I do not know if Kanhaiya Kumar, the hero of India’s liberal opinion, will accept Jhanvi Behal’s challenge to debate with her. The 15-year-old from Ludhiana wants to argue with the 28-year-old leader of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union. She supports Prime Minister Narendra Modi; Kumar opposes him.

Kumar has already become a hero for many, and for good reason. He had been arrested on sedition charges which would have kept him in jail for a long time had there been any merit to the charges. Some of the videos that implicated him were, in fact, doctored. He was beaten up by lawyers or people dressed as lawyers while in custody and the police apparently did nothing. He spent nearly three weeks in jail. And when he was released on bail, the judge lectured him about nationalism using the ultimate example of kitsch—a song from a Manoj Kumar film—and used metaphors about infection, gangrene and amputation, that made as little sense in English as in biology.

In spite of all that, Kumar returned to the campus and gave a rousing speech cheered by the hundreds of students who had gathered to celebrate his return. In subsequent interviews, he has shown sagacious maturity and placed faith in the Indian Constitution and judicial processes that is to be applauded. Since his release, a few individuals have put up posters calling for his death and offering a bounty. And in what can only be imagined by a novelist with a taste for the absurd, the Delhi Police investigating the threats are likely to press charges on those individuals for defacing public property.

Behal’s response is far more interesting. She has her own perspective on nationalism. She has campaigned against tobacco products being sold to children and opposes easy access to pornography. When she gets angry about something, she writes letters to political leaders expecting change. In her public spiritedness, she shows a touching faith in the institutions of the state apparatus that more cynical grown-ups would say is not warranted.

Both need to widen their perspective—Behal will hopefully learn that every image of people without clothes is not vulgar, and religious violence is often worse than pornography; Kumar will hopefully acknowledge that in the name of equality, Stalin and Mao committed mass murder.

The Indian political discourse has become so Manichean and binary that both Kumar and Behal are being vilified by either side of India’s political spectrum. Those on the left are ridiculing Behal for emerging out of nowhere and challenging their icon, Kumar; those on the right are championing her, as if she is speaking truth to power, as if Kumar has any power. And what could become a lively conversation between two spirited young people with their own vision of India is being viewed through the narrow lens of left and right.

Behal’s challenge shows that there is hope for civility in India. To that, add Kumar’s eloquence. One thing that emerges from Kumar’s speech, and more tragically, from the suicide note left by Rohith Vemula, the Dalit scholar in the University of Hyderabad, is how thoughtful India’s young are. Vemula wanted to explore the mysteries of the cosmos; Kumar reflected on transforming the Indian universe by looking at two bowls in the jail—one red, one blue; one left, one Dalit; and in seeking to unite the two, he sees hopes of building a new India that fights caste and class. Bliss it is in this dawn to be alive, and to be young, the very heaven.

When other young Indians are busy applying for business schools, Vemula was dreaming of an India without discrimination. Outraged by his death, many thousands have marched for Vemula’s ideals. The challenge for India is to harness that idealism, and indeed, compassion. Blended with Behal’s public spiritedness, and expanded to be truly inclusive, the combination can help build a better India. Rather than dividing our young and painting them into corners of “left" and “right", Indians would do better by nurturing those dreams.

India is a young country, as demographers and market researchers never tire of reminding us. Two out of five Indians are not old enough to vote, and nearly 53% of the population is under 25. The young are showing the way. The minority of Indians who are older than them are generous with advice and telling the youth to study, to listen and to obey. Wisdom will follow; the young must not question.

This is bizarre on many levels—for young Indians have historically acted out of political passion. Bhagat Singh was 24 when the British executed him. Khudiram Bose, one of the earliest revolutionaries, was executed when he was four months short of 19. Young Indians should not be sacrificing their lives. India has had enough young martyrs. Instead of demonizing them, let them remain free. Let them argue—and rejoice the idea of an India where differences are settled by debates, not death threats.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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