Narendra Modi was at the right riot at the right time to become the carrier of the Hindu nationalist’s anxiety over his manliness.
As I browse my Twitter timeline, surfing through replies by people clearly identifying themselves as staunch Hindus and, more importantly, as Narendra Modi’s supporters, a common theme emerges: among other religious and political iconography, they use as their display pictures the image of an angry Hanuman’s face, bathed in half saffron and half black. You can find similar imagery, like a Shiva with six-pack abs or a face sketch that’s half Modi and half lion, but the angry Hanuman seems to be the most popular icon by far. Sketched by Karan Acharya from Kerala, it has become one of the most popular icons for many young men who identify with the Bharatiya Janata Party, Modi, and, by extension, the Hindu nationalist idea of India.
In the unfolding story of India under Modi, one thing that’s constantly evoked is the overt masculinity of our “bachelor” leader, be it the 56-inch chest, the manliness of the Balakot air strike, the ‘main bhi chowkidar’ slogan. (A chowkidar, after all, is meant to protect you from external enemies and who better a watchman than one with the 56-inch chest.) Never mind that if you look at any picture of Modi, you can see he’s not as wide-chested as claimed. (Arnold Schwarzenegger, who stands at six feet two has a chest of 57 inches.) Yet, the myth persists.
On the other side are characters who are defined in clear non-masculine terms to hit home how aggressive, decisive and, therefore, a “proper leader” Modi is. Rahul Gandhi is the perennial baby who refuses to grow up and is, therefore, not man enough, never mind that he is a black belt in Aikido and from all visual samples is much fitter, if not healthier, than “56 inches”. Arvind Kejriwal is always coughing and wrapped in mufflers, thus weak and not the authority figure who should be the leader. Manmohan Singh was old, frail and, worst of all, managed by Sonia Gandhi, a woman, so he was meek and not a strong leader. In fact, the granddaddy of India’s opposition leadership in 2020 is a man who has been dead 56 years, Jawaharlal Nehru. To prove that Nehru was not an ideal leader, he is projected as this lascivious philanderer who gave up on national interests because he was busy satiating his carnal desires. (Being lascivious and philandering arguably doesn’t make one less manly, except in the angry Hanuman ecosystem.) In contrast, “Modi ji the bachelor” does not bother about such petty needs.
Problem of identity
Growing up as an upper caste Hindu man, it’s almost impossible to see caste. It’s so deeply embedded in daily life that even when you see caste discrimination – parents saying how having separate utensils is hygienic and not untouchability, so, of course, there are separate cups and plates for your house maid – you explain it away. On top of this, you’re constantly fed propaganda about how great your motherland and your religion are – propagated through school prayers, pledge of India, Bollywood films, and family lore – that you believe in a certain idea of greatness even if it’s not entirely true. The reason this propaganda is bought by the upper caste Hindu man more than any other person is that it mostly valorises people like him.
The first time many upper caste Hindus see caste up close is when they appear for engineering or medical school entrance exams. When caste, always lurking in the corner but invisible, suddenly appears here it seems almost unfair to this aspirant of unlimited ambitions. This, in a weird way, adds a positive to his established pride in his identity.
Of course, the reality of India is quite different. Most of India, particularly the Hindi heartland, has among the worst human development indicators in the world, yet it is populated by these men with aspirations of competing with the world (because that’s what the propaganda machine has told them to do). In many ways, they can compete with the world because the sheer extent of inequality in India, not only economic but also in terms of social capital and human development, means that despite being a low-income country with poor human development indicators, India has numbers almost equal to those of middle-income nations. (They are still not great, but such is the power of propaganda of India being the best that this does not matter.)
A paper by Sukhdeo Thorat for the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies mentions how even now, the average life expectancy of an urban upper caste Hindu is almost 20 years more than that of a Schedule Tribe person and 10 years more than a person from a Schedule Caste.
When you grow up in this complicated India with an almost naive view of India – and by extension of your place in the world – it’s bound to get confusing. In your head, India should be competing with countries such as the US and South Korea, be an economic heavyweight and a member of the UN Security Council merely for being India. But the reality begs to differ, from per capita income to sanitation levels and even the Olympics medal tally. Then, the internet makes you realise that you are from just another country, which most people around the world would find hard to place on a map, and you are shocked. It is an assault on your identity since you have been taught from childhood, and seen it around, that you are special and so, by extension, is India.
