The Bharatiya Janata Party has increasingly politicised the many forms of behaviour that motorcycles in India have long signified. It has turned the motorcycle or bike into a symbol of terror, an instrument of communal rioting and a symptom of political pathology. The motorcycle is fast emerging as Hindutva’s favourite vehicle.

On Thursday evening, a 3-km-long motorcyle rally in Mumbai by 10,000 party members to welcome its president, Amit Shah, clogged traffic for five hours. But more ominously, the motorcycle has played a prominent role in recent communal conflagrations. A bike rally on January 26 triggered a riot in Kasganj, Uttar Pradesh, with the anger of participants rising in sync with the growling of their engines as they demanded a right of way through a Muslim area.

It seemed the ancient Ashvamedha ceremony had been reinvented for modern times. Centuries ago, the king would let loose a royal horse in the territory he coveted. His opponent could either challenge the king’s warriors accompanying the horse or accept his imperial authority. It was a provocation aimed at subjugating the rival either through a bloody battle or by inspiring fear in him.

Today, instead of warriors accompanying the Ashvamedha horse beating their war drums, Hindutva footsoldiers take out motorcycle rallies, insist on riding through Muslim localities or territories under the control of Opposition parties, and shout provocative slogans. Both the motorcyclists and residents of localities grasp this theme of assertion-submission. A chain of action and reaction is triggered. The goal of the motorcyclists is to communally polarise society, turn future elections into a Hindu-Muslim contest and grab power.

A BJP bike rally is now a common feature across India. (Credit: PTI)

From Bihar to Port Blair

This was indeed the script of the communal clash in Bihar’s Aurangabad district in March. A rally of 100 bikers revved up their engines and shouted “Bharat Maa mein teen hi naam, Modi, Yogi, Jai Sri Ram”, “Hindustan mein rehna hai to Vande Mataram kehna hoga”. (There are three names in India: Modi, Yogi, and Ram. If you want to stay in India, you must chant Vande Mataram.) The slogans were both a taunt and challenge to Muslims. Likewise, weeks before, Arijit Shashwat, the son of Union minister Ashwini Kumar Choubey, had led a throng of bikers through a Muslim colony in Bihar’s Bhagalpur city before it began to burn.

The bike’s importance to the Bharatiya Janata Party was emphasised by its president, Amit Shah, who in intent and conduct looks every inch a portly general, albeit in civvies. He rode pillion at the head of thousands of bikers in Jind, Haryana, in February. Next to him, riding a motorcycle of his own, was Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar. Thundering bikes magnified the meaning of the rally that was christened Hunkar or a challenging roar.

In January, the BJP’s youth wing, the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, took out a cross-state motorcycle rally in West Bengal, from Digha to Cooch Behar. The bikers and activists of the ruling Trinamool Congress clashed. The Morcha also organised bike rallies in each of Tripura’s 60 constituencies in the run-up to elections earlier this year. Even Port Blair had its serenity rent by such a rally on August 15.

In September, the BJP declared that it would take out bike rallies across Karnataka to demand a ban on the Muslim organisations Social Democratic Party of India and Popular Front of India. The Congress government arrested hundreds of BJP activists to foil the rally, which did take place but without the anticipated horsepower. But the BJP will now take out their mean machines in all of Karnataka’s 224 Assembly constituencies as they prepare to battle the Congress in the elections on May 12.

Bikes for manly men

The BJP has succumbed to the seductive charm of the bike, in the process appropriating, and reconstituting, the culture that has evolved around it. Thirty years ago, in pre-liberalised India, two-wheelers were predominantly a vehicle of utility, largely because cars were prohibitively expensive and loans difficult to procure.

Those who were middle-aged or married owned a scooter. It was lighter than the motorcycle, easier to move before kick-starting or lugging it to the mechanic in case of a breakdown. The scooter was family-friendly – it had ample space between the handlebar and the rider for a child to squeeze in; the wife or sister or daughter did not have to straddle the pillion. They sat sideways, at once convenient for those in a sari or salwar or frock. They did not have to cling on to or hold the rider’s body, as they had to on a motorcycle, to ensure that they weren’t thrown off at a sudden jerk. To ride the scooter was to be modern with modesty, accept familial responsibility, and underplay masculinity.

