In the 1960s, student across the United States demanded that American troops withdraw from Vietnam. The movement began in college campuses with a small, liberal minority – but gained prominence as the U.S. committed more troops and longer years in East Asia. Around the same time, the Naxalite movement rose to prominence in India. Spurred by Maoist ideology, the Naxalites have been called “the single biggest internal security threat faced by India” by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Using guerilla fighting techniques over an extended period of time, the goal of the movement is to overthrow the existing democratic government as they hold no faith in a parliamentary democracy.
What is the difference between these two movements? How did they each affect the world’s two largest democracies?
While there were pockets of violence and provocation during the anti-war protests, the Vietnam War protesters largely relied upon peaceful demonstration to voice their reservations to the government. On the other hand, the Naxalite Movement was founded upon an ideology of violence to destabilize the existing government. Anti-war protests gained prominence over time, eventually playing a large role in turning the prevailing opinion in the country and encouraging people to question the government’s actions. Although Naxalites in India gained small pockets of power, they always remained a dangerous minority – never able to garner a foothold in general debate due to their radical methodology and ideology.
Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said, “No one is born a good citizen; no nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime. Young people must be included from birth. A society that cuts off from its youth severs its lifeline.” And I agree with him, wholeheartedly. But, there are nuances to the inclusion of the youth – it must be in a way that drives forward democratic practices, that encourages conversation and debate, but eventually leads to a more peaceful future for everyone.
How does a nation encourage its youth to participate while maintaining the stability of its democracy? How does a nation make itself malleable to change and open to discourse while maintaining the integrity of its system? Certainly, no country has perfected it. And there is no one way to towards this, yet it is both an outcome and a process that must be deliberated carefully.
Schools and campuses are a great place to promote non-violent civic engagement. Moreover, as we can intuitively guess, education and democracy are highly correlated and there is empirical evidence to back this up. And yet, most of the world’s major democracies tend to have highly limited participation by half the world’s population – women. Democracy implicitly decrees that all people’s interests be represented, but women’s limited voice in democracies across the world precludes systems from being intrinsically equal.
Linking these ideas together, it follows that investing in female education will result in more just democracies. The democratic processes will be bolstered by girls’ involvement. Furthermore, studies have also shown educated mothers are much more likely to send their children to school, thereby compounding the effect of education a girl-child. Lastly, females who receive secondary education have a much higher probability of becoming educators themselves, propagating the effects still further.
And while there are certainly infrastructural, cultural, economic, and logistical barriers limiting female access to quality education, trusting the youth to engender change is one of the most fundamental steps we can take. It will not turn the tide entirely, but imprinting upon young minds the value of education for everybody is one of the most influential steps we can take.
We must be willing to trust students’ abilities to be leaders, no matter what their age. In hot April afternoon in Mumbai, in a classroom full of 44 sixth graders, I showed a documentary called “Girl Rising.” Despite their initial restlessness, the 11-year-olds watched in awe as a girl their age in Afghanistan became a child bride, who struggled to get an education against all odds.
They turned to me and questioned, “Didi, is this real?” And they were enraged on her behalf, and there was a young boy in my class who started crying, and it melted my heart to see their passion and sincerity.
We continued the discussion the next morning, and I asked them how they could change things right now. And they were hesitant, at first, because “we are only children.” But as we talked, ideas started emerging because we found places within our own community – in their little corner of the world – where things weren’t equal, where they could be made more equal. We talked about encouraging sisters to go to school. About telling parents that money spent on daughters’ and sons’ educations should be the same. About how we would make sure our kids got the best education possible. About how every girl in that classroom would seek a job if she wanted to, would not be limited by societal dictates of her role – and more importantly, would never subject anyone to societal norms that limited women’s freedom. We talked about the importance of young boys and men being involved in the conversation, and empowering others.
We talked about things that adults often fail to think about, too ensconced in their day-to-day struggles, complacent in the status quo. And their level of thinking, of understanding, impressed me more than any 100% result on an exam.
I know these conversations are a mere starting point. But imagine ingraining such honest discussions into the educational system across countries. Imagine empowering youth from low-income communities to have iron-strong morals, rooted in ideals formed by passion and discussion and reality. Imagine students understanding their own role, their own power. Imagine what our world would be like – how our democracies would evolve, brighten, and sustain societies sparkling with vibrancy, optimism, and hope.