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May 8, 1999


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The Rediff Interview/Dr Achal Bhagat

'Families are dying out, and we need to
give youngsters hope. Today, the big problem
is not Y2K but H2K - Hope 2000'

In the wake of the senseless murder of model Jessica Lal, allegedly because she refused a drink to a customer at a posh Delhi restaurant, questions are being asked about the pervasive violence in society, of youngsters pulling the trigger over petty disputes.

DrAchal Bhagat is a psychiatrist and psychotherapist at the capital's Apollo Hospital. He is also director of Saarthak, a non-governmental organisation dealing with the mental health of society.

In a free-wheeling interview with Amberish K Diwanji, Bhagat lamented the decline in values and painted a grim picture of metropolitan life today. Excerpts:

Delhi has seen a rise in crimes by youngsters from affluent backgrounds. What is the cause for this?

Today, we have reached a stage in society where people want everything NOW. The earlier generation learnt to postpone gratification and had a long-term perspective. Then, people made plans to buy a house 10 years down the line. When my father purchased a car, it was forever. Today, people buy new cars every six months and constant gratification of wants is the guiding principle of life.

The second aspect is the need to sensationalise everything. Today, youngsters have a very low threshold of boredom and constantly seek higher and higher sensations to escape this pervasive boredom. This leads them to crave for more and more.

The third aspect is that while every individual wants to be unique, he also wants to be accepted by society at large. Thus you will have a youngster driving a Maruti car, but with stickers of Mercedes. This is his way of showing the world that he is part of society, yet different. It also creates fantasies in his mind about himself.

What role has society at large played in the changes seen among youngsters today?

Sociologically, the decade of the 1990s has seen incessant changes. We have had four or five governments at the Centre, television has exploded, liberalisation has brought in consumer goods, and so on. If in the early 1990s, a song would be popular for weeks and months on end, today it survives for only three days. No role model lasts very long - Azharuddin is out and Jadeja is in.

We also have now acquired this habit of putting people on a pedestal and then pulling them down. A good example is Bina Ramani, who is being criticised now by the media. Yet, it was the media that earlier carried her weekly columns! And even Manu Sharma, the alleged killer, would have been seen as the 'in thing', but now he is despised.

You spoke of incessant changes. Are you saying that permanence is out?

Yes. In fact, permanence is no longer a factor in people's lives. Even success is seen as a temporary phenomenon. People want success, want to enjoy it and get out because they know it is short-lived. The entire concept has changed. Everything is for today, not tomorrow.

Now what this does to the person is to make him more alienated from society and more individualistic. Such a person is less likely to care for the norms of society, and more prone to use violence to meet his needs and [for] gratification.

Increasing violence has been the result of this alienation, especially among the middle class, hasn't it?

Exactly! I once took a random survey, which showed that 80 per cent of Delhi homes has suffered from some form or the other of domestic violence. The survey also revealed that in 40 per cent of the homes, there had been sexual abuse. Remember, we are talking of middle-class families, not of the poor. A tragic belief among the middle classes is that domestic violence and sexual abuse occur in the slums and among the poor, but it is also happening in middle-class homes. And this violence influences youngsters.

What about the crimes of the rich?

I think crimes occur in all strata of society. The difference is when someone rich is involved, it grabs media headlines and the attention of everyone. Just try to overtake a bus in Delhi, and you get involved in a race that could kill someone. This too is violence.

But there is one point I'd like to make. The rich are seen as getting away with their crimes. Just look at Bina Ramani. I have nothing against her, but this lady ran a bar without a licence, washed away bloodstains, and yet will not go to jail. Any other person in her shoes would have been behind bars by now! And this leads others to believe that they too can do so.

What is the way out, especially for youngsters?

I think first society has to convert the narrow definition of success to one of lasting values. Right now families are dying out, and we need to give youngsters hope. Today the big problem is not Y2K but H2K - Hope 2000. We need a societal initiative to address the problems of the year 2005. Youngsters need to have hope for themselves.

It is the responsibility of individuals to become responsible and to stop being intolerant. Parents, teachers and students need to counsel each other. We have not addressed these issues because people are too preoccupied with themselves. And there is a role for NGOs like Saarthak to help youngsters and troubled people overcome their alienation.

We need to go back to the basics and to long-term dreams. Today, youngsters have more avenues than ever before, but none are for the long term. It all depends on how well a youth markets himself or herself, but this always causes insecurity in the individual. And insecure individuals are more prone to violence.

How much are the parents of such wayward children to blame?

It is a question of what values we pass on. No parent teaches his child to be dishonest, but what they pass on is the cynicism that exists in their lives. There are two sentiments that really spoil children: first, that nothing will change, so make do with whatever you have, make the most of it; and, second, letting the kids do whatever they wish and ensuring that the parents will look after the damage, that is, overindulging the children.

The second sentiment has a dual effect. When the child does wrong, his parents step in to protect him, but whenever he does something that is right, his parents are too busy to even notice. This encourages the child to [do wrong to] seek attention. It is the responsibility of parents to notice and encourage positive values in children.

Is such crime more prevalent in big cities only?

On the contrary, I think the smaller cities have more potential for violence. In the small cities, opportunities are visible, but not accessible. At least in the big cities, opportunities are available which in turn satisfies the individual. But in smaller cities, with lesser opportunities, frustration levels will rise, leading to more violence and crimes.

Indians like to believe that they are a non-violent people. It is not the truth. We are a violent people and we have to learn to consciously control our violence. India may not have the gun culture of the US (despite what news reports say), but we have a knife culture, and a culture of attacking individuals.

What role is the media playing in all this?

The problem with the media is that all high-profile cases are on the front page and as long that is so, there is some impact. Then it goes to page three and finally disappears. Today, everyone is talking of Jessica Lal only because of the context: rich people's party, rich lifestyle, all big-shot people. Everyday in various bars of Delhi, people get killed and the media simply ignores that.

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