The politics of Hindutva and its erotic charge: Jaya Sharma

Guest post by JAYA SHARMA

In the post election bewilderment that continues to grip us, might it be that we are asking the wrong questions?

The questions are by now familiar. How can it be that a Pragya Thakur wins and an Atishi loses? How can it be that demonetization doesn’t translate into loss of votes? How can it be that the party under whom lynching of Dalits and Muslims becomes a norm gets re-elected? How can it be that hatred for the other wins over humanity?

In response, journalists, political scientists and writers have pointed out that our assumptions related to the significance of macro economic indicators, caste-based voting patterns, among other things, were faulty. But the questions still remain,  including the big one: why did facts and logic lose so dramatically?

Might it be that the bewilderment continues because there is a glaring blind spot in the way in which we understand politics? Might it be that facts and logic were never the only driving force? I will argue here that in order to understand the recent election results and the power of Hindu Nationalism more broadly, we need the lens of the psyche. The play of desire and the erotic is key to understanding politics and dipping into our own sex and love lives can help us see this.  ‘The personal is political’ mantra can come to the rescue in the bewilderment that we feel today.  In making this argument I will draw upon research that I have undertaken for a book that I am in the process of writing called Fantasy Frames: Sex, Love and Indian Politics, to be published later this year.

Hindu nationalism offers its supporters the rarest of rare combinations –  security and adventure.  To explain this I would like to begin with a glimpse from an interview with Yogi Adityanath from the 2017 Hindustan Times Leadership Summit. Hindustan editor Shashi Shekhar begins by challenging Yogi Adityanath with the fact that the National Human Rights Commission has issued a notice against him for the rise in encounter killings in Uttar Pradesh.  Adityanath, the chief minister of the state, smiles. The shining skin, which some might call ‘tej’ (the particular kind of glow associated with glorious, powerful, majestic people), for some reason looked rather pink. After much mirth around Adityanath having sent men to their abode in the skies, and his pointing to the folly of critics who don’t see Hindu kindness to even ants, the interviewer returns to the topic of human lives and says that the number of encounter killings are three times more than the number of days he has been in power. To this Adityanath replies and says “Haan, ye honge!” Yes, these will continue!

At this point, the camera pans the dark suits and silk saris and zooms in on a member of the audience and in the middle of chewing her gum, she smiles. To me her smile speaks volumes. She is responding to the words and actions of a man who says what he means and does what he says. And not just his words, his body language too, not least the symmetry in the movement of his hands, which embody certitude, and security. In drawing upon a higher law, he rises above the law of the land and makes his followers feel powerful too.  Those whom he emboldens need not worry about the law of the land, either.

Adityanath is only one example. Hindu Nationalism offers the promise of security in many ways. There is the sense of continuity — with our ‘glorious’ past, with Bharat Mata, and with other Hindu nationalists, not least online with the vast virtual community; of certitude — this is how it is, this is why it is, this is what we need to do about it in contexts in which so little within and around us is certain; of safety — being held by leaders so powerful that they serve a higher law, beyond the law of the land. There is safety on offer by a 56” chest, by the erect finger pointing up firmly with the promise that “dushman ke ghar mein ghus kar marenge” (we will enter the homes of our enemies and kill them). Needless to say, this is a particular a sense of security, a fantasy built on paranoia and highly fragile. But which comes with the promise that we can have it all.

Security such as this inspires and enables adventures, not least of violence.  While caste is endemic to Hindu Nationalism, I focus here specifically on violence against Muslims (I don’t use the phrase beef lynchings because it’s not just about the cow, and besides, the violence takes many forms). For the perpetrator, there is no longer the need to wait for a communal riot to experience the adventure that such violence offers aplenty. Hindu nationalism offers nothing less than excess. Since 2014, secure in the knowledge that a Hindu nationalist government is in power, we know that small groups, even individuals, have felt emboldened to abuse, humiliate, beat up and kill Muslims. The nature of this violence cannot be understood without the lens of psychoanalysis.

The core of violence Against Muslims is the sense that the other is stealing our joy. (When I use the term “our” it’s not because I’m a Hindu but in order to underline the philosophy of Hindu Nationalism.)  Muslim men steal our women. Muslim men have all the fun with not one, but four wives (a recent video from Madhya Pradesh showed the Shree Ram Sene perpetrator say exactly this, while hitting the Muslim man); Muslim men steal our land, not just for mosques, but to bury their dead. “When a Muslim dies they will give 20 lakhs and when a Hindu dies he won’t even get 20,000,” said Sakshi Maharaj in connection with Mohammad Akhlaq’s lynching in Dadri. In 2014, a year after the Muzaffarnagar riots, Amit Shah railed against a government “that protects and gives compensation to those who killed Jats.” He may as well have been speaking of the 23rd May election results when he continues to say, “A man can live without food or sleep. He can live when he’s thirsty and hungry. But when he’s insulted, he can’t live. Apmaan ka badla toh lena padega.” (We will have to take revenge for the insult).

