For the past week, the media has been filled with stories about “Bois Locker Room”, an Instagram chat group that was allegedly used for sharing photos of underage girls, with deeply misogynistic comments about wishing them grievous bodily harm. It had 26 members from “elite private schools” living largely in upmarket South Delhi. The girls in question were often members of the same social group and school community as the boys.
This is the latest in a series of stories involving students from elite schools. Sometimes, these stories relate to “sex scandals”. One of the earliest examples of this dates back to 2004, when a video clip of two students of Delhi Public School was leaked online. At other times, they relate to youngsters smashing into pedestrians as they lose control of the luxury cars that they’ve driven while drunk.
Though Indian society at large is deeply hierarchical, casteist, misogynist, patriarchal, Islamophobic and homophobic, one imagines that exclusive private schools that advertise that their curriculums and school ethos are based on global ideas would have students for whom such behaviour is frowned upon and not taken as the norm.
India underwent a change in the 1990s as the protectionist economy was opened up with the goal of making it more market and service-oriented and expanding the role of private and foreign investment. This gave rise to a number of new institutions, among which were a number of private schools. These schools are marketed as “transnational” and “progressive”, promising to produce the “future leaders of India”.
Run largely as businesses and charging exorbitant fees, the relationship these schools have with parents is transactional and based on profit – parents are viewed as clients. These purportedly progressive schools have hardly any diversity in terms of either caste or religion in their student body nor do they instil liberal concepts.
The schools claim that their selection of students is based chiefly on “merit” and of course the ability to pay. This is a reflection of the dominant majoritarian discourse used by the Indian elite to justify their antipathy to any affirmative action policy. A quick glance through the list of Bois Locker Room participants makes it clear that it is dominated by upper-caste names.
These elite schools are patronised by the children of the newly risen middle class that is the product economic liberalisation. This group is the most vocal (and powerful) supporter of Narendra Modi’s Hindutva government. Defined by their ability to consume global goods and commodities, this group aspires to a liberalism based on material consumption rather than a thinking one.
Their children have unlimited access to “pocket money” and grow up surrounded in a sea of privilege, almost exclusively brought up by a battalion of domestic workers. They imagine themselves having a lifestyle akin to America but with an Indian twist – an idea that it is the best of both worlds. With sizable disposable incomes, this group (and their children) live in gated enclaves of affluence. The only interactions children of these families have with people from other classes is with the domestic workers in their own homes, the support staff in their schools and in spaces such as malls.
The very name, Bois Locker Room, gives an indication of where some of these ideas of masculinity are drawn from – American popular culture. The teens from these institutions imbibe ideas not only from their own homes, Indian popular culture (including misogynistic musicians such as Yoyo Honey Singh), Bollywood films but also from American movies, TV shows and social media.
Warped social ideas
The schools plead helplessness and are reluctant to tackle warped social ideas, arguing that children are influenced by the views expressed in their own homes. Dependent on parents for their income, the schools fear a backlash if they tread too far. The schools are reluctant to discuss sexuality and consensual sex, limiting themselves to just dry biological explanations. The majority of parents are deeply uncomfortable with these subjects too and prefer not to “expose” their children to such discussions, fearing “moral corruption”.
However, the teenagers are reading and imbibing ideas from the internet. They appropriate ideas as well as language from sub-cultures of American rap music and misogynistic “incel culture”. (Incels are members of an online subculture who define themselves as unable to find a romantic or sexual partner.) Incel forums are often characterised by resentment, misogyny, misanthropy, self-pity, self-loathing, racism, a sense of entitlement to sex, and the endorsement of violence against sexually active people.
If challenged, some Indian teenagers invoke their right to free expression and their right to free speech to silence any who have alternative points of view – something they have picked up from the discourse of the Incel groups.
Schools as well as parents are both unaware as well as ill-equipped to deal with any of this. Rooted in market-led consumer liberalism, this new middle class is almost schizophrenic – socially and economically conservative, unable to deal with or interact with their teens yet being indulgent towards them via their generous allowances. Other parents, afraid of being seen as being “uncool”, ignore their children’s activities or pretend to be unaware of them.
The teens are exposed to a particularly virulent Indian mix of rampant misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, racism, casteism and more but have no forums where any of the ideas they pick up can be refuted or challenged or even shown alternative ways of thinking. Entitled and privileged, they believe themselves to be above the law.
The Bois Locker Room members are a microcosm of the hierarchical and illiberal society we inhabit. There is an urgent need for open conversations around issues of caste, sexuality, consensual sex, class, substance abuse and more in our private and public institutions. Until that is done, we should not be surprised if we see a rise in incidents such as the Bois Locker Room.
Radha Khan is an independent consultant working in the field of gender, governance and social inclusion.