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Could gang-rape protests mark beginning of an age of activism for India? (+video)

India's youth bulge and its disillusionment with political leaders may have helped drive recent post-rape protests and an anticorruption movement. But it's not clear the new activism will sustain itself.

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The large-scale protests triggered by the gang rape of a 23-year-old student in New Delhi has renewed debate over the rise of a new urban middle-class activism in India.

The strength and longevity of those protests, sustained as they were over several weeks and undeterred by police water cannons and teargas, took many by surprise. Student activism has generally been on the decline since the early 1990s, when the economy was liberalized, and the Indian urban middle-class is notorious for its political apathy.

But the recent protests, coming on top of 2011’s massive anticorruption movement led by Gandhian activist Anna Hazare, has some commentators heralding a new social mobilization – one that is fueled by frustration with what is seen as an increasingly corrupt and out-of-touch political system, energized by a new generation of youth, and aided by both old and new media.

“A generation has come of age that has [previously] been linked to a class and an ethos that was supremely indifferent to anything but their own self-interest – consumption and making money,” says Aditya Nigam, a political scientist and senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. He points out that this generation grew up in the 1990s, a period of economic liberalization that saw rising prosperity but also increased corruption – there have been several high-profile scams in recent years – that was perpetrated with impunity. 

Demographics are certainly a factor in the recent protests. More Indians are entering the middle class – anywhere between 70 million and 150 million, depending on the definition of middle class  – and more now live in the cities.

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