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Is a group of young Hindu radicals terrorizing the college town of Mangalore a sign of a coming culture war?
Editor's note: This piece is part of an ongoing series called Youngistan documenting trends among India's youth. Read the first installment on India's rising juvenile crime rates.
MANGALORE, India — Inside the Mangalore city jail, Subhash Padil, a 29-year-old foot soldier in a far right Hindu organization, leaned in to make himself heard through the wire mesh of the visitor's window. Half a dozen of his fellow inmates crowded around him.
With an orange lungi wrapped around his waist, sarong-style, and a saffron towel draped over his shoulders, Padil dressed in the guise of a temple priest. His moralistic protestations against his incarceration for an alleged attack on a birthday party held at a local bed and breakfast last year make him sound like one, too.
“When we came in, the girls were half naked and everyone was drinking,” he said, through a translator. “They claim it was only a birthday party. But if that was all that was going on, why would they hold it at a guesthouse instead of at home?”
Last July, journalist Naveen Soorinje caught Padil and other alleged members of the Hindu Jagarana Vedike on video as they roughed up a group of 20-something party-goers they claimed were up to no good. For exposing the Hindu group's violent answer to moral policing, the journalist spent more than six months in jail.
The real shock, however, was the virulence of the young Hindu radicals he exposed.
More than half of India's 1.2 billion people are under 25 years old, a potential demographic dividend that optimists say could add two percent per year to the country's gross domestic product over the next 20 years.
But contrary to conventional wisdom, it's not all Facebook, MTV and sexting in “Youngistan” — Pepsi's clever tag for this generation now coming into its own. Instead, even as English-speaking India appears to be growing ever more tolerant of dating, live-in relationships and even intercaste marriages, Mangalore's birthday party battle and similar conflicts across the country hint at a simmering culture war beneath the surface of India's economic growth.
“If they truly suspected that there were drugs at the party or that the boys were taking pictures of the girls in compromising positions to blackmail them, they should have stopped to assess the situation and confirm something like that was really going on,” said Soorinje, who was finally released from custody after months of protests from civil rights organizations and other media personnel.
“But you can see from the video that they just stormed through the gate and started the attack.”
The Morality Police
A small, coastal city in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, Mangalore seems like an unnatural hotbed for Hindu radicals. It's only about 200 miles from Bangalore, the IT hub that has become the public face of India's economic rise. And thanks to dozens of educational institutions like St. Aloysius College, whose colonial-era towers overlook the Arabian Sea from the center of town, the city throngs with young, upwardly mobile Indians studying to be doctors, nurses, executives and engineers.
On a typical afternoon at a local branch of Cafe Coffee Day, the unofficial capital of Youngistan, several couples from the local colleges sit together, their heads drawn together over the excuse of a notebook. In one corner of the cafe, a Muslim girl sits with her bearded boyfriend, strappy pink sandals peaking out from beneath the head-to-toe black of her chador, while in another, a Hindu guy with a soul patch has pulled his chair around the table to sit next to his girlfriend. And later that night, at a local bar called Froth on Top, the crowd of young college students drank pitchers of beer, looking no different from any such group in any country around the world.
But there's more here than meets the eye.
Over the past five years — according to news reports collected by the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), India's oldest and largest human rights organisation — Mangalore and the surrounding coastal area has witnessed more than 100 incidents of so-called “moral policing,” similar to the homestay attack in July.
“If a boy and girl walks together, that is not Hindu culture, they will say,” said Swebert de Silva, principal of St. Aloysius College, where students have