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At the Heart of the Soundtrack of Hindutva, that Spreads Hateful Anti-Minority Messages

Kunal Purohit's book delves into Hindutva pop culture that populates social media.
Illustration: The Wire, with Canva.

Much below the radar of the English speaking audience, which views the world through the lens of the English speaking press and television, lies a whole media universe – both formal and informal – in Hindi and regional languages. And the English speaker does not know what goes on there, especially on social media – on Facebook, WhatsApp and Youtube.

Are there counterparts of the ‘Godi media’ in Tamil or Gujarati? What are the messages that circulate on WhatsApp in Hindi? Most of all, what kind of videos are shown on YouTube, where anyone can upload programming, with virtually no restrictions on the content. Patently false history, bogus news and most of all, songs, poetry, speeches all of which promote anti-minority messages which often result in violence.

‘H-Pop: The Secretive World of Hindutva Pop Stars,’ Kunal Purohit, HarperCollins India, 2023.

Kunal Purohit, a Mumbai based journalist – in the English language – stumbled across this phenomenon when he was in a small town, Gumla, in Jharkhand doing some story, when he heard of how, for the first time in years, a Ram Navami procession almost turned violent. Traditionally, the march used to be welcomed with sweets and garlands by Muslims when it passed through their neighbourhoods. Suddenly, the most recent one saw the procession getting “boisterous and ferocious” near the Muslim area. This, Purohit discovered, was because, while coming close to the mosque, the DJs who were playing loud accompanying music, switched it to hate-filled songs which included lines such as “toss the mullah’s skull cap to the ground.” The Hindu marchers got energised and aggressive, the Muslims felt threatened, the atmosphere thickened with tension and the police had to step in and diffuse the situation by switching off the music. 

Purohit got intrigued and that sent him down a rabbit hole to find out more. The book, H-Pop: The Secretive World of Hindutva Pop Stars, is the result of those investigations, a first of its kind in the English language, which should come as an eye-opener for all of us.

There is a whole Hindutva eco-system of nasty, hate filled popular culture that goes beyond just such aggressive songs. Online media, especially on Youtube, is filled with poets, singers, journalists, fake historians – anyone really – who regularly spew out messages that are anti-Muslim – in the most virulent way – and hail Narendra Modi but also other political leaders like Adityanath, warn of Hindu rashtra and much more.

He choses three stars in the Hindutva popular culture firmament – Kavi Singh, a singer, Kamal Agney, a poet and Sandeep Deo, a commentator. And Purohit’s book is not just a routine interview – he spends time with them, in their homes, at their work places and getting to know them intimately. This is immersive journalism at its best, and the portraits that emerge are complex and full of granular detail, which tell us not just who these people are, but also what they think and feel.

Kavi Singh

To me Kavi Singh is perhaps the finest portrait of them all. Just 25, she sang for the first time in 2019, has recorded 80 songs and is wildly popular. She has sung on every Hindutva ‘talking point’ – a law to control the population (clearly aimed at Muslims), the bogey of “love jihad” and of course hyper patriotism. During this period, her life – personal and professional – has undergone an upheaval, where she got married, divorced and got distanced from someone very close. Purohit tracks her journey, and how she is coping with the loss of her anchors and how, despite that, her YouTube channel has one million plus subscribers.

Ramkesh Singh, who she calls her father – her biological father had died when she was seven – was a popular Haryanvi singer who trained her. It was he who recorded her first song after Pulwama, which had the lines

Dushman ghar main baithe mein, tum koste raho padosi ko
Jo churi bagal mein rakhte hai, tum mar do na us doshi ko
Is dhoke ke hamle mein jo apno kaam nahin hota
Pulwama main un veer on ka yeh anjaam nahi hota.

(The enemies are among us, but we blame the neighbour/
The one who is secretly carrying a knife, finish off that traitor/
If our own hadn’t helped carry this attack
Pulwama wouldn’t have see the blood of our bravehearts spilled)

The lines clearly imply that the villains were not from Pakistan, but within, i.e. Kashmiri Muslims.