Perhaps the question we need to ask post the election results about voters is not what did they get, but what did they get off on?

The fantasy of someone stealing our joy is a never-ending one. This is a lack can never be filled. Thomas Blom Hansen, who has undertaken intensive research on Hindu Nationalism writes in his book The Saffron Wave’,

The search for fullness as Hindus, the overcoming of the ‘lack of being a full community’ is a continuous process “ultimately impossible ever to realize.

Hansen here is building on the thinking of Slovenian Lacanian thinker Slavoj Zizek according to whom a nation or community’s enjoyment “can ultimately only be expressed through the narrative of its loss and impossibility, ascribing to the “other” (nation, group, community) an excessive enjoyment, which “steals our enjoyment” and prevents a community from fully enjoying its particular way of life.”

The other who steals our joy, the other who defines us need not be the Muslim, of course. Depending on when and where, it has been the Sikh, the Jew, the ‘black’ man, the Dalit, the anti-national, and most recently, the Khan Market gang.

They will always have what we don’t have. They will always steal our joy.  They will always need to be punished.

The enjoyment of punishing the other is not limited to a particular class. It’s not just working class men who can be seen performing violence against Muslims in the videos that go viral on social media. It’s also performed by the millions who view these videos. It’s performed by the upper class, upper caste family Whatsapp groups such as mine that forward Hindu Nationalist messages and memes.

What joy then to be able to roam the streets of Gurugram and Connaught Place, making people say Jai Shri Ram, to claim the country as ours, not yours. What joy then for my mother to not only have darshan of the Kedarnath mandir but also the darshan of Shri Narendra Modi in his flowing religious regalia shortly after the last day of polling. What joy, what peace, what contentment when the charismatic, authoritarian leader, with each passing day since May 23, seems to perform the role of God himself, offering certainty and security that no mere mortal can.

Moving from the political to the personal, might it be that the political offers us a mix of security and adventure that we struggle in vain (at an unconscious level) to find in our sexual and romantic lives.  In his book Can Love Last the psychoanalyst Stephen A. Mitchell writes about how we need permanence, reliability, and continuity on the one hand, and fullness and vibrancy, on the other. And yet we never seem to find this mix of security and adventure.

It is not surprising says Esther Parel, a Belgian therapist who has worked with couples across the globe, that people seek adventure in affairs, unable to handle the security that their partner offers, experiencing it as boredom.

This similar dynamic of security and adventure was at play in the anonymous online survey that I conducted.  The 30 respondents, a majority of whom identified as women, urban and liberal — brought up a range of sexual fantasies such as those involving sex in public, sex for money, pushing boundaries or one’s own boundaries being pushed including but not limited to rape fantasies, among others. Within this diversity, what was common to most respondents was their conflict about fantasies that broke modern ‘taboos’ — if I may use that term — related to dignity, rights and mutuality. Respondents shared seemingly contradictory, non-rational feelings, which for the sake of brevity and aptness, I termed ‘yummy yucky’.  How can it be that I am turned on by ‘X’ and disgusted by it, at the same time? This was a common refrain.

#HowCanItBe (a hashtag that become a key theme in the book) was also the theme that emerged in responses related to love. For instance, how can it be that I am attracted to someone who is so wrong for me? How can it be that I am unable to leave him/her/them? How can it be that the advice of friends made no difference?

As liberals, we are driven to think of ourselves as rational beings, but all too many of our own experiences show us that we are, in fact, driven far more by our desires (more often than not of the yummy yucky sort, and not simply the pleasurable kind). It seems that the most obvious thing that we need to do in order to be less bewildered by politics is to get in touch with our ‘self’ in order to get in touch with the ‘other’.  Psychoanalysis offers a framework to see our common search for safety and adventure.  It might help those of us who are liberals too see the Sanghi in us, and perhaps even more importantly, us in the Sanghi.

If Hindu Nationalism offers a mix of security and adventure, is it really surprising that a Pragya Thakur won? Is it really surprising that demonization, GST, farmer’s distress and joblessness did not affect Narendra Modi’s votes?

Perhaps we need to reexamine our questions. Given the erotic charge it carries and the many ways in it serves collective psyche of the majority, how can hatred not win?

Reducing our sense of bewilderment and putting to rest our blind faith in rationality is a must for any alternatives to emerge.

