Sexuality, Obscenity, Community
Women, Muslims and the Hindu Public in Colonial India
Permanent Black, 2001
Price: INR 650, Pages 388
The late 19th and 20th centuries witnessed concerted efforts by Hindu middle class publicists to fashion a new social and moral ethos. In this deeply gendered project the Muslim played a central role as both a subject of anxiety and an object of envy. Consequently, there was a certain ambiguity in the masculine vision of the publicists. For some, collective Hindu nationalist identity was to be founded on disciplined masculinity and virtuous femininity. Against this, another impulse valourised a sexually charged masculinity, which ran counter to the idea of the disciplined celibate. These competing notions of masculinity were argued in a public sphere that was acutely fraught. Charu Gupta’s book, Sexuality, Obscenity, Community, is a laudable effort to grapple with the complexities of this collective Hindu project. The issues raised in the book are particularly significant in the contemporary Indian context. Some of the major developments of the last decade illustrate the thematic relevance of the book.
In 1991 the government of India, following the imperatives of globalisation, set out to liberalise the economy. This was accompanied by an open-sky policy that initiated and accelerated the growth of satellite television in India. Due to its visibility and psychological force the cultural anxieties of the middle class began to be articulated through debates on the media and its effects. Urban India’s moral panic revolves around several fears, notably the fear of the visual and its presumed capacity to ’cause deviance’, as well as the fear of losing control and thereby one’s ‘culture’ and ‘heritage’. Besides popular cinema, satellite television also brought more culturally unfamiliar visual fare to middle class homes in an unprecedented manner. In some ways, television had ‘corrupted’ the sanctum sanctorum of middle class existence – the family. These developments ran concurrently with the darkest phenomenon of the nineties– the rise of the Hindu right.
The advance of loud Hindu conservatism in India has been accompanied by an aggressive ‘cultural nationalism’ that projects a pure and originary concept of Hindu culture. The Hindu right bases its cultural vision on what it describes in its election manifesto as a “cultural heritage that is common to all regions, religions and languages and is a civilisational entity”. Under this semi-mystical idealised Hindutva, which literally translated means “Hinduness” or “the essence of being Hindu”, the Hindu right has opposed satellite television because it promotes a promiscuous Western culture and threatens ‘Indian values’. The cycles of moral panic that marked the decade of the nineties, while being initiated by the Hindu right, were not exclusive to them. A spiral of physical, often violent attacks on certain kinds of cultural expression characterised the cultural interventions throughout the period. The attacks were aimed at images and representations (mostly of women’s bodies) that were deemed to be “obscene” and “vulgar” or at those deemed to have “hurt the religious sentiments of the people”. The renowned painter MF Hussain was physically attacked for having painted Hindu goddesses in the nude and thereby having hurt religious sentiments.
Hindu ideologues and their supporters invoke a nightmarish spectre of moral decay whose origins are ‘foreign’. After the re-lease of Deepa Mehta’s film Fire about a lesbian relationship, BJP ideologue KR Malkani wrote that the film was a threat to the “very foundations of the institutions of marriage” and cautioned Indians against the “death wish that has gripped millions of Americans” and “all societies that go American” where “non-marriages, teenage mothers and single-parent families” have become common. Hindutva’s rise to power and the recurring spirals of moral panic have complex connections and divergences. Charu Gupta’s book is both timely and informative because it provides a historical backdrop to these events that we might mistakenly assume to be new developments that break with the past.
The first half of the eight-chapter book explores the defence of “the roots of moralism”. Gupta reiterates the feminist position that the “discursive management of female bodies” was essential to project a “civilised and vibrant, sectarian Hindu identity and a new nation”. The second half deals with the deployment of communal speech that attempted to demonise “the other”, in this case the Muslim.
Exploring the construction of communal identities, the author moves away from moments of high violence and spectacular events and focuses instead on the growth of Hindu communalism in everyday sites and relationships. Gupta looks at the gendered nature of communal speech in the dual project of Hindu publicists, of building a Hindu nationalist collective identity and creating a distinction with the Muslim “other”. In the chapter titled ‘Redefining Obscenity and Aesthetics in Print’, she discusses the contested terrain of sexually explicit popular literature and the anxieties of the Hindu middle class. Against the backdrop of burgeoning public institutions like libraries, publishing houses, presses, newspapers and journals, a vocal and influential section of the Hindu middle class literati of the United Provinces sought to create a new Hindu collective identity. In this determined intervention, the sexually assertive female protagonist gave way to a new image of the Hindu woman. Among the texts Gupta discusses is Priyapravas by Ayodhya Singh Upadhyay (alias Harioudh), which tells the story of Krishna’s departure for Mathura, leaving Radha behind. In this version of the story, the passionate and joyous Radha is transformed into a passive, restrained and moral woman who abandons sensual love for a sense of duty.