How do you deal with this?
Well, the tried and tested method is to blame the problems on an “other”. For the most part, the other can easily be identified among the Muslims because there will always be Pakistan next door. If only the Mughals hadn’t ruled us for centuries or the Muslims weren’t destroying the nation from inside, the thinking goes, we would have been the India I was always told we were. This is a contributing factor to the historical love many Indians who read in English (upper caste Hindus, largely) have for Adolf Hitler or the fantasy of Subhas Chandra Bose being the first dictator of independent India.
There’s another dilemma to contend with: if we were this great and brave, why did the Mughals rule us for so long? The contradiction is another assault on the idea of this carefully constructed identity. The Muslims didn’t just rule the Hindus for centuries, they succeeded in carving out a nation out of Mother India. How did all this happen when we were supposedly brave warriors and lovers and heroes (insert Padmavati).
The only way to reconcile all these contradictions is to paint the Muslims across the past and present as cunning and lascivious. This assuages the crisis of identity to an extent, but births the current crisis of masculinity that plagues the Hindu man. The only reaction to the crisis is to wear this pseudomacho identity of a man who is more masculine than any other.
For long, films have helped satiate this need for masculinity by ensuring the upper caste Hindu protagonist, macho and romantic, always gets his way in the end. But wouldn’t it be better if you found this masculinity in a politician?
Anxiety over masculinity
Anxiety over masculinity is foundational to the Hindutva movement. In Sexuality, Obscenity, Community: Women, Muslims, and the Hindu Public in Colonial India, Charu Gupta writes about the Hindu-Muslim riots of the 1920s: “These movements constructed Hindu masculinity as a contrast to the colonial image of the emasculated, effeminate and militarily incompetent Hindu male. For militant Hindu organizations, a show of physical strength was their psychological defense, their reply to the images of the powerful, rational British and the lustful Muslim.”
To add to this is the stereotype of the Muslim man as lustful, propagated through pamphlets and newspaper reports about Muslim men accused of abducting Hindu women, marrying and converting them to Islam. Any masculine movement tries to appropriate the women as an object to own as is clear from Gupta’s essays and the current conversations on “love jihad”.
Gupta provides a list of such incidents in Uttar Pradesh, where she points out that some cases might have been true. However, even elopement of Hindu women was depicted as abduction in many instances, perpetuating the myth of the Muslim man’s lustful behaviour. “Hindu masculinity had to be built in opposition to the ‘other’,” Gupta writes, referring to the Muslims. The Hindutva camp’s strategy, according to Gupta, was to glorify a “Hindu male who managed to attract the love of a Muslim woman…as the ultimate hero”. He did not abduct, he was irresistibly attractive.
Novels were written to extol the ideal Hindu man. “The most famous was Shivaji va Roshanara, a supposedly historical story from an unspecified source, embodying the Maratha tradition according to which Shivaji waylaid Roshanara, the daughter of Aurangzeb, and eventually married her, Sambhaji being the issue of this union.” In the novel, Shivaji is projected as a “handsome specimen of manhood, with a well-built body, fair complexion, and bright eyes”, and Roshanara “slowly falls in love with him”. Further, Roshanara prefers being called the queen of a “small king” rather than the emperor’s daughter.
In his seminal essay titled Exiled at Home, Ashis Nandy details what Nathuram Godse thought of his victim (Mohandas Gandhi) and the broader narrative of the history of Indian subcontinent (that the Hindus were feminine, having been constantly violated by outsiders). Godse saw Gandhi as the effeminate father of the nation who was unable to protect Mother India and desired passionately for Hinduism to attain the masculinity that the colonial rule and, by extension, the West represented. Gandhi to him represented the affirmation of the feminine self, long enshrined in the Hindu ideal of the Ardhnarishwar (a composite, androgynous divine form, half-male and half-female).
As the story goes, in 1925 a disenchanted Congressman from Nagpur launches an organisation for Hindu men called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. In the early years, the RSS focuses on inculcating unity, discipline and consciousness of culture among the Hindus. By the late 1930s, the RSS is an organised group with its own paramilitary. At the core of the RSS is the shakha, a daily gathering of men from its local chapter who partake in a military-style flag hoisting ceremony, discussions (ostensibly covering the personal and the political) and games such as kabaddi and Veer Shivaji (which revolves around the Maratha king fighting Aurangzeb). Shakha is a daily gathering of testosterone-charged boys and men asserting their manliness over each other through “games” and conditioning their minds to understand and accept the idea of the nation as defined by the founders of the RSS, KB Hedgewar and MS Golwalkar.