Jaya Sharma is a queer feminist activist and writer.

10 thoughts on “The politics of Hindutva and its erotic charge: Jaya Sharma”

  1. Is it correct to describe “yummy yucky” desires as “erotic”, which implicitly refers to “simply the pleasurable kind”?


  2. Let me play social scientist here and ask a question or two. These inbuilt desires for the “yummy yucky” are presumably timelessly human – or at least that’s how they appear in this essay. If that is the case, why does this virulent Hindu nationalism emerge in such full-blown fashion only over the last decade? How was it that for nearly five decades after independence not only were the Adityanaths hardly visible, they were hardly there?


  3. “Might it be that the bewilderment continues because there is a glaring blind spot in the way in which we understand politics? Might it be that facts and logic were never the only driving force? I will argue here that in order to understand the recent election results and the power of Hindu Nationalism more broadly, we need the lens of the psyche.”

    Going from what seems like the general – how we understand politics (or don’t) – to sharply zeroing in on Hindu Nationalism and current elections seems very unconvincing and sudden. Is “psyche” not a crucial factor for any exercise of choice, thus for any elections?

    And – why this numbing bewilderment? One can maybe understand that reaction in 2014…but seeing the appalling choices in front of people, was it really that surprising (EVMs or no EVMs)? Of course it would be if we do not have our ear to the ground…and an intimate understanding of voting preferences (from totally random/desperate to wilful)…Maybe instead of assuming that all who voted for BJP voted for Hindu Nationalism but looking into a little deeper into what else might have worked in its favor – from a feeling of security/assertiveness, yes, to sops and schemes that made some difference…there are many factors…

    By the way, the liberals in the US are still trying to figure out the “rural-urban” divide that catapulted Trump to power. I think The Guardian’s Gary Young’s embedded journalism in the US hearland before the elections make for rewarding reading…


  4. Thanks for all the responses so far. I’m replying to the comments together, including some clarifications, not by way of defence but as part of my reply.

    I’m invoking “yummy yucky” only to challenge the usual assumptions of utilitarian, liberal rationality that humans are hardwired to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

    I don’t see the play of the psyche is isolation. The psyche is also not a ‘parallel’ lens. The psyche I believe co-constitutes other dimensions like the economic,social,political etc. Material dimensions for example cannot be understood in isolation. The lens of the psyche is needed to distinguish between fact and meaning (ontic and ontological) even within the realm of the material. For example whatever the ‘facts’ of demonetization, the ‘meaning’ ascribed to it we know has included a sense of sacrifice/the leader punishing the other – the rich, corrupt businessman and (less clearly articulated) the Muslim small vendor/artisan/service provider. The other is getting more fucked that we are. Material factors also are mediated by the psyche.

    About why the psyche is playing out in this way now, I’m afraid I can’t say that I can really answer that question. What I can say is the obvious – that this question is not limited to the recent context in India, but is a larger global phenomenon of the rise of the Right. Technology and social media is one factor I can identify in analyzing the specificity of recent years. The digital is not only an effective, large scale medium to spread hatred, but it is also the site on which narcissism, and the other side of the coin, aggression, to play out. When I say narcissism I mean that the digital provides the Right (although it is not only limited to the Right) with private/public enclaves to create virtual communities which make members feel safe enough to undertake adventures such as attacking the other, online and offline. Social media is also important I believe because it provides a witness to those who perform violence in service of the leader/organization/ideology. By witness I do not mean only the people who will view/like/re tweet/share/comment, but social media itself as a witness. (For those who find Lacan useful, the digital as the Other.) The rise of the digital and narcissism might also be linked to the larger phenomenon of the decline the of the Symbolic order in which we were meant to subscribe to laws/rules/authority (whether regressive or progressive) and the rise of the Imaginary in which narcissism/the visceral are the order of the day. Why globally there is a decline of the Symbolic and a rise of the Imaginary, is not something I can hazard a reflection about. I’m afraid this is as far as my existing political understanding goes. Perhaps others who have reflections on why now and not earlier could join the discussion?


  5. I think it is happening now because such hateful leaders like our PM and UP’s CM were not available earlier. It took quite long for the right wing in India to gain popularity or esteem as they had not participated in the struggle for freedom. They got to play the role of rebels only during the emergency and here we can only blame the hypocrisy of the liberals who find it so hard to remain liberal enough, the latest example of which is surely Sabrimala where again our national liberal party The Congress found it hard to hold on to its liberalism and regressed to an anti-feminist position more suitable to the right wing. Unfortunately we don’t have left leaders like Sanders or Lula to prevent the slide towards the right!


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