The making of toxic Hindu masculinity

Sanjay Srivastava

The villages and towns of western Uttar Pradesh (UP) are unique contexts for erratic playing out of north Indian masculine culture. In their entanglement with the contemporary Hindutva politics, they create an unstable behavioural cocktail that speaks of defending 'ancient' traditions while simultaneously wanting to ride the consumerist modernity wave.

The uniqueness of western UP lies in the fact that though it is close to the Capital, it has remained isolated from significant social change. Besides, though a plethora of educational institutions have mushroomed in the region, offering a variety of professional courses, their abysmal quality has largely trapped local youth in an endless cycle of unemployment and hopelessness. This is a fertile ground for the making of Hindu masculinity€"an identity that promises men control over a world that otherwise seems to be passing them by.

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Masculinity is a relationship between men and women as well as men and men. So, while on the one hand it defines all men as superior to all women, it also serves to define active forms of masculinity as better than passive forms.

Western UP is a swathe of land where large numbers of young men are nurtured in the crucible of family, kin and community ties that are trapped in time as far as gender power is concerned. However, they are simultaneously experiencing socio-economic churning around them, which are undermining their sense of power. Their own identity as men with complete control over their worlds is gradually diminishing. The rise of Hindu masculinity is a bid to wrest control by fashioning an identity that can dominate over groups that are represented as threats to the Hindu concept of manhood.

The threat to an imagined ancient Hindu manhood is sought to be countered, however, through a variety of modern symbols. Hanuman is now a brawny, scowling figure and a six-pack Shiva marshals his trishul like a laser gun.

While it is impossible to influence broader processes such as impractical educational policies and haphazard economic planning, for example, that thwart people's opportunities, appeals to Hindu masculinity give the illusion of taking immediate control. This is precisely the manner in which forces that seek to harness the identity for their political gains pitch their campaign. Muslims have become a convenient proxy for all that has gone wrong in western UP.

Expressions of religious nationalism€"represented through notions of honour, shame, valour, etc., are commonly based upon appeals to mythic and masculinised historical beliefs. In this mythic past, Hinduism was a force to be reckoned with and both men and women lived harmoniously as each knew their place in society. Religion provided both a moral and practical code of life. However, the thinking goes, the contemporary ills like lack of jobs, economic instability and inability to live a life of material comfort are a result of a disruption in this Utopia. Muslims are the most identifiable culprits for all that has gone wrong. As the Utopia slides into dystopia, Muslims are being held responsible for Hindu emasculation: Hindu men can no longer exercise their 'natural' control because of their socio-economic weakness.

This forms the most obvious justification for anti-Muslim violence. Hindu masculinity expresses itself in another allied manner, in which women of the family seek to express a measure of a freedom. Changing aspirations among young women have meant a greater desire for education and, perhaps, a job. Hindu men feel particularly threatened by women's changing aspirations and even a minor demand for autonomy is being seen as a threat to the established male order. Western UP has witnessed a peculiar form of masculine anxiety that is linked to Hindu women, but expressed through attacks on Muslim men. 'Love jihad', where Muslim men entice Hindu women into bonds of intimacy, continues to be a significant bogey of making Hindu men believe that their manhood is under threat from 'lascivious' and 'cunning' Muslims who seek to undermine their masculinity by stealing 'their' women who are, after all, 'their' property.

(Sanjay Srivastava teaches sociology in Institute of Economic Growth in Delhi University)

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