India will ring in its 70th anniversary of independence as a modern nation-state that frequently makes global news for medieval lynchings and a rape culture. Violence perpetrated by men unable to reconcile with the gradual upturning of a patriarchal status quo, unable to adapt to new demands being made on masculine identity, is threatening the assumption of stability on which our vast and wonderfully heterogeneous country rests. Identity can be divided into two broad categories: “Achieved” identity derived from individual endeavours (education, work and so on), and “ascribed” identity that is derived from intrinsic characteristics (religion, ethnicity, gender etc.).
The achieved identity of the Indian male is under attack today, in a hyper-competitive country where aspirations are sky-high but economic growth is sluggish and imbalanced. As employment growth slows to a crawl and access to quality education remains the preserve of a tiny sliver, self-esteem and emotional security are more likely to be found in his ascribed identities.
Meanwhile, as women and historically subjugated communities have (just about) started to gain a toehold into the mainstream through affirmative action and political representation, male anxiety has been further exacerbated. Faced with increased competition and impossible odds in the job market, their ticket to an achieved identity based on work and material markers is severely threatened. The sense of letdown is heightened by the contrast between the promised abundance of a new era of growth and their harsh lived realities. The increase in violence against women and minorities, rampant moral policing, and attempts to criminalise alternate sexualities are all part of a backlash against perceived threats to male supremacy.
In this environment, speaking to ascribed identity is a winning formula for any political party. Hindu male privilege is vastly under-appreciated by its main beneficiaries. It is the privilege of having, by virtue of a majority share of the population, one’s customs, appearances and lifestyle choices as the default norm. It is the privilege of not being defined as the “other”. For debatable historical reasons (rooted in perceived emasculation by Mughals and the British), the modern Indian nation-state inherited a dangerous privileged Hindu male psychology of victimhood. Atal Bihari Vajpayee referred to it as the mindset of “a majority community with a minority complex”.
By speaking with a forked tongue about vikas and Hindutva at the same time, our ruling party ensures it finds resonance with India’s male population (through their frustrated aspirations). When achieved identity is not being validated, ascribed identity is the panacea. The cow protection narrative being pushed today is part of a larger attempt to restore the supposedly lost glory of a muscular Hindu India. In tandem with the deliberate conflation of nationalistic sentiment with unquestioned support for the ruling party, these narratives serve to legitimise Hindu male control of the levers of power. The cold math and ends-justify-means logic of democratic elections enables such targeting of minorities.
Republicans in America realised more than 50 years ago that when a population (black Americans) has representation in the low teens, there is no need to appease them. The Southern Strategy designed to target and alienate minorities ensued and its consequences can be felt until today. Despite the election of a black president in 2008, Donald Trump came to power on the back of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim stances, and endorsement by the Ku Klux Klan. The challenges of racism continue to bedevil America despite tremendous social progress in the last half century.
A similar strategy has being acted upon in India since 2014. Unlike America which saw 40 years of continuous economic growth between the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and the election of Barack Obama, India operates from a context of mass poverty and huge institutional obstacles to consistent growth. The lure of ascribed identity, of targeting the “other” will not diminish in our context, unless purposefully countered.