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A close look at major issues affecting Karnataka’s youth shows that political parties have failed to address socio-economic and gender injustice in a meaningful way, write Asim Siddiqui and Poornima Kumar.
Ahead of the just-concluded Karnataka Assembly elections, all three major political parties in the state — BJP, Congress, and JD(S) — made efforts to tap into the sizable voting demographic of youngsters. Their youth wings promised jobs, unemployment stipends, and solutions to young farmers’ concerns as well as cultural issues such as Hindi imposition. Despite numerous promises, none of these parties have substantially engaged with young people’s concerns, but have instead attempted to temporarily pacify them with a few tokenistic relief measures. A close look at two of the major issues affecting Karnataka’s youth — the exploitation of gig workers and the communal polarisation heightened by the hijab ban — shows us that these parties have failed to address urgent problems of socio-economic and gender injustice in a meaningful way.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Karnataka manifesto promised to implement the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), and assured financial incentives for youngsters. The Congress’s manifesto also made a slew of promises such as increasing the ceiling of reservation, eradicating corruption and taking strong legal action against groups spreading hatred. The Janata Dal (Secular) on the other hand has promised economic assistance to farmers, loan waivers for women’s self-help groups, and improving the quality of government schools.
Social media outreach has evidently been a key strategy for all of these parties to attract young voters, but simultaneously, in-person meetings have also been organised with big names in the parties, including Union ministers of the BJP. However, sincere, meaningful efforts to systematically engage with youngsters’ concerns and initiate them into the country’s democratic processes are conspicuously missing in these discussions.
Voting in all elections, be it local bodies, state Assemblies, or the Parliament, is central to a vibrant political democracy. However, it is only one part of the bigger jigsaw of Indian democracy. As Dr BR Ambedkar noted in a speech just before enacting the Constitution on November 26, 1949, we cannot be content with “mere political democracy”, and must strive to achieve “social democracy” as well.
What Babasaheb Ambedkar meant by “social democracy” was to bring constitutional morality into our everyday social life, and not limit its ideas merely to be guiding principles for government institutions. This means that we must make justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity integral to our social life. Much of our hope of becoming a social democracy hinges on the youth working to remove graded inequalities of caste, class, gender, religion, sexuality, and disabilities.
In the context of Karnataka, this would mean initiating youth into a just, equal, and fraternal life, which has been under threat in the state.
The case of gig work – a question of socio-economic justice
The gig economy has been garnering wide attention lately, particularly because of its notable growth in recent years. A study by the NITI Aayog estimated that 77 lakh workers were engaged in the gig economy in 2020-21. This gig workforce is expected to expand to 2.35 crore workers by 2029-30. With nearly 40% of these workers belonging to the age group of 16 to 23 years, it becomes pertinent to question the impact this burgeoning industry will have on the socio-economic well-being of youth today. This is all the more relevant for Karnataka where gig economy platforms have been spurred by Bengaluru’s IT sector, leading to a lot of intra-state migration of Kannadiga youth to the state’s urban centres.
Gig work broadly includes a set of new employment practices where the ‘employee’ is replaced by the self-employed ‘entrepreneur’ who has the freedom to enter into multiple jobs that are not bound by traditional expectations of time and space constraints. In India, this has largely taken the form of platform-based work, where young workers sign up with app-based services on a contractual basis. Touted as a revolutionary shift in employment trends with a promising future, both the business world and the Government of India have welcomed the growth of the gig economy. This is evident from the NITI Aayog policy brief titled India’s Booming Gig and Platform Economy released in June 2022, as well as the Draft National Youth Policy 2021.
Given the illusion of choice and freedom that gig work offers, young people have also been leaning towards such work for quick economic relief. Research conducted by the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) in Bengaluru documenting the experiences of food delivery workers shows that for many youngsters, the promise of higher earnings is the primary motivation to choose gig work. Otherwise engaged in low-paid manufacturing work or service sector jobs such as security, housekeeping, hospitality and retail, the prospects of higher income, flexible working hours and the ‘freedom’ of ‘not having to work under anyone’ attract youngsters to gig work.
But we know that this is far from true, as more and more young gig workers have been protesting their dismal working conditions. The most recent instance was the strike by Blinkit delivery workers against changes in the calculation of their wages that would nearly halve their income. Similar strikes were organised last year by Swiggy and Zomato delivery workers and also women who provide beauty and salon services through Urban Company. In addition to lower earnings than promised, gig workers have no control over their working conditions, and must contend with the long-term health implications of being overworked, riding two-wheelers for long hours, and being exposed to high levels of pollution.
