comes from discussions that are more contemplative and in the tradition of Indian debate, like the one Adi Shankaracharya engaged in, where the point is not to prove “the other” wrong but to inform and be informed. The nukkad nataks at UDAAN informed me of aspects that consume the young. Facets that we pay little attention to, overwhelmed as we are by the shrill sloganeering that is presented as “the voice” of the youth. It isn’t. Amplification for political purpose must not silence the diversity of voices on campus. It is our duty to listen to all the voices, not only the ones that travel to us through the airwaves and resonate in the halls of parliament in the rhetoric peddled by politicians to suit their agenda.
One college troupe performed a play on middle-class alienation and how its rights were squeezed out because of the constant focus on the poor (justifiably) and the power of the wealthy, who can manipulate the system to their benefit. Illiteracy is always a more compelling story than the one that tells us that school admissions are a stressful and harrowing experience for middle-class parents. Does the inherent emotive quality of the narrative determine the stories that need to be told? Will the deracination of the middle class, the taxpayers who ride the pot-holed streets of our cities and struggle to put together “donations” for school and college admissions lead to an unrest we have not anticipated or even considered? Often when we take pride in our demographic dividend, we assume that our educated youth will never leave and instead build their futures here. A Satya Nadella (CEO, Microsoft) makes us proud, without prompting us to pause and ask if he would have become Satya Nadella had he never left? It’s something students embarking on the journey of life and opportunity discuss. More than one team spoke of “brain drain” a term one thought was assigned to the past, only to find it alive and kicking in the dialect of college students. Are we doing enough? Creating enough, for our young to not be lured away from India? There was also comment on the instant celebrity that media grants students (closing in on their thirties), juxtaposed against the sacrifice of the young (recently out of their teens) who die on our borders. There were a wide array of topics that were articulated in the nataks from women's rights to eve teasing, to the condition of artists past their best years and our martyrs. But what was amply clear, given the overwhelming participation of college students was that GenNext does not suffer from ingratitude and that India is not merely an “idea” but a felt, lived experience that is worth believing in, in all its diversity and contradictions.
(The writer is a reknowned screenplay writer & was a jury at Udaan Utsav-2016)