How patriarchy has played a far greater role than Islamophobia in the rise of Hindu nationalism
The rise of Hindu nationalism, better known as Hindutva in India is no accident. Though resentment towards Muslims is being perceived as the fundamental reason for it’s current status, patriarchy has played the underlying role with far greater significance.
Indian society’s evolution after it’s independence from British rule can be traced mostly through the evolution of it’s film industry, mainly Bollywood. Through the 1940’s and 50’s, a virtuous male and female protagonist was always the flavour of the movies which would be complemented by the songs and their lyrics. Of course there would be other characters who would either be virtuous or villainous and the distinction would be very clear from the beginning of the movies. Into the 60’s and experiments with male protagonists having grey shades began. Enter the 70’s and film makers started portraying both male and female protagonists with grey shades. It was the time of hip hop and gypsy culture and both reflected on the stories of the movies. But the virtuous female continued to exist, the most enduring one being the roles essayed by the actress Vidya Sinha. Then through the 80’s and 90’s we see women protagonists becoming more assertive in their personality and character which then started reflecting on their appearance and attire. Now we see bold women protagonists openly expressing their sexuality and even murdering their husbands for his millions.
My dad was raised up in Kolkata where grandpa worked for about 40 years. He used to have the projector and screen to show movies and he used to get movies on reels for rent. I was born in the 70’s and grew up listening to grandma talking incessantly about the movies from the 50’s and 60’s especially when songs from those movies used to appear on TV. Now I realize that the movies she talked about the most were from the 50’s and early 60’s and her interest in movies had started decreasing from the later half of the 60’s. She had hardly watched movies from the 70’s and used to selectively watch Hindi movies on TV. What is eye opening is that this coincides with the waning of virtuosity in the male and female protagonists. She used to openly display her dislike for characters with negative shades in every movie she used to watch.
One important reason for the rise of Hindu nationalism is for the restoration of this patriarchy on Hindu society. After the liberalization of Indian economy in 1991, the country has literally been invaded by western culture and lifestyle. I had never heard about Valentine’s day throughout my academic years from school to college but it has become like a festival in India now. Girls and women openly expressing their love and sexuality in a society where the virtuous female protagonist from the movies of the 50’s and 60’s committing suicide after being raped by the villain was considered appropriate to redeem herself was always bound to ignite patriarchal angst. When the liberal part of Indian society cry hoarse every year on Valentine’s day when young dating couples are caught and chased away by Hindu nationalists, they do not see how deep rooted patriarchy is in Indian society. Many of them might even be adoring male protagonists in movies bashing up and butchering villains who dared to violate the modesty of the female protagonists. This is reflected on how people literally worship the actors who play the virtuous heroes and have even built temples with their idols. Patriarchal mindset has what made Hindutva leaders denounce western attire for women and make horrific comments like women who expose their skin in public deserves to get raped.
These are the reasons why Hindu nationalists are using the premise of Ram to assert their dominance. The king from the epic Ramayan whom Hindus worship as God is considered as the epitome of virtuosity. The ever obedient son who abdicated the throne and accepted to live in the forest for 14 years to fulfill the wish of his step mother, the hero who crossed the ocean to kill a demonic king and rescue his wife from his clutches and the husband who demanded that his wife walk through fire to prove her “purity” for him. Ramayan was written and rewritten time and again to maintain the stranglehold of patriarchy on Hindu society. If hatred for Muslims was the primary or sole reason, Krishna was a better candidate than Ram because based on the sheer number of demons Krishna had apparently slayed, demonizing Islam and invoking Krishna would have had been their go-to strategy. But according to the four ages or Yugas Hindus follow, Krishna lived in a time that was far less virtuous than Ram so obviously patriarchal rules weren’t so stringent during Krishna’s time.
Contrast this with the story of Iliad in Greek culture. A similar story line as that of Ramayan but with telltale differences. The female protagonist chooses to leave an abusive husband and king and go with the prince from another kingdom whom she falls in love with. The king uses his wife’s infidelity as the excuse to wage war with that kingdom and destroy it. All characters in the story have virtuosity but also have shades from grey to dark. Iliad was written and fits perfectly with the contemporary times but an openly abusive male protagonist and an overly assertive female protagonist are like the Antichrist in the world patriarchy.
Simply put, Indian society is in the throes of the conflict between the ideologies of Ramayan and Iliad now. Though the world is seeing the venom of Islamophobia being spread across India, the hatred for Muslims is being used to create the illusion of a common enemy to unite all Hindus under one umbrella so that archaic patriarchal rules can be reinforced on Hindu society. It is not without reason that Ramayan was adapted as a television series back in the 90’s and the government has started rerunning the series recently on TV. Add to this, a prominent cabinet minister took a picture of him watching Ramayan at home and advertised it on social media with the caption “I am watching Ramayan. Are you?” The message is clearly for the older generations of Hindus to admonish the younger generation for their wayward western lifestyle and bring them on the track of patriarchy.
Where it gets dicey is in how patriarchy is being sold to the Hindu community. With patriarchy Islamophobia is attached along with the aura of leadership and invincibility created around Modi, the PM and leader of the Hindu nationalist party the BJP. There are also some of the upper caste communities trying to restore their hegemony on Hindu society and to achieve this objective everyone at the helm of organizations that propagate Hindutva ideology are upper caste Hindus. Patriarchy and upper caste hegemony are two sides of the same coin. This is a complete package deal. The ones who choose Modi have to accept patriarchy and endorse Islamophobia. Many Hindus might be supporting Hindutva for one aspect but they are left with no choice but support everything else. On the flip side, a Hindu who does not support patriarchy or Islamophobia or both gets flagged as a Modi hater irrespective of any or no political affiliations.
In this situation it is quite easy to win elections because narratives can be created on one or multiple aspects at a time that can also be interconnected. The animosity with Pakistan was well exploited to create Islamophobia during the 2019 general elections and they easily pocketed the votes of Hindus who support India’s stand against Pakistan politically and militarily and the votes of Hindus who hate Muslims in general. In the recent Delhi assembly elections, the AAP party had successfully negated the BJP’s attempt to invoke the name of Ram to get votes by countering with their own call to Hanuman, the monkey king and Ram’s sidekick in the Ramayan but BJP still managed to garner votes and win 8 seats by unleashing Islamophobia. There are no fences and fence sitters in Indian general elections now. The choice is between being a Modi supporter or a Modi hater.
How India exits the COVID-19 induced lock down is on focus now but looks like the lock down imposed by the patriarchal Hindutva juggernaut will maintain it’s stranglehold for some more time. It remains to be seen how these short term and long term lock downs are going to shape Indian society and her future.