Nonetheless, with low barriers to entry (minimal education and skills required), youngsters are highly likely to end up doing gig work. But what does this mean for the prospects of social mobility for young blue-collar workers? Can they ever achieve socio-economic equality with their formal sector peers? This widening gap between formal and informal work will have serious implications on any hopes to achieve social democracy, in which youngsters can arrive at a common ground to organise for their rights. In times when gig economy companies are lending themselves to increasing discrimination based on caste, religion, and gender, they are further exacerbating existing social divides. This means that the objective of providing dignified employment for all young people and building fraternity among them is at serious risk, and policymakers have chosen to ignore this in their celebratory appraisal of the gig economy.
The case of hijab ban – a question of gender justice
The hijab ban in Karnataka is primarily a youth issue. While young Muslim women are directly affected by it, even young Muslim men are being radicalised on its basis, and it has long-term consequences for continued gender injustices.
To gain legitimacy among the masses, the BJP government has made many attempts to ‘save Muslim women’ from oppression in Islam. Whether it’s the ban on triple talaq or hijab, these steps have been taken in the name of ‘saving’ Muslim women from the ‘oppression’ of Muslim men. But as many critics have pointed out, the hidden agenda behind these moves, and the way in which they have been implemented, show an intent to demonise Muslim men as ‘barbaric’ and ‘oppressive’ offenders who need to be taught a lesson, with no genuine concern for what Muslim women really want.
In the case of instant triple talaq, Muslim women’s groups have demanded accountability and alimony from their husbands, and not their incarceration, which would render them incapable of earning or supporting the family. Criminalising triple talaq is not what Muslim women groups had asked for. Similarly, in cases where the hijab is imposed on Muslim girls by their families, the affected women demand freedom of expression. But the call for banning the hijab, which has resulted in many Muslim girls discontinuing their education and hampered their future plans, did not come from Muslim girls themselves.
The calls for a ban on hijab in educational institutions gained momentum in early 2022 in the Udupi-Mangalore belt, which has been religiously polarised for decades now. The BJP government in Karnataka acted quickly to show their support, by issuing a government order mandating a uniform dress code. This resulted in many pre-university (PU) colleges imposing a ban on wearing hijab inside classrooms just two months before examinations. This encouraged young Hindu men — some of them sporting saffron shawls — to harass and bully Muslim women wearing headscarves to colleges, including teachers in some cases.
Many Muslim girls have dropped out of government and government-aided colleges since then, and are trying to find alternative private institutions where they can continue their education. Even the Karnataka High Court and the Supreme Court did not provide any relief to Muslim girls seeking to uphold their rights to education, privacy, dignity, freedom of expression. Karnataka’s school and higher education ministers BC Nagesh and CN Ashwathnarayan have defended their government’s move by arguing for a need for uniform dress codes in classrooms, maintaining public order and a ‘global’ fight against hijab imposition.
Constitutional provisions have been used against constitutional morality in this case. Articles 14 to 21 of the Constitution not only prohibit negative discrimination but also encourage supporting marginalised groups such as women, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Instead of banning hijab and restricting the freedom and rights of young Muslim women, the government should be supporting them in accessing education and claiming their rights.
With such a ban in government and aided institutions, the Karnataka government is pushing youngsters towards private colleges, which don’t have reservations and are less likely to have a diverse student body in comparison to government institutions. This goes against the principle of fraternity that the government and its people should be striving to achieve. If we don’t even share the same physical spaces, our society will only move towards further segregation and polarisation.
Here, the role of Muslim groups — such as the banned Popular Front of India (PFI) PFI, its student wing Campus Front of India (CFI) and its political arm Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) — needs to be problematised as well, for moving the focus away from gender injustice to religious conflict. Noted Pasmanda Muslim leader Ali Anwar Ansari has critiqued the role of prominent Muslim political parties, saying they play into the hands of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) by politicising religion, while issues of socio-economic and gender injustice take a back seat. In a witty remark, Ansari said that similar to how a small amount of curd can be used to set a big pot of curd, Muslim parties play that small but crucial role in setting the big pot of communal polarisation by Hindutva forces.
To address all of these problems, we need strong measures to depoliticise religion and also socialise religious communities with each other. Instead of placing all our hopes in the government or judiciary to solve social conflicts, we should be working within our communities to depolarise the situation and create channels of communication and friendships among diverse groups.
Over-reliance on the government to address social issues gives it disproportionate power which can easily be abused, as we have seen so far. It is only through social integration and solidarity that we can keep the State accountable and achieve our collective goals. In the absence of social democracy, the State can continue to divide and rule over us.
We need a government which aids in social democracy and not one that polarises us on the basis of religion and diverts our attention from issues of socio-economic and gender justice. Moreover, all religions need to dismantle patriarchy and caste-based exclusions in their own communities and work towards alleviating marginalised groups within them. The BJP government, along with other right-wing religious groups, has only led to strengthening of patriarchy and casteism in all religions, polarising our youth against each other. What we need instead is to socialise our youth in a way that can bring them together to create a social democracy at every level.
The writers are Bengaluru-based researchers.
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