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YOUNG, MALE AND DEADLY
- Age, sex and class as factors in extremist violence
Politics and Play

When the Kannada film star, Rajkumar, died in Bangalore in April 2006, thousands of the city’s residents went on the rampage, burning buses and attacking shops and offices. The actor was a great popular hero, as famous and as loved in his state as M.G. Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu or N.T. Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh. Still, the scale of the violence exceeded all expectations. Why, many people asked, must one vandalize public and private property in order to demonstrate one’s love for a deceased actor' An answer was provided by a friend of mine who knows Bangalore well. He pointed out that the protesters were all men, all aged between the ages of twenty and thirty. Then he added, “And they can’t get jobs in Infosys.

The explanation made sense. The protesters mostly came from the western, and older, parts of the city, which are Kannada-speaking, and which have escaped the boom that Bangalore has been experiencing for some years now. In these narrow streets, life goes on much as before, with women working at home, and men running petty businesses or making a living by casual labour. This is a world removed from the spanking new office buildings that have come up in the city’s south and east, where other men — also aged between twenty and thirty, and usually not Kannada-speaking — write code during the week for Fortune 500 companies.

On weekday evenings, and all through the weekend, young men from different parts of Bangalore travel to the city centre, where, around a road ironically named after Mahatma Gandhi Road, are located the most fashionable restaurants and the most glamorous stores. The men from the south and the east come by motorcycle or by car. They are sometimes accompanied by young ladies with whom they confidently walk into a store or restaurant. The men from the west come in all-male bands, and by bus. And they merely gawk and gape.

Move on to the Nineties, and the bloody communal riots of that decade. The kar sevaks who brought down the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, and then proceeded to butcher Muslims in towns across northern and western India, were all male, and all in their early or mid twenties. And very few of them had a regular job. Before they joined the Ayodhya movement, they had led an insecure existence, placed outside the formal economy, making do as day labourers or part-time mechanics and the like. These were members of a class which Karl Marx had called the “lumpen proletariat”, a class from which also came many of the participants in the Gujarat pogrom of 2002.

This association of the disenfranchised male with violence is manifest among all religions, and on both sides of the political spectrum. Take, for instance, the insurgents in Kashmir, young men from less-than-affluent homes, driven by despair and disillusionment to acts of violence and terror. Or consider the Naxalites, whose cadre is made up mostly of men from small peasant or lower-middle-class backgrounds and, more recently, of tribals. Educated just enough to be disenchanted with a life labouring in the fields, but not enough to get a five-figure salary in the organized sector, these men are attracted to the idea that by their actions and through their guns they can help usher in a socialist utopia.

This is a plausible thesis — namely, that the inability, owing to the disadvantage of one’s social background, to win status and acclaim in the world as it is, prompts young men to join extremist movements, thus to submerge their disappointments and frustrations in acts of violence. This thesis appears to be widely applicable — it might be invoked to explain the rise of the Shiv Sena, the Khalistanis, the Kashmiri jihadis, the Hindutva-wadis and the Naxalites. Nor is its relevance restricted to India. The popular support among the Nazis in the Germany of the Thirties, or for Hamas in the Occupied Territories of Palestine today, has also come from young men whose daily lives are plagued by economic and social insecurity.

Attractive though it is, the thesis outlined above is invalidated, or at least complicated, by other kinds of evidence. The young men who brought Bangalore to a standstill in April 2006 could not get jobs in Infosys. But the young man from Bangalore who recently attempted to blow up Glasgow airport was highly educated. So were his alleged accomplices. Why would an engineer or doctor earning a handsome salary and enjoying a high social status throw it all away for a life of terrorist violence'

I think it is the fact that Messrs Kafeel and Sabeel have a string of degrees against their names that helps explain the avid, almost prurient, media interest in them. Their family life has been minutely scrutinized; their friends and teachers have been interviewed at length. I do not recall, for example, this kind of interest being displayed in the upbringing of, say, the perpetrators of the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, of the post-Ayodhya violence of 1992-3, or the post-Godhra violence in 2002. There may be a hint of communal bias here, but only a hint. I think the contrast between the lack of interest in the social background of the Hindu terrorists in Ayodhya and Gujarat, and the obsessive fascination with the Muslim terrorists from Bangalore today, has more to do with class than with religion. Semi-educated young men from the other side of the tracks will, regrettably, take to violence. But why must people like us do so'

In truth, they have done so from well before Kafeel and Sabeel. For example, the leading fundamentalist in Gujarat today is a well qualified and very skilled surgeon. It would be interesting to find out from Dr Pravin Togadia’s parents why their boy does not run a profitable nursing home in Anand or Surat instead of spending his waking hours (and who knows, his dreams too) provoking attacks on Muslims. Again, while the Naxalites today may mostly be staffed by men from lower-class backgrounds, back in the Sixties, their leaders and cadre were solidly middle-class. There were dozens of brilliant, gifted, educated boys from Presidency College who, like Kafeel, threw away a promising mainstream career for an uncertain life underground.

In explaining the attraction of extremist ideologies and movements, class is sometimes relevant and sometimes not; but gender and age always are. It is interesting, in this connection, to reflect upon the proclivity to violence of other mammalian species. Thus, in a study of crop-raiding and manslaughter by elephants in southern India, the ecologist, Raman Sukumar, found that over 80 per cent of all human killings were the work of adult males, although they made up less than 10 per cent of the elephant population. The adult male elephant also raided crops four or five times more frequently than the female. Likewise, a study in the Sunderbans found that of 13 kills by tigers, 10 were attributed to males — a proportion that works out to 86 per cent.

Some may find these findings comforting, proving that, in humans as in other mammals, boys will be boys. But I find them profoundly disturbing. For roughly 99.99 per cent of the violence perpetrated in the modern world is the handiwork of men, young men. A small proportion of this violence is aimed at the rest of creation; the bulk is directed at other humans. If, generally speaking, the male of the species is more deadly than the female, the male of our own species is the deadliest of them all.

The author’s latest book is India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy [email protected]
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