Concurrent with stipulations about women’s bodies and sexuality, men were urged to follow sexual restraint and celibacy as enshrined in the principles of bramhacharya. Summarising a tract from the Kangri Gurukul, Gupta writes:
Man was never to sit alone with a woman, nor even sit where a woman had sat before. Man was not to wear bright dark clothes. Watching women dance, frequenting theatre, raslila, nautanki and cinema, listening to songs and music – especially those sung by women in marriages – and reading novels related to romance and shringar ras were proscribed. Contact and conversations with lower class and lower caste women were prohibited. He was not to ride on horses or camels; presumably these activities would stimulate his manhood. He was not to eat spicy food, not to dream of women, and not to employ language or expression which might increase sexual desire. He was even to give up wearing shoes, carrying an umbrella, using scented unguents and flowers, and sleeping on a soft bed.
Together with these developments, another kind of popular writing and advertisements sought to promote an entirely different notion of masculinity. Advertisements for aphrodisiacs in the mainstream newspapers “transformed the secrets of sex into a public spectacle”. Publicising and circulating aspirations of a different masculinity, these ads elicited enthusiastic responses as well as anxieties around ‘bad’ uncontrolled sexuality. The celebration of the excessively sexualised masculinity in the ads also underscored a deep fear of effeminacy and impotence. The Chaklet (Chocolate) controversy highlights the anxieties around manhood and masculinity. In 1927, a charge of obscenity was made against the book Chaklet, authored by Pandey Bechan Sharma alias ‘Ugra’ (Extreme). A collection of eight short stories, Chaklet deals with homosexual relationships and caused a public furore. Gupta writes that the attack on Chaklet was also part of a nationalist critique of the “de-gendered male” as one “stereotype of colonial domination” and it served to “cast doubts on the stability of the heterosexual regime, on procreative imperatives, on modern monogamous ideals of marriage”.
The next three chapters, ‘Sanitizing Women’s Social Spaces’, ‘Mapping the Domestic Domain’ and ‘The Icon of the Mother’, deal with Hindu publicists’ attempts to create social and domestic spaces that would help nurture the ideal of chaste Hindu womanhood. Gupta traces the details of how arguments in favour of essentialism, biological determinism and Hindu notions of ‘pativrata’ were used to maintain unchanging separate privileges and functions for men and women. Men were to produce and women were to preserve. The subsequent chapters, ‘Us and Them: Anxious Hindu Masculinity and the Other’ and ‘Hindu Women, Muslim Men’, study the deep anxieties and fears that arise around Muslim men’s at traction to Hindu women and vice versa.
By deftly demonstrating how the gendering and communalising of spaces worked towards further polarising Hindus and Muslims, the book draws attention to various key texts and published material such as Kalicharan Sharma’s Shivaji va Roshanara. In this supposedly historical story a hyper-masculine Shivaji waylays Aurangzeb’s daughter Roshanara and marries her. Emphasising the masculine physicality of Shivaji, this passionate love story plays out the Hindu fantasy of ‘conquering’ the women of the enemy. While Hindu men were being exhorted to follow Shivaji’s example, Hindu women were being asked to be wary of Muslim men. Conversion of Muslim women to Hinduism was encouraged but there was the ever-present fear of Hindu women falling in love with Muslim men. Hence, practices like pir worship were condemned and women were warned against the promiscuous designs of Muslim men. Gupta points out that the first generation of popular novelists in Hindi, Devakinandan Khatri, Kishorilal Goswami, and Gyanprasad Gupta, who all started writing around the 1890s, characterised the Muslim male as a degenerate hypersexual and religious fanatic.
