Amrit Dhillon is a New Delhi-based writer.
What makes you modern? Is it the jeans you wear, the phone you use, the sauvignon blanc you drink, the car you drive and the trendy café where you sip your hazelnut mocha?
Or is it whether you treat the street cleaner as an equal who just happens to be doing a menial job, challenge old customs because they seem discriminatory, and take on the older generation if its beliefs are retrograde?
The first are all external, the second internal. Judging by a large survey of India’s urban youth just carried out by the Hindustan Times newspaper, the country’s middle class young men and women are modern only in their trivial outward behaviour and not where it really counts, in their minds.
Elsewhere the young generally rebel against the status quo, rock the boat, fight against injustice and are fired up with idealistic fervour to create a better world. India’s youth, meanwhile, follow traditions, even the bad ones, such as caste and blind obedience to authority.
Of the of 5,214 men and women between the ages of 18 and 25 surveyed, 63 per cent of men want their wives to be virgins; 67 per cent of both sexes said they preferred joint families to nuclear ones; 68 per cent said they always listened to their elders; only 4 per cent would override their parents’ objections to marry the person of their choice. Most disturbing of all, more than 6 out of 10 feel dowry is acceptable.
The picture painted by these numbers is unappealing. What a bunch of goody two shoes. As for dowry, how can it be fine with them when it dehumanizes women? Defying your parents over whom you marry is unthinkable? Having premarital sex is fine – as many men admitted – but when it comes to marriage, the woman has to be a virgin?
There is nothing unusual about these findings. Many surveys have shown that middle class youths are obedient and do exactly as society tells them. What they have adopted as “modern” is merely consumerism, and this has been superimposed on reactionary and, frankly, feudal thinking.
Not to knock tradition or young people respecting their parents – some of that is quite nice. But it is bizarre that so few young Indians are prepared to go out on a limb, to take to the streets against the caste system or other social injustices, to do a stint in a village in order to understand rural life or pursue voluntary work to mitigate the misery of the poor all around them. The idealism that one associates with youth is missing.
Arranged marriages best exemplify this conservatism. The majority of young Indians accept that their parents will choose someone from the same caste and religion. They do not challenge the validity of social customs and whether they need to be altered for the sake of a better society.
In fact, forget a challenge over anything so substantial as caste or religion. An amazing 88 per cent said they wanted to get married in the traditional way with all the lavish rituals and ceremonies of the big fat Indian wedding which costs a fortune and often ends up as a vulgar display of wealth.
It would have been endearing if some of those 88 per cent had said they wanted a different kind of wedding. A simple civil ceremony followed by a small reception for 70-odd people because this would be more appropriate and sensitive in a country where millions endure lives of unremitting poverty.