India's youth activism rises using technology, not rallies

Interest in voting heightened after Nov. terror attack

In Mumbai, Kaizad Bhamgara, 19, and his friends launched a website urging peers to vote in India's elections. November's terrorist attacks spurred the country's disillusioned middle-class youths to new levels of political action. In Mumbai, Kaizad Bhamgara, 19, and his friends launched a website urging peers to vote in India's elections. November's terrorist attacks spurred the country's disillusioned middle-class youths to new levels of political action. (Emily Wax/ Washington Post)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post / April 12, 2009
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MUMBAI, India - Before the November terrorist attacks on this city left three of his friends dead, Kaizad Bhamgara, 19, spent his evenings jamming with his hipster goth-rock band or chilling on the wave-sprayed boulders along the highrise-ringed shoreline.

But the pain of his loss and his frustration with the inept government response to the attacks moved Bhamgara to put down his drumsticks and pick up his laptop.

He set up a Facebook page called "Rise Up Mumbai! Rise Up India!" It soon expanded into a website, YouTube channel, and blog, all devoted to encouraging his peers to vote in India's national elections, which will be held in five phases from April 16 to May 13.

"For young India, there was an explosion of anger after the Mumbai attacks. We didn't want that energy to be wasted," said Bhamgara, at the popular Leopold Cafe, one of 10 sites attacked.

"Young India is restless and desperate for honest political leaders, for better security, for a voice. Earlier, we just weren't sure how to go about it," he said.

The three-day siege that left more than 170 people dead and more than 230 wounded has spurred India's disillusioned middle-class youths to previously unseen levels of political action.

While young Indians have rising aspirations for their futures, the attacks forced them to question why their expectations for their political leaders have fallen so low. Indian political analysts say young voters will play an unprecedented role in this year's vote, which will determine the composition of India's next government.

Known as India's 9/11, the assault on Mumbai exposed governmental dysfunction and security gaps that allowed 10 gunmen to bring one of the country's largest cities to a standstill. Tips about the attacks were ignored; untrained police lugged rusted muskets to the crime scenes; and members of India's elite National Security Guard spent nearly two hours stuck in traffic.

In past elections, India's middle-class youths ignored voting as a waste of time. The country's seemingly Kafkaesque bureaucracy exasperated them, as did politicians' well-earned reputations for corruption and criminal behavior.

But now the same high-tech tools and toys of youth culture that help teenagers engage with one another are being used to expose the misdeeds of political leaders. In the past, police harassed young people when they massed for street demonstrations, but Indian youths now gather on Facebook or organize over text messaging, a powerful medium in India, where 385 million people own cellphones, according to the Cellular Operators Association of India.

Sabita Pradhan, 24, an event manager for fashion shows, said she never thought voting mattered.

"We have so many problems: poverty, water, education," she said on a recent Sunday afternoon, putting on her iPod to listen to other young people talking about how they would vote. "After the attacks, I thought, I'd better vote. Indian youths have to care about our own country."

Youths elsewhere across India are also becoming more active.

In the capital, New Delhi, Charu Khera, 22, said he was inspired by Barack Obama's win in the 2008 US presidential election, which many young Indians say reminded them that democracy can work.

"The American election motivated me to vote and to think that maybe we can get India's Obama, someone with a dynamic nature and not the kind of politician that we currently have," said Kehra, who writes about technology for a magazine.

Ankur Dwivedi, 22, of Lucknow, in northern India, said he had never voted before this election. But after watching a Tata Tea ad campaign that chastised youths that if "you aren't voting, you are asleep," he felt motivated to register. Lately, he is even interested in politics.

"I was watching TV, and that campaign just got stuck in my mind. I thought, 'OK, if I can log on the Internet and chat online for three, four hours, why can't I register myself for this voting thing?' " said Dwivedi, whose aunt was killed in the Mumbai attacks. "In our generation, every third person wants to become a doctor or an engineer; nobody wants to be a politician. It came to my mind that why can't I be a politician if I have interest in politics?"

Although older generations allowed their politicians to become aloof, young Indians have embraced the technologies that make it harder for politicians to hide.

Some youth organizers, for example, have started text messaging the jail records of lawmakers in a country where nearly one-fourth of the 540 members of Parliament face criminal charges, including rape and murder, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms.

In recent weeks, dozens of new and youth-oriented political parties have formed, led by web designers, call-center employees, Bollywood script writers, and musicians.

Their platforms include fighting terrorism, stemming job losses, and improving the nation's crumbling public schools and roads.