For those concerned with issues of identity and community, Charu Gupta’s book is quite invaluable. Its greatest strength lies in the extensive fieldwork and the vast body of primary and secondary sources that it refers to. Moreover, for those who are struggling to understand the rise of the Hindu right and its methods, the book provides innumerable insights. One of the most horrific aspects of the recent Gujarat carnage has been the large-scale sexualised nature of violence against women. Without drawing easy and direct links between the past and the present, Gupta’s book indicates that the ‘theory’ behind the ‘practice’ has a long history. Some continuities are easily discernible even in the realm of rhetoric. Hindutva’s political slogan, Ek Hindu ka naara hai: Hum do Hamare do, Jabki ek Muslim ka naara hai – Hum Paanch, hamare Pachchis. (The slogan of the Hindu is “We are two, we have two” / the slogan of the Muslim is “We are five, we have twenty-five”.) Here a popular family planning copy has been rearticulated to reinforce the myth of the rapidly and promiscuously multiplying Muslim.
Since the book so competently identifies the complex intersection of different identities, it is a pity that some formulations stop short of deeper probing. For instance, was the puritanical impulse exclusively the domain of Hind u publicists? Without positing any direct connections, I would like to point out that the puritanical impulse behind the moral panic of the nineties was not a preoccupation exclusive to the Hindu right. Many secular organisations (including women’s groups) have articulated anxieties about ‘obscenity’ and ‘vulgarity’ in a way that has often dangerously over-lapped with the concerns of Hindutva. There is no doubt a crucial difference in the positions taken by the women’s groups and the Hindu right. Secular women’s groups critique images and representation while simultaneously critiquing women’s subordination in traditional family and cultural values. The Hindu right, alternatively, harps on the traditional role of women in the family and looks upon feminism itself as an assault on traditional family and cultural values. Such fundamental differences notwithstanding, many secular men and women are complicit in the silencing of speech and images deemed to be ‘vulgar’ and ‘obscene’. Contemporary yardsticks cannot be used to talk about the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but it is certainly worth considering that among the harshest critics of Ugra’s ghasleti literature, writing that is derisively likened to a crude form of kerosene, was also the Hindi litterateur and editor, Munshi Premchand.
Another question concerns the power dynamics between the Hindu and Muslim communities. The Hindu right’s pernicious attack on Muslims intensified in post-partition India because of demographic, political and social inequalities. What kind of counter-strategy were the Muslims of undivided India working on? How did they attempt to counter vicious Hindu propaganda? Was the Muslim response, effective to whatever degree, homogenous or heterogeneous? Did Muslims in undivided India also mobilise their community along similar lines? A rigorous engagement with these questions is important to point out critical departures between the past and the present. The reader, especially someone who is not a historian, may otherwise assume that the position of the Muslim has remained unchanged in pre- and post-partition India. This goes against the idea of a multi-religious, pluralistic society. The implications of the term ‘sexuality’ are also worth considering. The late 20th and early 21′ centuries have seen a great deal of complexity in debates of sexuality, so much so that it can no longer be seen as synonymous with heterosexuality. The only time same-sex love is referred to in the book is in the discussion on Ugra’s Chaklet. The debate around Chaklet was the first public debate around homosexuality in Hindi literature and therefore deserves careful attention. Ruth Vanita, for instance, has pointed out that the popular success of the book may not have been just due to homophobic repulsion or what the author terms “titillation”. Despite its overt homophobia, Chaklet made persuasive arguments in favour of homosexuality. This ambiguity was not lost on the readers who flooded the office of the publisher with letters of both praise and protest. Both in and outside academia, it is not just through the marginalising of other sexualities but also through the circulation of commonplace assumptions that the idea of heterosexuality as the norm is reinforced. In discussing the emergence and proliferation of male social spaces, Gupta ventures to suggest that migration and low wages prevented men from being accompanied by their wives to industrial locations. Further, she argues that in a place like Kanpur there were 670 females per thousand males. This skewed sex ratio, she proffers, “may have helped same-sex subcultures”. This argument reinforces the fallacy that heterosexuality is the most preferred ‘natural’ choice and that different sexual orientations are caused because people have been denied the pleasures of heterosexuality. It is imperative that feminist scholars working on issues of sexuality address their own subconscious heterosexism so that they do not marginalise some voices while speaking up for others.
The book would have been greatly strengthened had it dealt a bit more with the subversive strategies deployed by women as a response to the emergent Hindu social and moral ethos. The evidence of this may or may not lie in the easily visible public domain but must surely exist. Perhaps a more thoroughgoing discussion of the subcultures around prostitution, which involves both Muslim and Hindu women, may have provided the needed insights.
These limitations not withstanding, Gupta’s book remains a valuable addition to the growing body of scholarly work on gender and communalism. A sequel is eagerly awaited.