#MeToo in India: Sexual assault and harassment have become the norm due to a culture built on toxic masculinity

He had, it was said, walked the streets of Vizianagaram with a tiger in tow, the beast cowed by the sheer magnificence of his manhood; he could let an elephant stand on his chest, or use it to snap an iron bar in two.

“Professor” Kodi Ramamurti Naidu, path-breaking circus impresario and world-famous wrestler, had arrived in Kolkata in 1909, recruited by the organisers of a radical movement to boycott Imperial schools to demonstrate what an authentic native upbringing could achieve.

The spectacle, historian John Rosselli recorded in a path-breaking 1980 work, transfigured the lives of many: “It has shown”, the nobleman Abanindrakrisna Basu would gush, “what the natives of this country, even the Bengalis, can do”. The road from Professor Naidu’s performance led at least one Chittagong schoolboy into the ranks of nationalist terrorism.

As Indians contemplate the accounts of sexual assault survivors emerging from the #MeToo movement, it is hard not be struck by one central feature: a bizarre, even pathological, sense of entitlement.

The eminent artist Jatin Das, by the account of entrepreneur Nisha Bora, grabbed her, planting “clumsy kiss on my lips”. Minister of State MJ Akbar, the journalist Ghazala Wahab has alleged, suddenly held her by the waist as she was working, “his thumbs rubbing the sides of my breasts”.

 #MeToo in India: Sexual assault and harassment have become the norm due to a culture built on toxic masculinity

Representational image. AFP

In their own imagination, these men clearly believed themselves to be sexually irresistible. The thing is, it is not just these men. Such behaviour — along with the lewd comment, the demand for sex, the penis rubbed against the body — are part of the everyday experience of women on India’s streets, public transport and homes. The alleged behaviour of an Akbar or a Das isn't deviance; it is the norm.

To understand how this dysfunctional norm was born, though, we have to turn to the century-and-a-half-long story of the making of Indian manhood — a secret story that raises painful, discomfiting questions about our freedom movement itself.

“A low, lying people in a low-lying land," ran the well-known British invective about their Bengali subjects — part, Rosselli reminds us, of a narrative of Hindu effeteness that the native élite “had so thoroughly internalised”.

In the 1860s, efforts to rebuild the Indian man began in Bengal, in the form of festivals where wrestling and gymnastics played a key role. Rajnarayan Basu’s Nationality Promotion Society, for example, saw “gymnastic exercises”, the reform of the rice-based diet, and publications extolling “the military prowess of the ancient Bengalis” as key to a renaissance. The new Hindu Mela replaced an earlier peasant festivals, the practices of which were seen as crude.

There was an enthusiastic response: the Amrita Bazar Patrika proclaimed the festivals would not succeed “until a few young men had been crippled or possibly until one of them had died”. The National Paper, the Hindu Mela’s organ, began a campaign calling on young Bengalis to take military training, as a step towards nationhood.

Finding martial role models wasn’t easy: Bengal’s most recent warrior of fame had been on the wrong side in the rebellion of 1857, and Colonel Suresh Biswas, a sometime circus performer-turned mercenary, played only a cameo role in the wars he fought in Brazil. Perhaps inevitably, the search turned to antiquity, with medieval rulers joining an unbroken line of Hindu martial valour stretching back to the Mahabharata.

“Now”, National Paper, approvingly observed in 1869, “the young take no pleasure in going and sitting at the tea table in Chung Wah’s, wearing Goldneck holding a Gold Flake and puffing out smoke. It does not occur to them that if they wrestle in a loincloth they will be taken for door-keepers."

In the making of the new Indian man, semen was an obsessive concern: the tests and trials of young brahmachari were not only intended to produce nationalist warriors, but breed a new generation of über-men. In the world of the wrestling akhara, the scholar Joseph Alter has argued, semen was “a national resource; the raw material for productive growth and development”.

During the build-up to independence, as Hindu-Muslim strains deepened, the cult of manhood became increasingly enmeshed with communal violence. It is no coincidence that the founder of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, looked in 1925 to wrestlers in akharas to find first recruits.


The Bengal wrestling clubs projected themselves, during the riots of 1908, 1925 and 1946, as instruments of “self-protection” against Muslims; as Rosselli wryly points out, “the line between 'self-protection' and active organisation of rioting was not always clear”.

Every ideology has had a male ideal: the Bolsheviks, the stolid, hewn-from-oak worker; fascism, the hegemonic warrior-intellectual; the British empire, the master of his passions.

The conspicuously bicep-free Gandhi wasn’t the image that shaped Indian manhood: it was, at the level of pop culture, the very different iconography of the muscled-up Bhagat Singh or Chandrashekhar Azad, revolver by his side.

In the decades after independence, growing numbers of women began to enter public space, most notably, workplaces. For the most part, Indian men welcomed this development — but not because they wished to dismantle their own privileges, or patriarchy. The entry of women into the workplace was simply an opportunity — the having of women would become that much easier. In the newsroom, or the art studio, the woman could most certainly make an entry, but as offerings for the men.

This shouldn’t, perhaps, surprise us. In the 1920s, Weimar women began to emerge from their prisons: Otto Dix’s archetypical portrait of the journalist, Sylvia van Harden, represents her with short hair, a cigarette in hand. The progressive writer Stefan Zweig hailed what he saw as a shedding of false morality and shame in the new world.

But scholar George Mosse has perceptively noted, Zweig did not see the new woman as a threat to the patriarchal order;  indeed, he celebrated the fact that her new clothes better revealed her principal asset. Liberation of women, yes — but on terms that principally benefited men.

Put another way, the élite men who controlled the professions, having completed their brahmacharya in modern India’s educational institutions, thought of women in the public space as vehicles with which to spread their über-semen.

The problem, of course, isn’t one of just élite men. India’s transforming urban economy has produced a mass of young, prospect-less men. The parents of these children, many first-generation migrants to cities, worked on the land or were artisans, salvaging some respectability through labour. The young, though, find themselves fighting for space in an economy that offers mainly casual work. This casualisation has come about even as hard-pressed parents are spending ever more on education.

Few of these men have access to a sexual culture that allows sexual freedoms or choices. The crisis is exacerbated by the fact that sections of urban élites participate in a sexual culture which is relatively liberal — a culture that young men can watch on television and in public spaces, but never hope to participate in.

Pop film, long one of the few cultural activities that a working-class audience could participate in, now targets élites; movie theatre prices exclude large parts of the youth population. There is diminishing access to theatre, art, music and sport.

It is no coincidence that gyms have exploded in their reach and positioning. They, along with mass religious performances like the Kavad, offer young people the opportunity to live up to the trope of masculinity and virtue that the national movement inculcated. In these spaces, men may work towards becoming — and demonstrating— their masculinity. Women — in workplaces, on the streets, and at home — become the props used to enact a simulacrum of success.

For many men, then, violence against women — of which sexual harassment is just a small part — works much as drugs do for addicts: it offers at least the illusion of empowerment where none exists, fixing feelings of rage and impotence.

Marxist scholar Antonio Gramsci noted that fascism arose in a society “where mothers educate their infant children by hitting them on the head with clogs”. How men behave — on the streets with women, with other men, with animals — is taught.

The sexual harassment of some women by some men isn’t the big problem: it is, instead, the very fundamentals of our culture, built as it is on a toxic masculinity that celebrates violence. In our society, violence is not an aberration; it is the tie that binds us.

Updated Date: Jan 08, 2019 13:15:14 IST