Interview with Fourth-Year Lap Yin Jonathan Chung, COSAS BA Prize Winner for his research paper titled, “Late-colonial Incels? Erotic Debasement, Celibacy, and the Hindu Nationalist Movement.” The COSAS BA Prize recognizes excellence in BA thesis research in the study of Southern Asia by undergraduate students matriculated in any department of the University of Chicago.

1. Congratulations on receiving the inaugural COSAS BA Prize! Can you give us a brief summary of your paper and explain what motivated you to investigate this particular question?

Thank you for this honor! I wrote a thesis investigating the historical origins of the Hindu nationalist movement’s practice and veneration of celibacy, especially amongst its male leaders and cadres (including current Prime Minister Narendra Modi). It was actually upon reading a New York Times article about Modi’s celibacy (which he swore to in joining the Hindu nationalists) that I was curious to research why this abstinence was a practice in the first place. I argue that the Hindu nationalists’ celibacy can be traced back to a history of elite, Bengali Hindu men who were deemed sexually undesirable through the gaze of the British Raj’s white colonizers. As a response, these Bengali elites – the precursors of the modern Hindu nationalists – reclaimed this imposed sexlessness by embracing celibacy as a virtue; these beliefs and practices surrounding sex were then absorbed by the Hindu nationalists. However, this celibacy was a way for these Hindu men to justify and rationalize the loss of the sex they still desired and saw as key to their manhood, as shown by the mixture of admiration and jealousy with which they view the figure of the (supposedly more attractive) Muslim man.

As seen in the paper’s title, I compare the Hindu nationalists to the modern masculinist subculture of white, North American men who call themselves “incels,” or “involuntary celibates.” These are heterosexual men who, having had their sexual or romantic overtures rejected, rage against the women who they believe deny them the sex that they are entitled to. I argue that both the Hindu nationalists and the incels are reacting to a real problem, which is that they have been deemed unattractive according to Eurocentric beauty standards that originated in histories of imperialism and colonial domination. However, both continue to turn the act of sex into an abstract symbol or marker of manhood (another legacy of European thought exported via imperialism, i.e. Foucault’s idea of “sexuality”), which leads them to compensate for the loss of this marker in dangerous and horrifying ways. The incels compensate by hating women, and the Hindu nationalists do so through their (at first glance paradoxical) simultaneous embrace of celibacy and jealousy over “their” women, who are at risk of being seduced by purportedly more desirable Muslim men.

2. Can you describe how you gathered research for your project? What methods did you use?

Although I do not speak any South Asian language, I was able to make use of a variety of English-language sources from the mid-1800s to the twenty-first century to construct my argument. These sources broadly fit into two categories: the first group is intellectual tracts that show the development and sublimation of ideas, perceptions, and historical memory from the period of Crown rule through to the year 2021. The second is newspaper articles that show how this world of ideas plays out “on the ground.” The reason the paper temporally spans the British Raj period from 1857 through to the twenty-first century is intrinsically related to its argument; the only way one can understand the modern Hindu nationalist movement’s practices and views regarding celibacy is by tracing it back to an earlier history of colonialism and humiliation.

3. How do the themes of demography, gender, and sex manifest themselves in Hindu nationalism? What are the similarities and differences between Neo-Nazis and Hindu Nationalists?

I see this paper as explicating an aspect – celibacy – of a specific far-right movement’s politics of demography, gender, and sex, themes which deeply concern far-right movements around the world. However, each group’s response to and stance on these themes is informed and inflected by the local histories and social conditions that they are born out of. The Neo-Nazis and white nationalists in the United States, for example, are anxious about the supposed demographic replacement of the white majority by people of color. Intrinsically linked with these demographic anxieties are fears over, as seen historically, a more virile and exoticized man of color “taking” white women away from white men. The Hindu nationalists display a similar demographic and sexual panic in their “Love Jihad” conspiracy theory, which asserts that attractive, hyper-sexual Muslim men are coming to seduce and take away Hindu women from Hindu men. This, according to the conspiracy theory, is a ploy to convert these women to Islam and procreate with them, out-populating and replacing the Hindu majority of India.

