What is the true meaning to the protests and consequent hunger strike by the college students who are being strung along?

The most tragic part of the ongoing protests by students over the ‘purported’ HCL Tech job offers is that this situation was entirely predictable. The repetition of events throughout history is no mere coincidence, but rather a form of warning. A warning that tells us that tragedy has the potential to be averted, if and only if, a certain situation had been handled differently.

The rather cavalier handling of the employment of freshers by the Indian IT industry has long been presented as a sort of anomaly, both to the general public and college students.

We are told again and again that the long periods of waiting time between receiving an offer letter and actually working in an IT company are minor glitches. That we must tighten our belts and wait it out. This is not a characteristic of only HCL, but a majority of their rivals as well. From a one to two months waiting period, the norm soon became three. And then six.

Inscribed on its structure

This aspect is almost intrinsic to our homegrown technology industry. It is no secret that the industry as a whole as profited from these ‘standing army of employees’—who at a moment’s notice will be able to join the company and work on a software solutions project. However, with the global financial crisis and corresponding demand slump—the equation has benefited the companies far more than the students.

The entire industry is not willing to fine-tune its supply side, i.ie, the phantom hiring of freshers, as it still benefits them—even in the face of worsening demand. The only way to save ourselves from these hard times, apparently, is to let the industry continue to profit. Therefore, what do the students do at this point? What can they do?

While the HCL protests were triggered by the further extension of their joining dates, the recent decision by over a hundred students to go on a hunger strike expresses a deeper unease—but of what kind? Both the conservative and liberal bleeding-heart reactions to the protests are woefully inadequate.

Worn-out arguments

The conservative reaction here was predictable – HCL’s Chief HR Officer claimed the company issued ‘letters of intent’ and not a job offer, and as such was not in the business of ensuring them any sort of employment. While politically incorrect, the HR head’s logic was a mere corollary of the long-standing tradition of treating freshers as beasts of burden, commoditized beasts of course.

Which is not entirely unjust – these companies are huge employers in our economy. TCS has an employee base of nearly 250,000 and Cognizant somewhere around 150,000. What is wrong with this reaction, however, is that it ignores the desperate social situation pushing these young people towards these outburst and protests.

The liberal online reaction, that has spawned multiple Facebook pages and campaigns, was also equally predictable and equally misplaced. By pointing to the fact that the protestors were cheated, and deserve a job— it only lists the objective conditions that were necessary for such a protest, and not the root cause itself. The multitude of insults and leftist propaganda circulating through the Internet against these companies only serve to confuse the true debate.

The real truth, ironically, lies in the slogan that these protestors are shouting. Watch this video. “We want joining, we want joining”, they scream. As Zygmaunt Bauman once said of the 2011 U.K protests, ‘these are not hunger or bread riots.’

These young boys and girls are screaming for a chance to join society at large. They wish to join the world as a consumer and to be able participate in the whole process of life. Is it not ironic? The students are told throughout their lives, to study, to grow up, get a job and start consuming. The corresponding response to being denied a job therefore is to protest.

“You tell us to join society as earning adults, yet deny us the only way of doing so, so here we are on a hunger strike,” is the true meaning behind “we want joining.”

Moving up the ladder

And therefore, here we are, at the role played by the IT industry in India. For long, we have found pride and reveled in the fact that our IT industry provided thousands with the only option of lifting themselves out of near poverty or pushing themselves towards a better life. We find this in the proverbial newspaper article that showers praise on the child that got into IIT through studying via street lamps.

I find it perverse that we hold ourselves hostage to this one option of being lifted out of the lower-to-middle class. The real meaning of the hunger strike, taking place in Bangalore’s Freedom Park this weekend, is that technology and the IT industry has manifested only in the form of one social mobility option.

And this is not a failure of the IT industry, but in that we, as citizens, have not yet been able to harness technology and the Internet to bring about a reorganization of social life. Facebook pages and hunger strikes are becoming increasingly commonplace—and are often not serious. The so-called social media political revolution is still a mere illusion.

A combination of both, mashed together in ways not yet tried, is clearly necessary.