Indian Parents and the Art of Crushing Dissent

Social Commentary

Indian Parents and the Art of Crushing Dissent

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Indian cinema is littered with so many compulsively controlling parents it would make for an entire litany of the obnoxious and the oppressive. From the Raichands of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham… to the Mehras of Dil Dhadakne Do, parents find it so hard to process their children’s freedom or their decision to rebel that Indian filmmakers have and probably will continue to make successful films around them. This obsession with appointing yourself as guardian, juror, prosecutor, and judge has led most Indian parents to believe that their children are tasks given by society that they must get right. Forget your day in court or arguing against the law, children here are repeatedly tutored to take bullying lying down, to co-opt the system and not question it, keep their head low. Activist Disha Ravi may have been released from custody as she should be but the government’s larger message has been delivered to the other institution that thrives on being both invasive and conservative, therefore making for a natural ally – Indian parents.

India’s parents boast a longer record in muzzling dissent than any authoritarian government in the world looking forward to celebrating an anniversary. On one hand you can kind of understand the government’s frustration in trying to control the young, who simply can’t be transacted with like their senior counterparts. But what can’t probably be done with bureaucratic persecution, Indian parents will tell you, can be done with a shed of the tear, the wail of a mother who is suddenly close to death or the animated dejection of a father who assumes his age is by nature, the measure of his reputation.

My family has often regarded it mutinous that I disagree with their opinions in public. I remember being given the sanskar lecture when I refused to echo my parents’ opinion about a cousin having committed sin for marrying a Muslim. My refusal to acknowledge both their political and religious authority continues to earn me consistent supply of their ire. I’ve often been told to keep my opinions to myself at family gatherings, usually a cesspool of misogynistic chatter about someone or else’s daughter-in-law.

Indian parents are a constitution unto themselves. A constitution that is never clearly written down for the purpose, simply, of being flexible in their interest. It is then no surprise that the same parents rarely talk about institutional earnestness and consistency with the same passion that we, the young, envisage these institutions in. In fact, they kind of don’t get the idea of passion at all, in most cases. Why do kids need to feel strongly about anything per se? Arguing with your parents is like trying to find the answer to a question you only know the middle of. Only they know the end and more often than not it is a rhetorical echo of their disappointment in us. That their children simply aren’t submissive enough, aren’t gullible enough to do what is asked of them. The guilt trip that is Shravan Kumar’s story from Ramayana and the tortuous film that is Baghbhan are all fantasies in which parents play god, unsuspectingly subjected to the humanising critique of material and moral tropes – which by the way their own children cannot get away with.

Indian parents are a constitution unto themselves.

Disha Ravi’s case is an anomaly, firstly because her parents have at least publicly supported her. But while Ravi’s parents might appear supportive, you can safely assume they’ll be offered condescending lessons in parenting from someone who fears his own ilk taking inspiration from the same. “Ladki ko choot”, “laad pyaar ne bigaad diya” etc are accusations I have heard parents trade with each other with the casualness of a pyjama party. Nothing unites a middle-aged get-together than the collective nostalgia of when it was blissful to just accept the whims of parental authority.

Indian parents consider their kids as projects that must be managed, moulded and eventually staked claim for should they end up doing something socially laudable – birth kids, buy property, have a good salary, know a really difficult religious prayer or touch everyone’s feet at a marriage. That last one really hits the spot. It waters over misdemeanour, abuse, even criminal histories. I have witnessed it with my own eyes. A relative who essentially defrauds medical establishments with forged documents – an open secret – becomes a sage with a mithai ka dibba in hand and stories about all the temples he has visited and the many fasts he is willing to keep. I, on the other hand, have often faced the threat of being disowned… only for having a point of view different from theirs.

Today’s young activists being cast as anarchists are perfect foil for the average Indian parent to school their own in what not to do. In fact, in this case it’s the state echoing the parent, the two subsequently feeding off of each other’s insecurities. Most Indian parents looking at Disha Ravi, Pinjra Tod activist Devangana Kalita, or JNU’s Umar Khalid are not thinking about the injustice meted out to them or whether they are even culpable. They are in fact wondering what these young men and women are doing outside of roles assigned to them. “Apne kaam se kaam rakho,” is the advice most parents give their children, if they notice any spark of dissent. Or as Ramdev would say: Stay away from politics, focus on studies.

This breaking of the prescribed order is what irks most parents, who can’t have their power checked, their opinions regardless of the basis, questioned. It’s what makes their existence real, continuing to believe the hype of all they have experienced, however, outdated or even impractical. Somehow, the biological process of ageing and the social process of complicity has turned Indian parents into immovable rocks waiting to turn into something godly by way of their children. Add to that paper thin argument the weightage of a few existential tears, the pitch of conflicted self-worth and the residual fear of having their own authority, their one hobby, questioned and you have a nice, gooey glob of manipulation.

This form of tyrannical rearing is common to most families, and makes all the more sense to be seen as a template worth emulating if you are to yield a plump populace of gullible, yes-men. The casual suppression of a younger person’s opinion in the Indian household is both inspiration and ammunition here. The parents are being asked to get their children in line. And there isn’t another task in the world they love doing more with the enthusiasm of a tabloid and the self-image of an avenger.