In recent years, a stream of books and articles has appeared seeking to analyse the theory and practice of Hindutva. They have sought to alternatively explain, critique, or justify the rising influence of the BJP and the RSS. Some have focused on organisational questions, on the building of social networks on the ground and how they help garner votes for the party. Others have explored the role of ideology, the articulation of a belief system founded on Hindu pride and the demonisation of minorities. Yet others have adopted a biographical approach, writing about the role played in the rise of Hindutva by such individuals as Golwalkar, Savarkar, Vajpayee, Advani, and Modi.
The literature on Hindutva is now large enough to fit a decent-sized library. The books and essays that make it up are of extremely variable quality. Yet even in this dense and crowded field, there is room for innovation and flair. Both these qualities are displayed in a book that was released late last month. The book carries the title, H-Pop: The Secretive World of Hindutva Pop Stars, and its author — whom I have never met and had not heard of till a proof copy of his work arrived in my inbox — is a young, Mumbai-based writer called Kunal Purohit.
So far as I know, H-Pop is the first book to closely investigate the use — and abuse — of popular culture by the Hindu Right. The characters it features are carefully sketched. The book’s strongest sections are on musicians, analysing the words and sentiments of their songs, and how they dehumanise Muslims. However, it also deals with Hindutva-inflected poetry and books apart from music.
Among the merits of Kunal Purohit’s book is its comparative approach. The author is alert and aware of global trends in right-wing pop culture, locating the Indian case in this wider context. The book thus talks of propagandist poems/songs promoted by the Nazis, the Italian fascists, al Qaida, in the Rwandan genocide, and by white supremacists in contemporary Europe and North America.
I don’t know whether Purohit writes or sings song himself. He certainly is deeply interested in them. His book tracks the composing of the songs that make up the world of H-Pop, and how they are visualised and recorded. He tells the reader of how these songs find their often large and very engaged audience. We learn of the role of the internet, YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp in spreading these poems and songs and their messages of hate. (Unlike the Hindutvavadis, Hitler and Mussolini did not have access to these postmodern technologies, though the Neo-Nazis and ISIS do.)
The lyrics of the songs examined by Purohit speak of the dangerous enemies the Hindus have allegedly faced in the past and the present. The songs nonetheless assure the audience that their side will be victorious in the end. They thus illuminate what I have elsewhere termed the ‘paranoid triumphalism’ which defines Hindutva ideology today. Here is one verse from a popular song sung by a Haryanvi singer. This addresses (or rather instructs) Muslims in these words: “Vande Mataram gaana hoga/ Warna yahaan se jaana hoga/ Nahi gaye toh jabran tujhe bhaga denge/ Hum tujhko teri aukaat bata denge.” [Vande Mataram, you will have to chant/ Or you will have to leave this country/ If you don’t, you’ll be pushed out/ We will show you your place.]
Other songs highlight the savagery of Muslim conquerors like Timur. One poem cited by Purohit celebrated an utterly fictitious warrior named Jograj Singh Gurjar, who, it claimed, defeated Timur’s army and stopped it at the gates of Haridwar. A video of this poem with this fabricated story being recited was shared by the actor, Kangana Ranaut, on her Facebook page on the eve of the 2022 assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, with a message asking Ranaut’s followers to “listen to the story of the brave, powerful Jograj Singh Gurjar who defeated the cruel invader Timurlane. I appeal to all voters, to honour and respect the sacrifices of our brave ancestors. On polling date, make sure you vote for the security of our nation.”
The poems and songs that constitute the world of H-Pop aim at rewriting the past to paint Muslims as perfidious and Hindus as noble and valiant. They urge “the listener to suspend reason and rationale, and, instead, consume the emotion.” For, as Purohit further remarks, “for Hindutva to survive and flourish, it needs enemies — constantly producing fresh ones as time passes.”
Many of the songs and poems reflect an illogical fear of Muslim demographic conquest. Their words promote altogether false claims that Muslims are breeding so fast that they shall soon overtake Hindus and make them a minority in their own homeland. Consider this verse: “Kuch logo ki toh saazish hai/ Hum bacche khub banayenge/ Jab sankhya hui humse zyaada/ Fir apni baat manayenge.” [Some people are conspiring/ That they will produce many children/ When their numbers go past ours/ They will make us dance to their tune.]
As a biographer of Mahatma Gandhi, I was particularly struck by Purohit’s description of a poem attacking Gandhi and extolling Nathuram Godse. As he writes of its recital: “For the next thirteen minutes, Kamal, through his poem on Gandhi and Godse, launches into what is, simultaneously, a searing indictment of Gandhi’s role in the freedom struggle as well as a justification and glorification for Godse’s action. The poem blames Gandhi for everything — from ‘betraying’ India by not stopping the executions of the three revolutionaries, Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru to backing Nehru, instead of the other leaders, for the post of the Prime Minister of independent India. But the subtext, through the poem, was clear: killing Gandhi was justified and necessary.”
Purohit also quotes, verbatim, the last verse of this poem on Godse and Gandhi: “Agar Godse ki goli utri na hoti seene mein/ Toh har Hindu padhta namaz, Mecca aur Medine mein./ Mook ahimsa ke kaaran Bharat ka aanchal phat jaata,/ Gandhi jivit hote toh phir desh dobaara batt jaata.” [Had Godse not pumped that bullet into Gandhi,/ Every Hindu would have been praying at Mecca and Medina today./ Meek non-violence would have torn India apart,/ Had Gandhi lived, the country would have been splintered into more parts.]
Purohit’s book documents how this weaponising of popular culture has helped in the political ascendancy of the BJP. (Interestingly, it appears that these poisonous cultural forms find a more receptive audience in the North than in the South, in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.) The adoration of Modi and Adityanath often animates these poems and songs. Purohit mentions the case of one right-wing poet who got a cash prize from the UP government which he returned saying the regime should buy a new bulldozer (presumably to demolish Muslim homes with).
Kunal Purohit’s book offers an illuminating if often disturbing window into the paranoias and fantasies of the Hindu Right. As the author writes in conclusion, “the attempts to weave propaganda into popular culture have only grown more brazen, its effects have only become more insidious.” Being a Hindutva cheerleader “has become a financially lucrative proposition.” Interestingly, though, no major BJP leader has explicitly identified with or endorsed these propagandist poems, songs, and pamphlets. Rather, the “mobilisation of masses and execution of violence” has been “outsourced, to non-state actors, seemingly independent but tied with an invisible umbilical cord to the Hindu right.”
I read this book with a mixture of fascination and horror. For I had long been accustomed to think of music as an art form whose main purpose was to uplift and entertain. Musical forms Eastern and Western, folk and classical, instrumental and vocal, have provided succour and happiness to humanity down the centuries. I have myself been sustained and kept going all my life by Indian classical music. Yet in the country of Bismillah Khan and M.S. Subbulakshmi, Kishori Amonkar and Kishore Kumar, music has now become an artefact of right-wing propaganda, a vehicle of vindictiveness and violence.