From Gandhi to Modi- India sans Indian-ness

Some time back, I had requested Google da to educate me on “Indian character”. Promptly, I was led to several writings from which I learnt many despicable things about ourselves. For example, I was told that we are hypocritical, corrupt, spineless, status-conscious, crude, insensitive, superstitious and many such things which would make us a tough competitor for the coveted prize of the worst creatures on the face of this earth. This was no surprise as  over the years, I have got accustomed to listening to stories about Indian Standard Time, Indian crab-mentality, Indian duplicity, and the like.Needless to say, these attributes applied only to an “unidentifiable Indian” and people telling these stories were  exempted from them.

What did come as a surprise was a recent encounter with a group of young college students. I found a distinct shift in their perception of Indian character. While some of the stereotypes persisted, there was much more emphasis on other attributes like our intellectual acumen, resilience, diligence, adaptability etc. Also, I was pleasantly surprised to find a degree of patriotic fervour and pride, which had got eroded in the earlier generations.

All this was music to my ears and yet it left me with some unease. I could not resonate with what I sensed as their brand of nationalism. We did not discuss specific political figures, but the impression that I got was that Modi was much more likely to be their hero and role model than Gandhi. I mention these two people because both of them are inspirational figures and have come to symbolise two different kinds of nationalism. Normally, this difference is seen in terms of inclusivity vs. divisiveness;but I suspect it is much deeper than that.

Inclusivity and divisiveness represent only the tip of the iceberg. Even if Modi wished to be inclusive, chances are that he will end up being divisive. This was best illustrated by his “kutte ka pilla”(puppy dog) comment.Some time back, in responding to a question about communal violence, Modi had made a statement that one feels anguished even when a puppy dog meets with an accident. Giving him the benefit of doubt, he was perhaps trying to express universal compassion. However, it was such an insensitive way of doing it, that it created more backlash and divisive feelings than harmony and a sense of togetherness.

I suspect, divisiveness is a consequence of the hyper-masculine flavour of Modi’s brand of nationalism whereas inclusivity has something to do with Gandhi’s leaning towards an androgynous/ feminine variety. With Gandhi, you do not associate a broad chested muscular individual ready to take on and conquer the world. Instead what you associate is inner resilience, conviction and a quality of strength which is not in your face. With Gandhi, the emphasis is more on wholesomeness rather than on advancement- a wish for self-contained, self-governing, harmonious communities rather than smart cities and aspirations of becoming a monolithic super-power.

This shift from androgynous Gandhi to distinctly masculine Modi, is perhaps in keeping with the imperatives of the times that we live in. We can see it happening in virtually all spheres of our lives. Even women-centric cinema today is more likely to be of the “Gulab Gang” or “Mardani” variety. Thus it is no surprise that Gandhi is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the hectic and hyper-masculine world of today. While, it leaves me with some discomfort, I can also see its positive side.; particularly in view of the uneasy relationship between masculinity and Indian cultural identity.

The Indian cultural ideal is androgynous- the concept of Ardhnarishwar. Perhaps this is one of the major factors behind Gandhi’s strong emotive pull in Indian psyche. Many of our cherished values like peaceful co-existence, primacy of family/belonging system, looking at nature as a living entity, faith in cosmic benevolence etc. have a distinct feminine flavour. While attributes like valour, courage, youthful virility are valued, so are wisdom, innocence, sensitivity and compassion.

However, while the cultural ideal is androgynous, the ground reality has been quite different. Rather than pursuing and cherishing both the masculine and the feminine, we have ended up neglecting both. The end result is a fragile sense of masculinity and a disdain towards the feminine. The average Indian male is more likely to gloat over the fact he is born a “man” and hence entitled to certain privileges ,rather than actively invest in acquiring masculine qualities. Consequently, one often comes across a sense of smallness, insecurity and fragility amongst many Indian men, and a propensity to take offence in face of any perceived affront to their masculinity.  Some of the consequences of this uneasy relationship are a propensity to avoid direct confrontation, servility towards the powerful and oppression of the powerless. This is most evident in man-woman relationships where large part of violence against women stems from a fragile/insecure sense of masculinity rather than hyper-masculinity.

This uneasy relationship with masculinity is not very conducive to the notion of Ardhnarishwar. Pursuit of the androgynous ideal requires a recalibration of our relatedness with masculinity. To that extent if we are investing in developing a more secure and mature sense of masculinity, then it is good news. However, if in this process  we jettison the androgynous cultural ideal then we may end up having an India in which there is no place for Indian-ness. That will be great loss not just for us but for humanity at large. Personally, I can’t think of Indian-ness without the androgynous ideal. Also, I believe that  it is the greatest gift that India can give to a world which is fast becoming a captive of the hyper-masculine frenzy.







4 thoughts on “From Gandhi to Modi- India sans Indian-ness

  1. Brilliantly articulated, Ashok. As always. One sees it around, and you put the phenomenon in words. The insecurity leading to a fragile sense of masculinity, rather than hyper-masculinity.

    I also see what you mean about the rise of hyper-masculinity. Two thoughts are sobering (and worrying, I daresay) – one, there doesn’t seem to be any escaping of the swing of the pendulum. Hyper-masculinity might need to reach a crescendo before androgynous qualities can be held with honour and respect? Of that be the natural course, that is worrying. Two, a situation where masculinity is not only seen from an entitled location, but also held with pride – what would that mean for the already highly skewed social fabric we have? (Not that I wouldn’t want to see masculinity to be held with pride. Like you said, that is perhaps a great contributor to the current insecurity)


    1. Thank you, Vinti. I share your concern. I believe, the first necessary step is to disassociate maleness from a sense of entitlement and femaleness from a sense of burden and handicap. It is only then that the different facets of masculinity can be acknowledged and cherished. Reinforcing the pride, as you put it, will only lead to a more skewed situation.


  2. Thank you for this blog…Ashok. I have been looking at Modi and wondering at the influence he has had on several of my own peers; and I have seen myself approving of some of his stances, albeit with a lot of discomfort . That it almost seems like for dealing with the world of today, a Modi representing the chest thumping pride and fervor of nationalism is important. I had a recent conversation with a third generation Brit citizen,of Indian origin who went on slamming India about the slums, poverty, corruption, how the best folks are leaving India etc and my own self-contained, dialogue oriented, invitation for understanding India in all her entirety was ineffective..and had me wishing for someone who could bring in a more explicit in your face patriotism, who could confront the force of shaming and disdain towards India that was coming.
    I have been sitting with this unease for a couple of days now, going over and over at how when we deal with the hyper masculine world of today, and when that also appears as white skin – the dynamics it sets in motion. Am in touch with our need and also my own personal need to invest in our relatedness with masculinity.
    I think while the masculine Modi might be what we need in the short term, I will always have a discomfort unless we are also able to integrate the feminine in our ways, for anything that is long-term and sustainable for us.


    1. Thank you Sathiya. I share your mixed feelings. Androgyny is so central to my notion about my self and my identity as an Indian, that I shudder to think of getting caught in this frenzy of hyper-masculinity.


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