Where the Hindu nationalists diverge from their white supremacist counterparts is in their embrace of celibacy, a practice that stems from India’s particular history of colonialism and empire. Specifically, as I mentioned above, this celibacy began as a compensatory response to the Bengali Hindus’ placement at the bottom of a racialized colonial hierarchy of desirability. With white men and women sitting at the top of this hierarchy, the Neo-Nazis and white nationalists do not need to extol celibacy in order to compensate for a loss of sex. The incels, however, are white men who don’t conform to the image of the white “chad” posited as the ideal male figure, are thus also deemed unattractive within this hierarchy. They then compensate for the loss of the sex they perceive as essential to their manhood by raging against the women who “deny” it to them.

4. What are the origins of celibacy in the Hindu nationalist movement? Can you expand on your argument that the Hindu nationalists’ stance on the topic is rooted in humiliation by British colonial rule, and explain how Hindu nationalists ended up embracing celibacy?

In the last half of the 1800s, a group of Bengali, Hindu elites, western-educated and trained to serve as middlemen between the colonial administration and indigenous laypeople, began agitating for the same privileges as the white colonizers. In the process of rejecting these demands, these Bengali elites were emasculated and deemed undesirable – they were the total opposites of the white British man, who was presented as the sexually attractive ideal of manhood. Thus, they had no claim to rule.

As a response, these Bengali elites inverted the equation: it was not the presence, but actually the absence, of sex that made one a man. These elites rejected the importance of sexual attractiveness and potency to manhood at all, asserting that the feelings of lust and desire that this conceptual association engendered actually weakened a man by draining him of his vitality. This embrace of celibacy was part of a broader intellectual reaction to colonial rule and a proto-nationalist movement called Hindu Revivalism, in which the Bengali elites had a central place. The Hindu Revivalists are, in many respects, the intellectual progenitors of the modern Hindu nationalists, and accordingly the latter absorbed the former’s stance on manhood, sex, and celibacy.

5. Your primary sources are English language texts. Do you anticipate and hypothesized divergences if you were able to access relevant literatures in Bengali, Hindi, or other languages?

I can’t answer this question definitively, since I think that there will always be evidence that surprises you or changes what you had previously believed to be true. However, because many of my sources – especially the intellectual tracts – were translations of Bengali or otherwise Indian-language texts, I would expect the original versions to affirm the broad contours of the argument, even if they change particular nuances of it. But then again, I wouldn’t know at this point in time, and I would not be surprised if the original versions provided evidence that significantly changed the argument.

6. How did you connect your findings to Indian contemporary politics?

As I mentioned earlier, my thesis is an examination of a particular aspect of the Hindu nationalist movement’s politics of gender, sex, and demography: celibacy. The latter portions of the paper directly touch upon contemporary events in Indian politics as part of its argument, most significantly in the persecution of Muslims that has escalated following the BJP’s rise to nationwide power in 2014 (but that existed before then, a particularly horrific example being the 2002 Gujarat pogrom against Muslims). I connect the Hindu nationalists’ persecution of Muslim men to their demographic and gender politics by arguing that the former simultaneously harbor a fear of demographic replacement by, as well as a sexual envy of, the latter.

7. What is your major, and why did you choose to focus on that particular area of study?

I’m a History major, and I chose to study history because I think that it shows the ways in which many things we take for granted to be transhistorical – aspects of human behavior or existence that we assume to have existed or been consistent throughout all of human history – are actually unique and specific to the modern epoch we live under. To me, understanding how truly alien the past was – how truly alien previous behaviors and whole ways of perceiving the world were – is both fascinating and inspiring.

8. What are your plans post-graduation?

I will be attending the MAPSS program at UChicago in the 2022-23 academic year, and I also plan on applying to PhD programs in History this fall.

9. What have you enjoyed most about your time at the University of Chicago?

I’ve been able to learn so much through my classes and from the experiences I’ve had outside of them. The biggest factor in both cases has been the people I’ve met: my friends, professors, classmates, and mentors who have taught me so much and been formative on an intellectual and personal level alike. I’m deeply grateful to those people who have touched my life in some way over the last four years, and they are what I have enjoyed the most about my time at the University of Chicago.