From festivities surrounding the birth of Lord Ganesha to the nine-day-long Navaratri celebration, followed by the cricket World Cup, across the past few months, a common soundtrack ran through these events, as if it was the country’s anthem.
It was a song that went “Mere Bharat ka bacha bacha, Jai Jai Shree Ram bolega” (Every child in my Bharat will chant Jai Jai Shree Ram). It envisions a Hindu Rashtra, threatens to slay “enemies” and insists that the temple will be made where Ram was born, asking Hindus to “wake up” urgently.
This song falls under what I call Hindutva pop (H-pop) music. In 2019, travelling across northern and central India, I first witnessed Indians outside the big cities swaying to Hindutva music, a brand of music where hate is ensconced in catchy tunes and hypnotic beats, often to fatal, bloodied results. And I found it wasn’t music alone — pop culture, from poetry to books, was being weaponised silently in service of Hindutva.
Poems are being crafted to take hardline positions that even strident Hindutva-waadis would be unwilling to take. Books are being written to do everything, from legitimising Islamophobic conspiracies, painting disparaging profiles of figures such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, to retelling history in ways that are convenient for Hindu nationalists. For instance, Kavi Singh, a popular Hindutva singer, in her song, ‘Love Jihad’, insists that those people, apparently referring to Muslims, entering into relationships with Hindu girls, need to be thrown out of the country because they are traitors and a threat to Hindus.
My efforts in tracking this culminated in my book, H-Pop: The Secretive World of Hindutva Pop Stars, which released this week. When I first started investigating this phenomenon, these brands of popular culture, especially Hindutva music, were mostly devoured in the smaller towns and villages of India. Last month, H-pop, the music, reached the biggest platform it could get — the world’s largest cricket stadium, where India played arch-rivals Pakistan.
Videos flooded the Internet soon after the match, of the stadium ringing with the chorus, Mere Bharat ka bacha bacha, Jai Jai Shree Ram bolega. From leaving rural Indians mesmerised, the song was now emboldening wealthy, elite Indians into using the same chant, Jai Shree Ram, as a weapon to target and heckle Pakistani cricketers during the match.
This isn’t an isolated experience. Such incendiary songs have been triggering riots and clashes for the last few years, and are often played as part of Ram Navami processions. In Mumbai this year, while a procession snaked its way through the locality of Malvani, the marchers waited to pass in front of a mosque, slowed down and played a song, ‘Main Hindu Jagaane Aaya Hu (I Have Come to Wake Hindus Up)’, which insisted that Hindus would be ready to pick up swords if the need arose. The procession culminated in a near-riot.
Academic research has explanations for this. Music can be the trigger for people to take action, it can motivate them towards the cause the music espouses and can even “aggravate anger levels”. In his book, Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War, academic Jonathan Pieslak shows this in motion — he talks about how American soldiers, fighting the war, would listen to heavy metal and rap music as it facilitated a state of mind that was “necessary for war”.
Yet, in India, the reach of such Hindutva music that actively stokes Islamophobia, and promotes hate and violence against rivals of the BJP, has only been growing. This year, it crept into Ganpati processions in Mumbai, as well as Navaratri events, with thousands in attendance, trying to match steps to its beats. On social media, videos on such music are now common. A trending video shows youngsters dancing to one such song on the Marine Drive in Mumbai, where I stay.
Hate speeches add another layer to this music. Many are now peppering these songs with hate speeches, targeting Muslims, Pakistanis or ‘enemies of Hindus’, with youngsters only too willing to use these videos on their social media handles or WhatsApp status messages.
War on secularism
It is this easy access that makes Hindutva-fused popular culture so insidious — unlike a hate speech or a riot, it isn’t an event that can be tracked. It doesn’t make headlines. It is an ongoing, silent process, radicalising its consumer bit by bit. Each time a song demonising Muslims is played, a poem ridiculing Islam is recited, or a book flagging an imagined Islamic conspiracy is read, the propaganda gets pushed deeper, without anyone else noticing.
The danger from this kind of radicalisation is very clear in New India. Yet, there is little we know about those creating this music, writing these books and crafting these poems; even less about those who are pushing this pop culture onto us, those who fund and back it, ensuring that hate becomes a profitable, commercially-rewarding proposition.
What are their motivations? Are those at the core of the Hindutva Pop ecosystem merely cynical, opportunist operators or are they hardline, ideological hawks? These were some of the questions I strove to get answers to in the past four years.
In the process, I met individuals — artists, writers, poets, like Kavi Singh who sang about ‘love jihad’ — waging a war on the secular ethos of the country, consumed by the desire to transform it completely into a nation of, by and for Hindus. Their vision for India is profoundly different from the vision our Constitution-makers harboured, 75 years ago.
Taking our eyes off this silent radicalisation is not a luxury we can afford. Trying to comprehend this brand of pop culture and what it is doing is only the first step in trying to challenge it.
The Mumbai-based independent journalist is author of ‘H-Pop: The Secretive World of Hindutva Pop Stars’ (HarperCollins, November 2023).