Unlike the family-friendly scooter, the bike is the vehicle of choice of the strong, young, and mostly single men – who the BJP seeks to recruit for its rallies. (Credit: Narinder Nanu / AFP)

By contrast, the bike was a signifier of cultural values opposite to those of the scooter. It was the two-wheeler of choice of the strong, young, and mostly single men. It symbolised an independence neither trammeled by responsibility nor knowing limits. It was swifter than the scooter, becoming a trope for living life in the fast lane, riskily and, therefore, adventurously, with freedom that knew no bounds. The heavier the machine, the more emphatic the statement it made about the owner’s masculinity. Remember the Royal Enfield’s Bullet – riding it created a mystique akin to the rider controlling an unruly horse, imbuing in him a sense of machismo.

The bike signified youthful exuberance seeking free expression. They rode in groups, without helmets. In pre-liberalised India, the owners of bikes were the economically privileged and largely from the higher castes. This was particularly true of villages and qasbahs. But even in this privileged group, not every boy who yearned for the bike could persuade his parents to buy it. They feared their child would turn into a ruffian or loafer because of the mobility and independence the bike offered.

There was an element of truth to it – the bullies and goons, or the guys who lurked around street corners shooting the breeze, rode the manly bike, not the sissy scooter. Bikes brought their riders together. They became a nucleus for a gang. Some grew out of it. Some did not, their expression of masculinity restricted not to just riding the bike but to activities that had menace stamped all over them. Thereafter, it was fate that determined where the rider ended up.

In the post-liberalisation era, bike culture has acquired new meanings while retaining older ones. The motorcycle continues to signify youthfulness, masculinity, freedom and energy. But these last two qualities, the bike shares with the car, which the young borrow from their parents to drive or are gifted by them. In this sense, the bike is no longer an indicator of the owner’s relatively privileged status. In fact, it signifies a transitory stage to owning a car. To continue riding a bike, unless it is an expensive model or done out of pleasure, implies the unfulfilled dream of acquiring a car, of getting stuck on a step in the economic ladder. It is the trope of the lower middle class that wants to fly out of its coop.

Motorcycle army

It is this class of men the BJP seeks to recruit for its bike rallies. Their avenues of mobility blocked, they feel inadequate and frustrated. Their masculinity stands challenged. Riding the bike is no compensation. It requires a more vigorous reinforcement. In giving them identifiable targets – whether Muslims or the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, the Left in Tripura or the Congress in Karnataka – the BJP provides them an opportunity to overcome their inadequacy through their rough, violent ways. They are susceptible to the BJP’s bait because of their socialisation in the masculine culture that has evolved around the motorcycle.

The traditional rough or bullying methods of bike riders were random and, therefore, meaningless. By contrast, Hindutva provides meaning to their unruly ways. They are soldiers of a political cause, the sentinels of Hinduism, the repository of the community’s pride. It camouflages the failure to get a respectable job. Frustration ebbs because a purpose has been provided – bash a Trinamool activist, taunt Muslims, or challenge the effeminate Congress leaders.

The bike riders take themselves to be the vanguard of what they think is a political revolution. In reality, though, it is a unity of the lumpen, periodically provided a day of meaningful pleasure because they are licensed to provoke and become violent. They do not feel embarrassed or ashamed because they are no longer, say, a gang of 10, but a collection of 100 or 200 or 1,000 bikers.

The BJP has imposed new meanings on the motorcycle. For instance, its sound will have a new resonance. A hundred engines snarling together will become an ominous portent of what is to befall a town. The BJP’s partiality to the bike is also because of its manoeuverability. The bike rider can foment trouble and zip away. He can sneak into alleys and beat the chase. The BJP promises them an adventurous political life, in the hope the party too will feel younger.

The bike in a BJP rally signifies that its owner does not belong to the class of, say, protesting peasants. He is not powerless; he is not willing to take the blows of lathis without retaliating. He is not a Gandhian who swears to remain peaceful regardless of the nature of incitement. He is the provocateur, the instigator, eager to strike the first blow. The BJP has appropriated India’s bike culture and saffronised it.