A participant holds balloons as Indian gay rights activists and their supporters march during New Delhi’s gay pride parade in New Delhi, India, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016. Hundreds of gay rights activists marched in the parade, highlighting the continuing discrimination they face and demanding the repeal of an Indian law criminalizing homosexual acts.(AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal)
Indian pride: Young people during last year’s gay pride parade in New Delhi © AP

How do young Indians feel about themselves and their country, 70 years after independence? As part of the research for a book about young Indians, I have spent the past five years trawling the internet forums where they reveal their hopes and insecurities.

Young Indians have taken the debate about their country’s identity online. Of the total population of 1.3bn, about a third of people are connected to the internet and two-thirds are aged 35 or younger.

This is the age group that will deliver India’s much-vaunted “demographic dividend” (the economic boost provided by a youthful population), if it is to materialise. They carry the weight of their country’s future on their shoulders as they struggle to figure out their own destinies and they brim with questions about what it means to be Indian today, veering from the political to the ideological to the highly personal.

Two websites in particular offer a glimpse into the minds of young India. Quora was founded in 2010 to provide the world with “the best answer to every question” and it now receives 35 per cent of its traffic from India. Reddit, nicknamed “the front page of the internet”, registered a 228 per cent increase in unique visitors from India between 2013 and 2014, ahead of the last national elections.

As social networks that offer more privacy and anonymity than Facebook or WhatsApp, Quora and Reddit allow young people to express unfiltered views on arranged marriages, joint families, the caste system and other obsessions of the Indian middle class — from fair skin to engineering degrees.

Most of the question-and-answer interactions reveal a generation that is anxious for evidence of India’s pre-eminence in a globalised world. From the brands they buy to the universities they attend, young Indians are more exposed to the west than their parents and grandparents were.

Some turn to historical chauvinism to create a vision of India that ignores its failings and focuses only on success.

Many answers include the words “first” (country in the world to produce steel), “largest” (postal network in the world), “highest” (cricket ground in the world) or “oldest” (brand of health supplement). Every innovation (“shampoo was invented in India”) is celebrated and every distinction, however minor, (“India is first international customer of the Boeing P-8I Poseidon variant of the P-8A Poseidon.”) is noted. Who would dare argue with an entry pronouncing: “Sanskrit is the most suitable language for computer software”?

Parul Bansal, head of the department of psychology at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, in Delhi, says: “Even 70 years after independence, Indian youth have not been able to overcome the colonial hangover. This nationalist chauvinism is a way to take care of the inferiority complex.”

Some posts reveal niggling self-doubts, asking whether “India is really emerging as a superpower?” or if it will ever “become a developed country”.

Compared with previous generations, young Indians face a wide range of possibilities but few concrete prospects. More enter schools and colleges each year but few leave much wiser: every other student is unable to read a text meant for someone three school years below them. More than a third of India’s engineers lack the mathematical skills needed for simple calculations.

Teenagers console each other about the ruthlessly high expectations of their families (“Did your parents beat you over low marks?”).

India’s economy may still be growing, but it is not creating nearly enough jobs to employ the 1m people or so who enter the jobs market each month. To see young Indians at their most fragile, search the forums for “jobs”.

“How does it feel to be jobless, even after having graduated from top institutes of India?” asks one of many on the topic. Some answers: “You cry alone.”; “I’m a 7-pointer [someone who scored highly in engineering school] sitting at home.”; “I am 23 at present. But the hollowness has begun to set in.”

“The concern about livelihood is common,” Ms Bansal says. “Unlike the Indian middle class of 25 years ago, [young people] today feel no limitations. They have been told ‘dream and you will get it’. When that doesn’t happen there is disappointment.”

In other respects, new ground is being broken. Questions about sex and sexuality animate many online conversations. A halting but persistent cultural revolution powered by women’s and LGBT movements has created a greater awareness of sexual freedoms — but also a greater resistance to the idea.

“People are having more casual sex, but there is no genuine discourse around sex,” says Paromita Vohra, creative director of Agents of Ishq, a digital platform for conversations about love, sex and desire. “There is no sex education. There is no cultural conversation. Unlike in older Bollywood movies, there is no eroticism in today’s popular culture either.”

Young men, in particular, have only the internet to find the answer to questions like: “Do Indian girls like friends-with-benefits?” or “what will happen if I marry outside my caste?” or “which religion in India is most permissive of premarital sex?”

Since August 2017, when 17-year-old Arundhati Bose from Kolkata became active on Quora, she has answered 66 questions, from “Do girls stare at boys?” to “What’s the one thing Indian parents are most scared of?” I asked her why she spends so much time on the Q&A forum.

“I am able to express my own opinions to the world,” she replied.

Snigdha Poonam’s book, ‘Dreamers: How Young Indians are Changing Their World and Yours’, will be published by Hurst in January

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