Suman Naishadham tries to understand the phenomenon behind the rise of men support groups and men’s rights activists in the country
On August 14, 2016, a room of 170 men and a handful of women in the south Indian city of Hyderabad sat in rapt silence to the image of a bearded Texan man addressing them via Skype. The speaker was Paul Elam, the founder of A Voice for Men, perhaps the most popular website in the men’s rights movement. Elam—a sworn “anti-gynocentrist” and champion of the American men’s rights movement—demurred that he was the student that afternoon. “You guys are light-years ahead of us,” he boomed. “The Indian movement is setting an example for the whole world.”
The Indian men’s rights movement is thriving. What began in the early 2000s as a series of local support groups for aggrieved husbands fighting the supposed misuse of a law that protected Indian women from dowry-related crimes has grown into a network of men’s rights groups with the basic anatomy of a political movement. Unlike the American MRM, men’s rights activists in India are viewed as fairly legitimate lc. In recent years, they’ve been featured on network news debates, lobbied judges,demonstrated at marathons, and delivered TED talks. Central to the movement, though, are the group meetings held every week in major Indian cities where MRAs council one another on how to stand up for their rights.
“You’ve really done a revolutionary thing,” Elam congratulated his audience seated several time zones away on banquet chairs at the eighth National Men’s Conference, an annual Indian MRA event, earlier this month. “You’ve come together for the benefit of men.”
As the movement in India has grown, it has also styled itself closer to the American MRM, moving its focus away from countering specific “anti-men” laws into being a wide platform through which men band together.
One primary grievance was the “dowry law”—formally, Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code—which was created in 1983 to protect women from harassment, abuse, and violence in cases where a bride’s family did not provide a sufficient dowry. Under the law, police could automatically arrest husbands and family members accused of committing dowry-related crimes. MRAs saw this as giving women too much power and lobbied to change the law. In 2014, the Indian Supreme Court took their side and removed the automatic arrest provision, purportedly to protect men against “disgruntled wives.”
Since then, MRAs in India have embraced a growing number of issues that they claim plague men in the country today: gender-biased laws, a feminist media, and an internationally funded feminist agenda bent on dismantling the Indian family.
“Feminists are doing certain things that are breaking our society and our world,” Partha Sadhukhan, a software engineer from Bangalore in his mid 30s, told me on one of the conference’s tea breaks. Sadhukhan joined the MRM five years ago when a sticky divorce left him in search of brotherhood. It was then, he said, like many others at the conference, that he found the men’s rights movement and woke up to the “condition of men in India.”
Sadhukhan, who runs a popular MRA blog, calls himself a “human rights activist,” and he stays away from dowry-law debates. Instead, he devotes himself to other pet causes, including one cherished by MRAs the world over—debunking rape statistics. “These things,” Sadhukhan said in reference to the fatal 2012 Delhi gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student, “they don’t happen. It was a very one-off case.”
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, India’s only source for numbers on sexual crimes, 100 instances of rape are reported every day. Just over one-fourth of them lead to a conviction. Skirting some of the reasons why rape cases in India are withdrawn—coercion by family members, victim blaming, and severely backlogged courts—MRAs use this discrepancy to cry foul.
“The media is defaming our country by highlighting rape,” said Barkha Trehan, a woman who joined the movement five years ago when a close male friend of hers was accused of rape. “Seventy-six percent of rape charges are false. Do we ever talk about the acquittals? Do we ever highlight that the charges are fake?” she asked me. Trehan, a petite woman from Delhi with two kids, told me with delight outside the conference hall that she had raised these questions more than once “on the platform of Mann ki Baat,” a radio show hosted by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi.
But according to Nandita Bhatia, a gender and violence specialist at the International Center for Research on Women, looking at rape in India only through the lens of numbers is troublesome because of the large number of cases that never make it to police stations. “There is an overwhelming sense of shame and blame that follows rape victims in India and that cuts across all classes,” she told me. “When you base your whole argument on cases that are recorded, you are [disregarding] a huge part of the problem.”
Still, “false rapes” have become a raison d’etre for the Indian MRM while the conversation around sexual crimes in India continues. “At first [the men’s rights movement] here only focused on the laws,” said Uma Challa, an American-educated biologist who entered the movement 11 years ago. “What I realized interacting with men’s groups everywhere is that the problems facing men are much deeper.”
Challa joined men’s rights activism “pretty much like everyone else,” after she was implicated in a dowry-harassment case with her brother. While she was an early adopter of the MRM in India, Challa had spent years defending men’s rights in the United States, where she told me she created a helpline for Indian husbands living overseas and “visited every office of every senator and house of representative” to rally against the signing of the International Violence Against Women Act. Challa, an occasional contributor to A Voice for Men, holds little sympathy for feminists, calling her time in the MRM as a woman “a learning experience.”
“Feminists are driving stupidity into people’s minds, infantilizing women and demonizing men as a group,” she beamed. “We talk so much now about Black Lives Matter. What I realized is, men’s lives matter.” But for many others, the rise of India’s MRM—among both men and women—is troubling. “It is unfortunate,” said Bhatia, “that the men’s rights movement doesn’t acknowledge the sense of hierarchy and power that men here have in every sphere.”
All images used in the story are the copyright of the author.This story was originally published on Vice