BS Moonje, mentor of Hedgewar, met with Benito Mussolini, who let him study the organisational structure of the Italian fascists. After returning home, Moonje played a key role in moulding the RSS on the pattern of the Italian fascists. In his diary, Moonje dwells on the deep impression left on him by the vision of the fascist organisation. “The idea of fascism vividly brings out the conception of unity amongst people,” he writes. “India and particularly Hindu Indians need some such institution for the military regeneration of the Hindus: so that the artificial distinction so much emphasized by the British of martial and non-martial classes amongst the Hindus may disappear…Our institution of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh of Nagpur under Dr Hedgewar is of this kind, though quite independently conceived. I will spend the rest of my life in developing and extending this institution of Dr Hegdewar all throughout Maharashtra and other provinces.”
Idea of humiliation
Preparing Hindu men for military regeneration is a direct response to the idea that the Hindus have faced centuries of humiliation, first at the hands of the invading Muslims and then the British. Islam was brought to the Indian subcontinent by the Arabs who traded with what is now Kerala, during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad, and then the Umayyads who conquered Sindh in 711. Islam expanded in the subcontinent through multiple invasions in the north and by proselytization in the south. (The share of Muslim population is low around the principal seats of Muslim political power like Delhi, Lucknow, Ahmadabad, Ahmednagar, Mysore and Bijapur. On the other hand, Muslims form nearly 30 percent of the population of the Malabar region where it was never really a political power. Bengal saw largescale conversion of lower caste Hindus to Islam.) Yet, ask a man on the street about how Islam spread in India and the answer would likely be laced with resentment about invaders subduing good Hindu kings through deception and cunning.
It didn’t help that British India was divided into two nations, one of which was the theocratic state of Pakistan, seen by the Hindutva camp as the final dagger into the heart of the “original Hindu inhabitants” of the land.
Never mind that the idea of the subcontinent’s Hindus and Muslims constituting two separate nations was not entirely a Muslim construct. In fact, it was first proposed by VD Savarkar – who prefixed the hypermasculine “veer” to his name – in his essay Hindutva, published in 1923. A year later, Lala Lajpat Rai, one of the Mahasabha’s early leaders, laid out his “scheme” of India’s partition. The Muslims, he proposed, would get four states – the Pathan province or the Northwest Frontier, western Punjab, Sindh, eastern Bengal. “If there are compact Muslim communities in any other part of India, sufficiently large to form a province, they should be similarly constituted,” Rai wrote in the Tribune. “But it should be distinctly understood that this is not a united India. It means a clear partition of India into a Muslim India and a non-Muslim India.”
This was 16 years before the Muslim League adopted the Pakistan Resolution in 1940. Pakistan’s creation was, and still is, seen as another loss in the long line of setbacks to the Hindus. One is almost afraid to think how, had the partition not happened, Hindutva’s torchbearers would have lived with a Muslim population of over 30 percent, instead of the current 14 percent.
Violence in India
In independent India, although completely dominated by the supposedly secular Congress, violence as a mean to rile up the sentiments of the Hindu community against the Muslims and other minorities was constantly on display. Perpetrators of the violence could rationalise their acts as justification for the humiliation of the partition. The first act happened in 1948, when Gandhi was assassinated. We’ve already explored the masculine notions behind the assassination.
In the early decades, multiple inquiries indicted the RSS for fomenting communal violence. The Jaganmohan Reddy commission on the Ahmedabad riots of 1969 and the Madan Commission on the Bhiwandi riots of 1970 exposed the “tactics of the RSS and its political wing, the Jan Sangh, ancestor of the BJP”, as this report from 2002 noted. Similarly, Justice Vithayathil’s report on the Tellicherry riots of 1971 censured the RSS for “rousing up communal feelings and for preparing the background for the disturbances”; Justice Jitendra Narain’s report on the Jamshedpur riots of 1979 censured the RSS supremo MD Deoras personally for the communal propaganda that had caused the carnage; Justice P Venugopal of the Madras High Court found the RSS guilty of fomenting anti-Christian feelings that caused the Kanyakumari riots of March 1982. “It has taken upon itself the task to teach the minority their place and if they are not willing to learn their place, teach them a lesson. The RSS has given respectability to communalism and communal riots.”
