To understand toxic masculinity amongst Hindu extremists it is imperative to first define the two terms.
Defining an Extremist
Toxic masculinity implies that it is not enough for a man to be born male. This maleness or masculinity has to be validated by acts of aggression or by domination—by a show of machismo, which can be, though of course isn’t always, so extreme as to result in violence. While toxic masculinity is a phenomenon the world over, with some common traits, I would argue that each manifestation is rooted in its own specific milieu, geography and history, and in most cases in some genuine grievance.
Now, we must define the second term. As I have argued elsewhere, a Hindu extremist does not try to impose a particular theological perspective on others. Hinduism is a very fluid belief system with a number of scriptures and no single central authority. I will also argue that a Hindu extremist is neither grounded in Hindi philosophy nor tradition, hence not hearing Hindu extremists quote from any scripture.
A Hindu extremist neither tries for world domination nor for Hindu expansion beyond India’s borders. The uniqueness of Hindu extremism lies in the fact that it is inextricably entwined with Hindu nationalism or “Hindutva”. The Hindu extremist tries to reclaim India—the birthplace of Hinduism and where the majority of the world’s Hindus live—for himself and all Hindus. As such, he views himself as the defender and upholder of Hindu society, and by extension, of India’s borders.
How does toxic masculinity manifest itself amongst Hindu extremists? In two ways: first, within the community, and, second, in relation to other communities.
Within the community, extremists see themselves as the keeper and upholder of Hindu society. The men take upon themselves the task of “protecting” the women, the keepers of the lineage. In practice, this means Hindu extremists arrogate to themselves the right to decide female behavioral limits and what counts as a transgression, even which areas women are allowed to venture into.
Great importance is given to the family, the building blocks of society. In this context, marriage is not only about individuals but also their relatives. Extremists are not in favor of women (nor, indeed, men) exercising their autonomy to select their spouses; in this, the Hindu extremists are drawing on tradition amongst ancient Hindus. Thus, honor killings are not unheard of when any couple tries to defy their families. This is particularly true in rural communities, but it does occur in urban areas, too, as a recent shootout on the outskirts of Delhi demonstrates.
In the Indian context, the form toxic masculinity takes is shaped by the interaction of several other factors, including poverty, a burgeoning youthful population, and higher literacy rates. India has a young population and a problem of overpopulation in general, and a particular issue with poverty among rural youth.
Many young men from rural areas migrate to towns or cities for employment, and the lifestyle of women there, as compared to that of women back home, is vastly different and confusing. These men, displaced from their comfort zones, try to “reclaim” their masculinity, which they feel is undermined. Partly they feel it is undermined because, with greater levels of literacy in India than before, it means here is more competition for employment; many men are unemployed, or at least underemployed. They are particularly resentful of women who have entered the public sphere and “taken their jobs”. This resentment and frustration is acted out in gendered violence, often in mass attacks and gang rapes; the 2012 Nirbhaya case is a notorious instance of his effort to “put women in their place”.
There is, thus, a correlation between women’s empowerment, rural-urban migration of men, and poverty—a phenomenon certainly not restricted to Hindu extremists, though it will be in this paper.
While the above dynamics might find resonance in many other societies and milieus, a defining trait of Hindu violent masculinity is expressed in its relations to other communities. This is manifested through hyper-nationalism, bordering on xenophobia, and extreme communalism. This phenomenon is rooted in the experience of foreign and colonial rule in India together with the partition of the country in 1947—a seminal event in the region’s history that continues to impact large numbers of people. This has engendered fear and insecurity about Hindus losing the country in two senses: (1) by losing their majority and being outnumbered, and this fear focuses on Christianity and even more so Islam since these are universalist, proselytizing religions, and Hinduism is not; and (2) by losing literal pieces of the country to future partitions.
The violence by Hindu extremists in “response” to these perceived threats tends to be expressed in two ways: moral policing of women, and assaults on men from other communities.
The moral policing begins with a disdain for Western (Christian) traditions or influence. A good example is the “activism” that is seen by such extremists around Valentine’s Day. Instructions are floated days in advance warning couples not to celebrate the day, as it is “alien” to Indian culture, and therefore an insidious attempt to “corrupt” Hindu youth. Card shops have been attacked, and couples seen in public on that day have faced assaults by these self-appointed guardians of society.
The fear of demographic defeat manifests in a horror of intermarriage. Extremist groups reject Hindu women marrying non-Hindus, especially if they convert in order to marry, and, again, this fear is especially acute with regard to Christians and Muslims. Such marriages are, for these extremists, a metaphor for the community—and by extension the country—being defiled by foreigners. Vigilante groups police couples belonging to different religions and in some cases have physically separated couples, made allegations of forceful abduction and conversion, and even initiated judicial action.
It should be noted that, unfortunately, violence against mixed couples has been committed by and against all communities—and the opposition to such marriages is not a fringe phenomenon, even if the violence is. A recent Pew Research survey on the state of religion in India found that 67% of Hindus and 80% of Muslims were against “their” women marrying outside the community. There were similar clear majorities against mixed marriages from not only Sikhs but the notoriously peaceful Jains; interestingly, only 37% of Christians felt this way.
Finally, Hindu extremist groups try to establish visible dominance over men from other communities, particularly Muslims, who they view as both foreign and deliberately trying to “out-breed” Hindus. Government efforts to further equality, such as granting reservations in educational institutions, government jobs, and select scholarships to minority communities, are used to mobilize Hindu resentment.
The violence employed is never one-to-one but is usually mob attacks on individuals. Sometimes people have been lynched on mere suspicion that they have been smuggling cattle or selling beef, as the cow is a sacred animal for Hindus.
As many as 7,484 communal incidents have been reported over the decade between 2008 and 2017, according to data from India’s Home Ministry. Such violence concentrates in certain pockets of the country, mainly in northern and central India, where Hindu-Muslim tensions have historically been worst.
The Hindu extremist violence against non-Hindu men is, then, deployed to give vent to the anger stoked by demagogues and to put Muslims in particular “in their place,” to demonstrate that Hindus hold power. In this sense, these Hindu extremists mirror the far-Right in Europe that fears it is being “replaced” by Muslim immigrants with high birth rates.
As in Europe, there are incentives for these communal-sectarian entrepreneurs. Sometimes such violent men find a local following sufficient to enter local politics or attain status as a community leader under state patronage; this does not always end at local politics. The fact that this path can be taken turn encourages others in such aggressive behavior.
What Can Be Done
In order to address such aggression and violence, a number of steps are needed.
Justice should be swiftly meted out to perpetrators of such violence and they should be disqualified from public life. Care has to be taken to administer counselling to perpetrators where possible, and ameliorate genuine grievances that can be dealt with in non-violent ways.
Tackle structural factors like unemployment, dispossession, and poverty. Many of these lynch mobs comprise youth without any meaningful employment or occupation. They should be engaged by community leaders and their grievances should be engaged with.
Political parties should be evenhanded with communities, and avoid discriminatorily favoring one community over any other(s).
A counter-narrative should be built up on what it means to be a Hindu and how actual empowerment of Hindus can be brought about. Most Hindu extremists have little knowledge about Hindu philosophy and their actions are not anchored in the Hindu scriptures.
A long-term cure can be found by encouraging more interfaith dialogue and interaction. While the government can assist with this, it cannot do it all; civil society will have to take on some of this burden.
Finally, the most important non-governmental institution when it comes to inter-communal relations is the media, and often it uses a sensational style that inflames passions. Going forward, the media should report in a more responsible manner.
This is not a comprehensive list, but these would be important steps toward mitigating the problem.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.