Ramkesh got her married to Prince, a local boy he knew since childhood and they both managed her affairs – appearance, stage shows, shooting schedules – leaving her free to just sing. She switched her appearance on their advice and began wearing a turban, Nehru jacket, kurta and dhoti, all the better to imply her Hindutva cred. 

She went from success to success, till during COVID-19, her health faltered, Prince and she divorced and her father moved away from her, after realising he had got too enmeshed in her life. Now Kavi, who had been looking for a political future, has given up her dreams of a ticket for the 2024 elections but is talking to BJP politicians for some patronage.

Also read: Jamia Shooter Now Amplifying Hindutva ‘Hate’ Music Videos Featuring Violence Against Muslims

Sandeep Deo

Sandeep Deo on the other hand is not like Kavi Singh. He is no newbie but an experienced journalist, author and publisher. His own work consists of books including Sazish ki Kayani, Tathyo ki Zubaani, which says the Gujarat riots were a conspiracy against Narendra Modi; another, Hamare Shri Guru (‘our guru’) is about former RSS chief M.S. Golwalker. His publishing house Kapot brings out books in subjects like Hindu resistance against Muslim invaders.

What he does now is not journalism. On his channel, India Speaks Daily, he appears, a vermillion mark on his forehead, and right away makes his position clear – “No Left, No Right, Only Sanatan voice” – and then goes on to provide commentary on a current issue or on matters religious. His agenda is Hindutva and all that it implies nationalism, undermining the minorities and full on support to Narendra Modi. 

But somewhere along the way, this last changed and drastically so. When the new corridor to the Kashi complex in Varanasi was inaugurated, Deo went to see it. It left him very disturbed. His next video was a 70-minute diatribe against the way the new complex had been constructed and how, according to him, ‘800 ancient temples’ had been demolished. The sense of divinity he used to feel during his earlier visits was no longer there.

From then onwards, his infatuation with Modi is over and his new hero is Adityanath. A recent short of Deo that I saw is about how the BJP was wooing Pasmanda Muslims and how a vast majority of new government jobs would be reserved for them. Hindus had been downgraded, he says. In the book, Deo’s subscribers are mentioned as 430,000; the latest number is 350,000; clearly these rants are not helping.

Kamal Agney

Betrayal of another kind changed the mind of Kamal Agney, a poet given to fiery verses who hails Nathuram Godse and rails against Muslims, demanding Hindu Rashtra in India. While growing up in the small UP town of Gosainganj near Lucknow, Kamal’s best friend was a Muslim boy. The families were close, till apparently the Muslim betrayed Kamal’s father and appropriated his commercial property which had been loaned to him. From then on, Kamal turned against the entire community, and began reciting his poetry on various public platforms, including in support of a BJP candidate. But he had to follow the candidate’s instructions—he was told in advance where he could be inflammatory and where he had to tone down.

He appears on several channels whenever he participates at a poets’ meet or kavi sammelan but his own channel has just over 3000 subscribers. Agney has had several ups and downs, both financial and ideological which Purohit charts well. He too has now moved from Narendra Modi to Adityanath, who is his new hero. 

Through the book Purohit has been an exemplary reporter, going deep into the story, spending time with his subjects, winning over their confidence, drawing them out. He maintains a reporter’s detachment, keeping his distance, which is a weakness and a strength. Sometimes, that cool detachment looks out of place—simply observing, asking questions, reporting the facts, is not enough. Spending so much time with such people and listening to their provocative hate-mongering would have surely roused some emotions-we don’t get any glimpse of that.

Yet Purohit should be congratulated for going into the heart of this beast, which is feeding the Hindutva environment. The ones that have been written are just a few freelance actors, driven by their own ideologies and personal agendas; there must be many more. Their videos are seen by millions of people, who then get roused. It is something we all should worry about.

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