Book Extract

Sowmya Reddy: The young and the restless

The young and the restless provides and insight to the youth politics and activism in India focusing on the issues of environmental rights, LGBT rights, and Dalit rights

Sowmya Reddy (Social media)
Sowmya Reddy (Social media)

Gurmehar Kaur

Sowmya is not your usual politician, and I learnt that soon enough. She never intended to be in active politics but instead, spent all her time working as an environmental activist from the time she was in college, post which she went to study environment in New York, the city in which she gathered most of her life experiences, which have made her who she is. Over a post-dinner coffee sometime around 11 that night, she opened up about the horrible time she had in college while she pursued chemical engineering. It was then that she took all her anger and frustration and channelled it into her activism. ‘I learnt more on the streets than I did in the classroom,’ she said, and I couldn’t agree with her more.

While what I’ve learnt in the classroom helps me sound smart around people, it is the lessons that I learn on the street that become tools that I use to live my life. ‘I think I’m still growing up. I don’t think I’ve fully grown up,’ she said and we burst into giggles and Sowmya’s mother jumped in to tell
us this story from her
rebel days.

‘I have to tell you this,’ Aunty started and all of us leaned in on the table to hear her while Sowmya sank into her chair with one hand covering her smiling face. It’s a story that has been spoken about many times before and doesn’t get old.

‘She was in college when her father, who was the development minister then, was invited to an event where he had to inaugurate a meat packing plant here in Bangalore. And this girl was such a strong believer in her values and activism, she led a protest against her own father. We were very lucky that no one in the media found out that the girl behind the chicken mask, holding a bloodied chicken, rallying slogans was his own daughter, otherwise what a mess it would have been.’ After a moment of disbelief I looked at Sowmya, who by now was laughing at my reaction. ‘I mean, I didn’t know my father was going to be the chief guest, but it was against my ideals and I have no regrets organizing the protest. I didn’t try to convince him about the cruelty behind factory farming after that,’ she said, raising both her hands in her defence.

‘And you should’ve seen me—her father called me, all angry, telling me to see what my daughter was doing. So when Sowmya is doing good things she is “his daughter”. But that day it became “your daughter”! And Sowmya was on the other line telling me, “Look what your husband is doing,” and I was stuck in the middle.’ That was Sowmya for you. The feisty young activist who led protests against her own father while he was in office, without a single care in the world…

I became a vegetarian when I was in the seventh standard. I was watching this programme called Heads and Tails and I saw how animals were, you know, treated cruelly and I turned towards my mother and said, “I don’t want any animal to be treated way.” That was when I gave up non-vegetarian food. I came from a hardcore meat-eating family and people were shocked at my decision. I still remember, somebody came and told my mother, “Oh my god! She is a vegetarian, who will marry her?” I stared in disbelief at this new layer and logic people found to call a girl unmarriageable. But my parents always let me be. That’s how my activism and rebelling started. I think in my teenage years I was quite a terror and I recommend my parents for a Nobel Peace Prize,’ said the recipient of the Akhila Karnataka Vipra Mahila Prasadhan and People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) outstanding contribution towards animals prize.

The young woman also took on the BJP in Bangalore, in Jayanagar, where they had been having a stronghold for over twenty-five years, in the by-elections…

‘I was in the US for three years. I went there for my master’s. I did my master’s in environmental technology, but then I knew I didn’t want to stay there for too long. I came back for my best friend’s wedding but I never went back to collect my clothes from the US. Back in the US, there were so many amazing restaurants and me being a vegan, I was also kind of a foodie, I would miss all those interesting cuisines. I wouldn’t get any desserts here. Also, being an activist, I was in New York, and New York City is kind of like the hub for activism and it got me involved with the freeganism movement which talks about anti-capitalism, which is anti-consumerism, and the entire anti-free trade movement. For me, most of my life, it’s the learning outside of formal education that has actually kind of been my true learning.’ She made a strong case for dropping out of the system, I told her.

‘All my protests and activism was nurtured on the streets of New York. When I came back home, I became an environmental researcher for a bit and that was in the middle of Pune district, near Baramati, crunching numbers; it was just impact assessment,’ she said and scrunched her face at the thought of her desk job. ‘And then I realized that I have a master’s degree. Someone needed to do this work, but not me. I realized I have been more of a person who has been vocal and wants to mobilize crowds. So I thought, let’s start an activist centre because I had been involved pretty much in every movement, right from animal welfare, anticapitalism, environmental rights, Dalit rights, human rights, LGBT rights. I thought that many of these movements and many of these people are not talking to each other. In the US, activism around LGBT rights in the sixties was actually strongly supported by the feminist movement and the human rights movement and they were not separate from one another. But over here, unfortunately, that’s not the case. So I thought, I always wanted to do something on my own, I blended all my interests and started a vegan cafe and an activist centre.’…

‘You said that you felt like a minority for the first time in the US and you’re not the only one who felt that way. But since we are on the topic of minorities and their rights in big democracies like ours and the US, considering you are a vegan and a vocal animal rights activist, what are your thoughts on the beef ban that the current government is trying to impose in many states?’ I asked her.

So unfortunately with this whole beef ban, what happens is . . . see, when you impose any kind of ban, as a matter of fact, as long as there is a demand there is going to be a supply and you need to regularize it. When you ban something, it goes underground. That doesn’t mean

consumption is going to stop. See, in most places, be it in villages, cities or towns, beef is consumed; forget beef, people consume leather. In fact, India is one of the highest exporters of beef and of leather, so please stop all of that first. In fact, it’s hypocrisy when you are talking about beef ban and stuff because beef is a poor man’s cheapest source of protein. Of course, as an animal rights activist I will say that if you want to, then stop all animals, no? Why only cow? Why not chicken? Why not goats? I challenge you that 99.5 per cent of these people who are gau rakshaks, or whatever, they wear leather.

‘It is absolute nonsense how they are saffronizing animal rights. For them this is just another rule to oppress Muslims, to oppress Dalits and minorities. Who are the people who mostly eat beef? In fact, the people who cut are mostly Dalits or Muslims, but the people who own and sell, a lot of them are Hindus.’

‘In fact, the biggest exporter of beef in UP is a BJP guy,’ I add.

‘Yes, because they don’t care about these animals and it’s just a tool to oppress. Why did a fifteen-year-old boy, who was suspected of carrying beef, have to face what he faced in a train? And this is what the country has come to. It is so heartbreaking.’

(This extract from The Young and the Restless has been taken with permission from the publisher)

For all the latest India News, Follow India Section.