Return to the Age of Innocence – Cow Vigilantes, Hindutva, the Angry Young Men Behind Modi’s Hindu Nationalism

When India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, envisioned the modern republic born of the British partition in 1947, he exalted the idea of a country founded on secularism. Resembling a palimpsest, India was to be a place of tolerance, where layers of thought and reverie can be inscribed without erasing what has been written previously, and centuries-long religions, languages, ethnicities, cultures flourish in harmony. Even its name, India, a term that originates in Latin, contains an impressive etymology – sindhu in Sanskrit for “river,” hind in Persian, and indos in Greek – reflecting a rich history of inclusion and diversity. Since its founding seventy years ago, the Western world often views India as its potential heir of liberalism. Embracing democratic systems, free-trade, and globalization, the second most populated country in the Asian continent was poised to become the world’s new beacon of hope. 

That reality has changed. Since prime minister Narendra Modi’s election in 2014, a discriminatory citizenship law amendment (CAA) passed; Kashmir, India’s sole Muslim-majority state, lost its constitutional autonomy; heavy-handed government crackdowns against demonstrations swung across the country. Despite widespread criticism of such policies, Modi and his nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) rode the wave of millennial support to a second term in 2019. A movement made up of cow vigilantes, and Hindutva believers, Modi’s re-election victory, fueled by a base full of chauvinistic, disillusioned, and violent Hindu young men, solidified the country’s growing nationalistic trajectory, enchanted by vague mythology of a holy past. 

The last two summers in India were plagued by turmoil and violence: Cow vigilantes patrolled neighborhoods, assaulting any who allegedly smuggled or consumed beef, and dozens have been killed by lynch mobs, most of whom were Muslims. Though many blame India’s descent to mob rule on Modi and the BJP’s promotion of a Hindu Nationalistic agenda, the root of its male rage goes beyond the current government. India is a country of low median age and gender imbalance, where its youth face a harsh reality – a job crisis. With more than 600 million people under 25, the millennials in India came of age in a period of slow economic growth. Despite greater access to technology and education, millions face the grim prospect of not finding well-paying jobs: many college graduates are forced to seek menial labor while work and wages steadily decline. Each month, more than 1 million job seekers enter the labor market, yet in 2017, India only created 1.8 million additional jobs. Leaked data from a national survey in 2018 show that India’s unemployment rate rose to 6.1%,  and youth unemployment, people between age 15-29, reached between 13% to 27%, a trend that can only be exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic. 

In many ways, public angst and group grievance in India are sentiments uniquely masculine. A generation of families aborting female fetuses in preference for sons has resulted in a “bachelor bomb” – there are more than 37 million surplus men, who will remain single between 2020 and 2080, in a country that harbors masculine aggression and sexual violence. Drifting without purpose, young Hindu men gravitate toward the growing right-wing organizations for a sense of direction, forming a stereotype that isn’t unlike their western counterparts: keyboard trolls with little education,  in their childhood bedrooms furiously tweeting angry rebukes against every perceived slight to Hinduism and Modi. Most of them can be found congregating on Twitter, Hindu-pride-focused WhatsApp groups, and alternate-history websites, circulating conspiracy theories, truncated quotes and speeches taken out of context, and vicious attacks against minorities, women, journalists. Ideas like Hindutva, roughly translates to “Hindu-ness,” promotes a sense of exclusively Hindu national identity among young men, painting the myth of a glorious ancient civilization before Mughal and British invaders. Hindu young men, enraged by – as Modi’s put it – India’s “1,200 years of servitude,” strive to purify the country into the old Holy Land and demand to return to an age of innocence that is half-imaginary. 

  An identity crisis is plaguing the Hindu young men, harboring rage, frustration, and a deep sense of victimization. In the last election, misinformation in the social media ecosystem promoted a line of identity politics, where video snippets of Modi’s principal opponent, Rahul Gandhi, spread virally on the internet, portraying him as an incapable and entitled dynast. Jobless, without a stable family, lacking any competitive market skills, young Hindu men rejected Gandhi’s elite background. Instead, they identify with Modi’s personal story: the son of a tea seller who climbed the competitive ladder in politics and rose to power. The BJP’s hardline rhetoric provides a direction for these young men to unleash their anger, often towards minority groups. Passing stringent laws that punish religious conversion in marriage, the party fuels the flame for conspiracy theories like “love jihad,” pushing a false narrative that Muslim men are wooing and impregnating Hindu women as part of an elaborate scheme to alter India’s demographics. Modi’s vow to protect India’s sacred cows sparked mob-lynchings in states such as Uttar Pradesh, where many Muslim populations reside. Convinced of their victimhood, young Hindu men adhere to Modi’s inflammatory rhetoric and commit grave violence against the Muslim community, channeling a collective frustration to participate in a political struggle between Hinduism and Islam. 

Young Hindu men, embolden by virulent right-wing agenda, has become the driving force behind India’s pivot toward nationalism. Religious toleration retreats to a thing of the past as a Hindutva identity emerges. The original answer to who is an Indian, the founding fathers’ vision of diverse communities coexisting in peace, is disappearing in Modi’s era of male rage. If there is an age of innocence that India has lost during the past few years, it’s the age of secularism.

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