Like many young, educated and middle-class Indian men, 28-year-old Aaftab Poonawala appeared to be a “modern” and “woke” man in a live-in relationship with his girlfriend in Delhi. He represented the image of a “new” Indian man of a globalising “modern” India and its many digital and social worlds.
For instance, Poonawala called himself a food blogger, animal lover, as well as an environmentalist and an LGBTQ ally on social media. He had over 20,000 followers on Instagram and presented himself with stylish haircuts, manbuns, stylised beards and clothes and as generally liberal and open-minded.
But the gruesomeness of the murder highlights a larger crisis of middle-class men and their masculinities in India today, which needs critical examination.
Like Poonawala, many men in India seem “modern” and “new”, but this hides the longer and deeper inequalities of gender, class, consumption and power that continue to shape the lives of Indian women and men.
Poonawala’s actions, though extreme, reveal some of the profound challenges that we face as a society. Young men like Poonawala seem to fit into new cultures of dating, consumption and living that require particular performances of gender. But this is superficial, for there is no substantive change in inequalities and the hetero-patriarchal entitlements of men in society.
Poonawala murdered and dismembered his live-in partner Shraddha Walkar in Delhi in May but the incident came to light around November 11. He also carefully planned how to dispose of any evidence of the crime. Media reports have alleged that days after murdering and dismembering his partner’s body, Poonawala continued meeting other women from dating websites.
Sociologically and from the purview of a gendered analysis, there is a need to parse apart those elements of the ordinary that might get clouded and erased in the graphic nature of the case. What it highlights, crucially, is how masculinities in India are changing without actually much improvement or shift in the power inequalities between men and women in the country today.
More and more young men in India today claim to be “woke” or “feminists” and that they “respect women”, yet fundamentally there is no change in their interactions with women. They use more polite language, but they fundamentally still see women as inferior.
There is a discursive shift in the rhetoric and speech of young, middle-class Indian men – one might even argue that social media and other such public fora have a role to play in this transformation – but the wider and deep-rooted inequalities remain in place.
The usual stereotypes about Muslim men in India and the allegations of “love jihad” in the media have further tried to skew the discussion about Poonawala’s actions to give them a peculiarly sectarian and anti-Muslim overtone. Love jihad is a conspiracy theory put forward by Hindu fundamentalists that Muslim men lure Hindu women into relationships and marriage with the aimed of converting them to Islam.
At the same time, newspapers and television channels have also attempted to frame the incident as a case of insanity and extraordinary monstrosity. They have tried to frame him as “mentally unstable” and “sick” without at all considering the wider social and cultural dynamics of gender inequalities that are equally essential to understand the framing of Indian masculinities.
In particular, how new forms of middle-class misogyny, sexism and patriarchal control over women are being reproduced anew, has not been questioned.
My long-term ethnographic research with young middle-class men, like Poonawala, in Delhi shows how many of them have the “correct” language and presentations of being “modern”. This includes supporting women’s rights or taking them out on dates, yet it conceals fantasies and facts about the deeply violent and rampant control these men have over the women in their everyday lives.
I have argued in my book, Becoming Young Men in a New India, that with India’s changing social and economic development, young men construct their identities in new ways to appear “modern” and “woke”. Yet, the deeper problems of son preferences, masculine entitlements as well as the control over women’s bodies and sexuality has not gone away but merely changed form.
The violence of such “woke” or “modern” men is particularly harder to make visible and talk about. Celebrated as “good men”, the patriarchal privilege and power of such men is hidden under the façade of social, cultural and psychological rewards.
With such men, the “red flags” that women might look for are often better hidden and sometimes altogether invisible, making it a more insidious form of masculine power and violence.
Rather than treating Aftab Poonawala as one pathological man, a case in point for individual deviance, there is an urgent need to understand the social and cultural dynamics at play in this case and wider Indian society wherein men’s violence towards women is routine and constant.
This case, although rare in some ways, is part of a wider problem of men’s domestic and public violence towards women in India today. The everyday quarrels and fights between Poonawala and his murdered partner happen in millions of homes across the country. These fights and inequalities are not new but regular occurrences that take on different forms – sometimes from subtle control to verbal or emotional abuse, or to other instances when it is physical and even fatal.
These violences by men are on a continuum that stretches from the subtle and almost invisible to the gruesome and spectacular. We need to urgently reflect on this continuum of men’s violence against women in India in its multiple forms and across multiple classes.
Shannon Philip is a sociologist of gender, masculinities, youth and violence. He is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of East Anglia, UK. His most recent book is Becoming Young Men in a New India: Masculinities, Gender Relations and Violence in the Postcolony, CUP 2022.