In 1992, the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya catapulted the BJP to becoming the single largest party in the Lok Sabha. A decade later, there was the carnage in Gujarat, the laboratory of Hindutva.
Manliness in Modi’s India
Would there have been the cult of Modi had there been no 2002? No. He offered nothing beyond being the first BJP chief minister to oversee a communal carnage. Though the BJP was adept at using communal violence as a means to attain power, 2002 was the first time the party used state machinery for this purpose. Modi ensured he got the most mileage out of the carnage. Campaigning for the Gujarat election that was held after the carnage, Modi organised a statewide road trip called the Gujarat Gaurav Yatra, or pride rally. It was the first time he spun accusations made against him into accusations against his state, and later nation.
Ahead of the 2014 parliamentary election when the Gujarat model of development was being widely touted, I had made two points about it. They still stand.
Firstly, the economies of Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu had grown faster than Gujarat’s, yet nobody talked about them. In fact, Gujarat’s infant mortality rate (33 per 1,000) as of 2015 was worse than even Jharkhand’s and much worse than Tamil Nadu’s (21 per 1,000), the best performing Indian state on this parameter. Similarly, the rate of cognisable crimes against the Scheduled Castes in Gujarat (25.7 percent) was far higher than in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Jharkhand. According to the National Family Health Survey of 2015-16, Gujarat is only ahead of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, and Jharkhand when it comes to the population of underweight children. More than 39 per cent of Gujarat’s children are underweight as opposed to the national average of 36 percent.
Secondly, Gujarat was never really an underperformer economically before Modi came along. It had some of the best numbers in India when it came to per capita earnings.
So, where was this Gujarat model?
Nowhere. The Gujarat model was bunkum despite all the propaganda, except in one aspect. And here we come to the core of why Modi is liked by the folks he’s liked by: the 2002 carnage.
In 2000, Gujarat held elections to local government bodies and the incumbent BJP was trounced by the opposition Congress party. In September 2001, the BJP again lost to the Congress in byelections to two Assembly seats. Shortly thereafter, Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel was replaced by Modi, the party’s general secretary for six years. His appointment was a big victory for the RSS as he was its first pracharak to become chief minister. But in byelections to three Assembly seats in February 2002, the BJP lost by two of them by vast margins. Six days later, on February 27, the carnage began. On April 12, the BJP proposed early elections in Gujarat shortly after rejecting Modi’s offer to resign. The rest, as they say, is history.
In election after election and in drawing room conversations Modi slowly became the channel for Hindu pride. He had overgrown his stature as a shakha hero and was now being talked about in boardrooms and university campuses as a potential leader of the nation. Modi wasn’t just in the right state at the right time, he was at the right riot at the right time. Modi became the carrier of the Hindu nationalists’ anxiety over masculinity.
The Hindutva movement that coalesced around Modi had been a century in the making, if not more. It was fueled, as most patriarchal conservative ideas are, by a deep sense of anguish over being bested by non-Hindu men. Modi was the right man at the right time, at the helm of the exact crisis this movement needed as fuel. That’s why this movement is all the scarier: it does not want to assert the idea of Hindu nationhood as its final goal but wants to completely win over the Muslims, in an almost Dark Age parallel of the Crusades.
They look at women in a binary, either to be worshipped or to be stripped of all their dignity. The depiction of Bharat Mata as a god and the idea of winning over the newly subjugated Kashmiri women fall on the two sides of this binary. The treatment of a non-compliant woman as a witch is another aspect of this binary (Arundhati Roy as Surpnakha on Sudarshan TV, even the caricaturing of Mamata Banerjee or Mayawati can be seen through this prism). The idea of German pride during the third Reich was similar in the sense that it was borne out of the humiliation of the First World War. So, there are parallels to the 1930’s Germany in ideals and actions.
In this context, the ongoing movement against the citizenship law is heartening. It does help in taking back the nationalist narrative from the Hindutva movement, which since at least 2014 seems to have a monopoly on patriotism and nationalism. Young men and women singing the national anthem and reading the preamble to the Indian constitution serves not only the cause of this protest, but also helps make a dent, however small, in this artificially constructed masculine notion of Hindutva being the only flagbearer of this nation. Will it change the course that this nation has undertaken? It seems unlikely as of now, because in the end any act towards equality by the oppressed seems like an act of oppression to the powerful.