For some time now, a spate of images and reports to do with diverse incidents in public life have featured young (and not so young) men in various attitudes of aggression. Some are more quotidian than others. Road rage, for example, is almost routine now, at least on Delhi roads, and is almost always a male affair. Few women indulge in what used to be called dadagiri. Student disputes and clashes with the police, though not exclusively male, nevertheless often witness male-instigated and male-directed violence.
Then there’s someone like Ravindra Gaekwad who indulges in outright violence, publicly, and the appalling fact is that he’s not the only one doing so: Cow vigilantes, anti-Romeo squads, the goons engaged by various strongmen and political parties, extra-constitutional “militias”, khap panchayats — the list is long and alarming.
But for some time now, something over and above the alarming and appalling has been bothering me about all this. Ever since the Jallikattu agitation hit Tamil Nadu, I have been struck by what I can only call the hypermasculinism of a great deal of what we’re seeing. Image after image showed young men in tense and violent contest with bulls, a contest of power, some skill and a clearly uneven match. A test of masculinity, among other things.
Women, we were told, would only give their consent to marry if the prospective groom had bested (they said “tamed”) the bull. Masculinity, violence and “tradition” trumped ethics, animal rights and the law.
We should have known when chest sizes were being flaunted, that a particular variety of masculinism was being projected. Muscular. Commanding. Unyielding, even. The kind of masculinism that would brook no deviation from the “norm”. That would not shrink from using violent means to ensure conformity. That would normalise that violence. So that, when an MLA says that if anyone tries to stop them from doing what they want (say, building the temple in Ayodhya), he will “break their arms and legs”, no one seriously takes him to task. After all, they’ve said and done the same, and more, so often. What they mean is, try and stop us, as they flex their muscles.
Cow vigilantes are not averse to killing. Anti-Romeo squads are against “eve-teasing”, but think bullying and harassing are fine. Khap panchayats routinely endorse “honour” killings. The thing about hypermasculinism is that it feels simultaneously beleaguered and entitled, without actually experiencing any of the disabilities or discriminations that could justify such feelings. So, Ravindra Gaekwad, having slippered an Air India employee, now says he will take action against the airline for “abusing” him. Hypermasculinism also experiences “hurt” and “injury”, for which it demands redress. Pravin Togadia of the VHP has extended this sense of injury to all “Hindus facing injustice, insecurity, losses and secondary citizen treatment,” and says they have had “enough”. If anyone thinks that the VHP, the RSS and the Hindutva lot are not about hypermasculinism and about propagating cultures of masculinism, they should think again. It is not surprising that celibates, godmen and yogis are valourised.
The other thing about hypermasculinism is that it resists any dilution of its essential attributes. It equates femininity with weakness, needing its “protection” at all times. Strength lies in subjugation, in bending the disobedient to your will via force or violence. (If you don’t respect the cow, your limbs will be broken; if you post a sarcastic comment, you will be arrested; if you don’t agree with our definition of nationalism, “we will thrash you”, etc.). Strength lies in inculcating fear.
Hypermasculinism has no time for androgyny. Its contempt for the feminine entails a rejection of all those attributes that might make a dent in its masculinity, or render it effeminate. It could never, for instance, abjure violence — the whole idea of non-violent engagement smacks of submission. It might pay lip service to Gandhi, for instance, but humility and accommodation, or self-doubt and abnegation, are neither part of its vocabulary, nor its practise.
By extension, hypermasculinism abhors hybridity, the stain of “impurity”, which is the basis of all culture, and indeed, of all creativity. Love jihad is part of this anxiety, as are conversions, ghar wapsi, honour killings, and all forms of moral policing that enforce “discipline” on those who dare to defy. Boundaries must be maintained, everyone must know their proper place. Especially those who step out of line.
None of this is very new, but where earlier, it was still covert, it is now unabashed, endorsed and politically
expedient. Instead of women feeling safer on the streets, we are now afraid of those who are supposed to “protect”. Young men who are neither “eve teasers”, nor lumpen bullies, are liable to be violently dealt with if they protest their innocence. And instead of wayward MPs and MLAs being reprimanded, at the least, parliamentarians and their parties erect a protective wall around them. Entitlement translates into impunity.
Flexing muscles, whether literally, metaphorically or politically, is a kind of readying for battle, of a potentially violent encounter, in which masculinity is aggressively asserted. This assertion of hypermasculinism, however, is predicated on violence; violence is often its first resort, and its message is unequivocal. Everyone who does not subscribe to this hypermasculinist regime, to such cultures of masculinism, is vulnerable — individually and collectively, personally and politically.
As a culture that has acknowledged androgyny, cherished hybridity, advocated non-violence and celebrated difference, we need to first recognise hypermasculinism for what it is and then repudiate the cultures of masculinism that are now on the ascendant. As a society we must resist the transformation of our public and private spaces into akharas where might is right. And as a polity, we must insist on a political culture that banishes the violence of hypermasculinism from our midst.