On 25 February, a rudraksh mala saved my friend Saurabh Shukla’s life. Saurabh is a practicing Hindu, and has worn the beads around his neck from the time he was a child. He says it brings him peace. On that day, Saurabh was out with two other colleagues, to cover the communal riots in North East Delhi.
A murderous mob, baying for blood, caught them and began beating them mercilessly. Saurabh displayed his rudraksh to prove that he was a Hindu, and the mob let him go, after deleting the footage he had shot on his mobile phone. “This was the saddest part,” he wrote later, “that I had to prove my religion to save my life.”
The Psychological Burden of Being Unemployed
Who were these men? Saurabh says, they were all in their 20s, armed with sticks and stones, intoxicated by religious hatred. But, that was not the only thing that had made them high. Many of them were reeking of booze and some were visibly drunk. It was a potent mix of mob psychology, religious fervour, collective machismo and alcohol.
Most, probably all of them, are likely to be unemployed. CMIE’s data tells us that Delhi has 5.7 lakh young men, between the age of 20 to 29 years, who are looking for jobs but haven’t managed to get any. That is about 30 percent of young men in the city, who want to work. Within this age group, those who are between 20-24 years old, have an unemployment rate of 49 percent. That means, every second man in his early 20s, who wants a job, doesn’t have one.
Imagine what that does to a person. They have come of age, and parents expect them to start earning to help run the family.
Relatives begin to say that it is time to get married. Through all this, the young man desperately looks for a job, mails hundreds of applications, goes for innumerable interviews. And nothing.
In lower middle-class families, the young men are also expected to raise the family’s status. The father might be a blue-collar worker who has worked hard to see his children through school and college. The onus is on the next generation to get an office job and move the family out of the crowded neighbourhoods into a better home. It’s a huge cultural and psychological burden to bear.
What Do Young Unemployed Men Do?
So, what do young unemployed men do? They congregate in street corners, playing gully-cricket. Data is cheap, so they watch a lot of YouTube and live another life on Twitter and Facebook. Some make TikTok videos, hoping to become a breakthrough star. Much of their day goes in absorbing half-baked, half-digested bits of information about the world around them, in the omnipresent classroom of WhatsApp University. And all the time, there is a burning frustration and sense of powerlessness that is waiting to erupt at anything and anyone.
There are, of course, social layers, within the young unemployed. We know that unemployment is the highest amongst those with higher education – CMIE’s 2019 data says more than 63 percent of them didn’t get jobs.
We also know from the government’s own data, that upper castes are more likely to have been to college or university. In 2018-19, 36 percent of those enrolled in higher education were upper castes, whereas their population is about 22 percent.
Muslims & Self-Employment
Muslims, on the other hand, make up only 5 percent of those enrolled for higher education, whereas their population is close to 15 percent. Several studies show that lower middle-class Muslims are also more likely to be self-employed as weavers, tailors, painters, barbers and mechanics in workshops. So, a Muslim father, from a tenement colony, is unlikely to expect his son to do significantly better than him. They are resigned to the fact that religious discrimination will most likely keep them out of white-collar jobs.
Exact data is hard to come by, but estimates suggest there are 500-700 garment ‘factories’ in the worst-hit neighbourhoods.
Each factory, set up in a house, employs 20-25 workers, performing a range of tasks – cutting, stitching, sewing, fixing buttons and packing. Many of these factories have Muslim owners, and a large number of workers are Muslim. This should not be a surprise, because tailoring has traditionally been a Muslim occupation. There is an entire community of Muslims in North India, specializing in tailoring, called Shaikh Idrisi, which is better known as darzi.
The pejorative term puncturewala, that is used for Muslims by right-wing trolls on social media, also gives us a glimpse into another traditional occupation – that of auto mechanics. This, again, is a big industry in North East Delhi. For example, the big tyre and car repair market in Delhi’s Gokulpuri, which was burnt down by arsonists in these riots, employed many Muslim workers, and several of the workshops were owned by Muslim entrepreneurs.
The Complex Micro-Economy of North East Delhi
So, on one side there are young unemployed Hindus, in their 20s, hoping to get a white-collar job, and on the other, are Muslim youth, most likely to be working as skilled labour in garment factories and repair-shops. This difference in aspirations only exacerbates the cultural divides that have been fostered by years of polarising propaganda. It is a powder keg of Us vs Them, waiting to explode.
There is another big industry in this region – crime. There are two big gangs, one led by Nasir and the other by Irfan alias Chhenu Pehelwan, who are constantly at each other’s throat. Each of them has hundreds of members who specialise in snatching, looting, collecting protection money and murder. There are other criminals associated with prostitution rings, one of the largest of which is run by Shakeela of Laxmi Nagar, who is seen as a close associate of Chhenu Pehelwan.
The micro-economy of Northeast Delhi, is therefore, a complex mix of small entrepreneurship, blue-collar work, crime and large-scale unemployment. Propaganda, of various kinds, finds a fertile habitat here.
When an unemployed Hindu man in his 20s sees his Muslim counterpart buy a motorbike from the money he has earned as a tailor, it increases his feelings of frustration and distrust. He finds it easier to believe discourses that say “Hindus don’t have work because Muslims have too many children”, who appropriate a disproportionately larger share of resources. It is easier to see every Muslim as a “ghuspaithiya”, who has to be “thrown out of the country”.
Alienation of Muslims
On the other side are Muslim men, increasingly alienated from a State which asks them to prove their loyalty and even their right to be Indian. So, when Muslims protest against CAA, there is an underlying sense that they need to act as a community, because their qaum is under attack. While the women sit on dharna, the men prepare for a potential conflagration.
The high crime-rate in this region also means that both sides have access to an unusually high number of illegal guns.
This explains why so many of those injured in these riots have gunshot wounds. It also points to a close link between religious-fervour and criminality, which has made this one of the deadliest riots in Delhi’s history.
- CMIE data for 2019 on educated unemployed: https://www.cmie.com/kommon/bin/sr.php?kall=warticle&dt=2020-01-21%2009:51:47&msec=203
- Upper castes in higher education: https://mhrd.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/statistics-new/AISHE%20Final%20Report%202018-19.pdf
- Upper castes (22%): https://www.businesstoday.in/current/economy-politics/upper-caste-hindus-own-41-per-cent-india-total-wealth-study/story/318727.html
- Studies show that Muslims are likely to be self-employed: https://web.iima.ac.in/assets/snippets/workingpaperpdf/12051717332012-09-03.pdf
(The author was Senior Managing Editor, NDTV India & NDTV Profit. He now runs the independent YouTube channel ‘Desi Democracy’. He tweets @AunindyoC. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)