Magazine article Cross Currents

Anxious Hindu Masculinities in Colonial North India: Shuddhi and Sangathan Movements

Magazine article Cross Currents

Anxious Hindu Masculinities in Colonial North India: Shuddhi and Sangathan Movements

Article excerpt

Studies on masculinity in India have flowered only recently. (1) The study of men is as vital for gender analysis as that of the ruling classes for class analysis. (2) Religious identities particularly have emerged as a critical arena of masculinity studies, including in India. But the privileging of the heterosexual male occurs in a wide range of caste and ethnic groups in South Asia in diverse forms. Significant works have revealed how the male body was constructed in colonial discourse, contrasting the manly British with the effeminate colonial subject. (3) In present-day India, links have been made between the growth of the Hindu Right, assertions of masculinity and violence. However, contemporary articulations of a militant Hindu masculinity and community have historical roots, especially in the colonial period. This article explores the intermeshing of Hindu religious identities, violence, caste, and assertions of masculinities in colonial north India. It does so by particularly focusing on the shuddhi movement (purification; conversion from other religions to Hinduism and reclamation of lower castes into the Hindu caste hierarchy) and the sangathan movement (organization; community defense) in the United Provinces (present-day Uttar Pradesh, henceforth UP), which were launched by the Arya Samaj, an activist Hindu revivalist and reformist movement founded in 1875.

In colonial India, manhood emerged as a national preoccupation. Colonialism justified itself through masculine images, and nationalism worked out its own versions of it, expressing individual concerns to collective anxieties over the nation's manliness and femaleness. Masculinity was expressed in various ways: from Vivekananda to Gandhi, from Sana tan Dharmists to Arya Samajists, from notions of brahmacharya (celibacy) to the images of a warrior Krishna. All these images overwhelmingly constructed national manhood as Hindu and that too upper caste. This article extends these formations by revealing how religious markers and discourses became an important ground for strengthening high-caste Hindu masculine supremacy and community identities. I am not con cerned here so much about the details of shuddhi and sangathan movements themselves; rather I wish to focus on how masculinity became an important motif in them implicitly and explicitly.

Power in the colonial context was not absolute and hegemonic but fluid, dynamic, and situational. While the colonized were influenced by versions of masculinity perpetuated by the British, they often crafted themselves in ingenious ways from within. A section of the Hindus particularly not only altered and reified definitions of Hinduism but also remolded versions of the Hindu past, including masculine images and gender identities, at this time, with excessive emphasis on physical prowess. They were a product of the changing dynamics of community politics at this period, in which new definitions of Hinduism were being worked out, in combination with and in reaction to pre-colonial legacies and colonial influences. While there had been previous attempts to highlight expressions of Hinduism as a martial religion, they became much more aggressive and influential in UP in the 1920s in the wake of shuddhi and sangathan movements. Gender became an important means of contributing to sharper divisions between Hindus and Muslims. There were attempts to construct a new full-bodied, masculine Hindu male through these movements, who could at once strengthen community identity and undertake a militant nationalist struggle. At times, even Hindu women were called upon to take on a masculine imagery in defense of community honor. Hindu men and women were defined first and fore most as members of a community and then invested with "masculine" ideals.

From Malabar to Malkanas: The Context

During the 1920s, in the immediate wake of the decline of the Non-Cooperation and Khilafat movements, (4) the Hindu reformist, religious and communal organizations gained a new urgency in UP and became more aggressive and influential. …

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