Samriddhi Sakunia

DURING RAM NAVAMI processions in April this year, communal violence broke out in several states across India. In almost all cases, there was a similar pattern. Hindu mobs entered Muslim neighbourhoods, wielding swords and sticks, shouting communal slogans and playing loud music.

They danced, women and children included, in front of mosques as provocative songs, replete with Islamophobic content, blared from speakers. In most instances, this invariably happened during the late afternoon, when Muslims were performing namaz or breaking their Ramzan fast.

Fights broke out between the two communities, leading to arson, stone-pelting and vandalism. Many people suffered injuries, and there were even reports of some deaths. In Bihar’s Muzaffarpur and Madhya Pradesh’s Khargone, men wearing saffron scarves climbed mosques and tried to plant Hindutva flags. Houses were burnt down. Vehicles were ransacked in Mumbai. In the aftermath of the violence, state or local authorities controlled by the Bhartiya Janata Party sent in bulldozers to raze down homes. They called it “anti-encroachment” drives. These homes and shops belonged mostly to Muslims.

Our cultural memory is rife with examples of religious processions preceding communal violence. The infamous Ram Rath Yatra led by Vishva Hindu Parishad and other affiliates of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh culminated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid, in 1992. The procession was fuelled by cries of “Mandir vahin banayenge”—we will build the temple there. Conflagrations around rallies have been a frequent feature even in the more recent past, particularly around Ram Navami. But commentators have noted that there was something different about the violence this time. A significant catalyst for these violent activities were the songs played from speakers in these rallies. Many videos have surfaced from these processions showing the charged atmosphere, the provocation clear in the songs.

In Raichur, a city in Karnataka, the song “Banayenge Mandir”—We will build the temple—played in front of the Osmania Masjid, while people cheered and waved saffron flags. The original music video of the song, by Tarun Sagar, shows footage of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. In Dada Jalalpur, a village near Roorkee, in Uttarakhand, a procession marched through a Muslim neighbourhood playing Kanhiya Mittal’s “Jo Ram Ko Laye Hain, Hum Unko Layenge”—We will bring to power those who have brought Ram. This was followed by “Mullon Jao Pakistan”—Mullahs, go to Pakistan—by Prem Krishnavanshi. At a Ram Navami rally in Hyderabad, the BJP legislator T Raja Singh sang “Jo Ram Ka Naam Na Le, Usko Bharat Se Bhagana Hai”—Those who do not take Ram’s name, we have to chase them out of the country. In Delhi’s Jahangirpuri, boys and young men holding swords and guns marched to Laxmi Dubey’s repetitive chorus about Hindu unity. In Rajasthan’s Karauli district, one could hear Sandeep Chaturvedi’s “Topi Wala Bhi Sar Jhuka Kar Jai Shri Ram Bolega”—Even those who wear skullcaps will bow their head and say Jai Shri Ram.

These songs are part of a cultural Hindutva ecosystem that has emerged in the Modi era. They belong to a genre that has loosely come to be known as “Hindutva Pop” or “DJ Hindutva.” They combine the traditional format of devotional songs with electronic beats and autotune, resulting in songs with poisonous, though catchy, refrains. Songs of this new genre bring together the greatest hits of the BJP’s politics: hyper-nationalism, war-mongering, cow politics, Pakistan-baiting and Islamophobia.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Muslims in the country find themselves cornered, subject to perverse loyalty tests. Since Narendra Modi was re-elected, in 2019, a series of measures have edged Muslims closer to the precipice. This includes the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which has created a foundational crisis for the country’s minorities; the Ram Mandir judgment, in which the Supreme Court allowed the construction of a temple on the site of the demolished Babri Masjid; and anti-conversion laws, which have been used to target Christians and Muslims. “We are warning that genocide could very well happen in India,” Gregory Stanton, the founder of Genocide Watch, said in January. An independent US body recommended to the Biden government that India be designated a “country of particular concern,” given its tattered state of religious freedom. “The government continued to systemize its ideological vision of a Hindu state at both the national and state levels through the use of both existing and new laws and structural changes hostile to the country’s religious minorities,” the report states. It was released in the same month as the Ram Navami violence.

When I visited Roorkee and Karauli in the aftermath of the violence, I found that most people who took part in these rallies knew the songs by heart. From young children to middle-aged men, they could all rattle off the names of their favourite songs and artists. These artists included Sandeep Acharya, Laxmi Dubey, Prem Krishnavanshi and Kanhiya Mittal, all of whom I had interviewed before the Uttar Pradesh assembly election, earlier this year, to understand their role in promoting Hindutva politics. Ahead of the election—which returned the militant Hindu monk Adityanath to power—the use of these songs in campaign rallies became very frequent. Many of these songs are wildly popular and have millions of views on YouTube. They are played at temples, political rallies and cultural functions.

Muslim residents I spoke to expressed their discomfort about the lyrics. “Our issue is not with the use of songs in rallies, but with the words used in the songs,” Faiz, a resident of Roorkee, told me. “I don’t understand why these songs haven’t been censored.” Commentators from the Hindu Right have tried to suggest the violence was instigated by Muslims who threw stones at the processions. “We accept that Muslims must have taken part in the violence too, but the problem is the provocation,” Abrar Ahmed, an activist from Karauli, said. He reiterated that the lyrics were a problem. “Above all, who are these people who make such songs, songs against one community? What do these singers even get from spreading hatred against us?”

The Hindutva pop industry has a variety of stakeholders trying to protect India from what they call “terrorists,” “jihadis,” “Western culture” and people trying to “destroy” Hinduism and its Brahminical ethos. Its circulation is aided by the BJP’s IT cell, which promotes many of these songs on the party’s official channels. Many singers, most of them upper caste, have personal connections with BJP leaders. I spent months trying to understand the phenomenon and what motivates these singers to write such songs. The patronage of BJP leaders and their wide popularity among young people, who use these songs as ringtones, have ensured that this genre cannot be dismissed as a subculture.

KANHIYA MITTAL HAD A CONCERT in Varanasi’s Tridev Mandir on 13 February. He was running late by two hours, and the crowd was growing restless in anticipation. They jostled for space as more and more people kept showing up. Outside, the roads were congested with traffic. Big hoardings displayed Mittal’s picture alongside that of Ram. At around 10 pm, a ripple went through the crowd as Mittal arrived. He was surrounded by about fifteen people acting as security and walked into a makeshift backstage area. He was wearing a white kurta with a saffron scarf around his neck, as well as a big golden locket, shiny enough to be seen from a distance. “This is my attire for all the shows,” he told me, as he pumped himself up before the event.

As Mittal stepped out into the middle of the audience—there was no stage—he was greeted with applause and cheers fit for a rockstar. He gazed at the sea of faces and then turned towards a statue of Shyam, a regional deity, behind him. He folded his hands, which was the cue for his band to start. The first few songs were devotional songs dedicated to Shyam. Unlike the traditional bhajan, they were set to pop beats. Mittal began swaying his head and moving his body, and the crowd followed suit.

Mittal’s stage persona is captivating. He intersperses his songs with commentary about his relationship with god, keeping his audience engaged. His message is not always spiritual. As he prepared to sing “Jo Ram Ko Laye Hain, Hum Unko Layenge”—his most famous song, with almost ten million views across his official YouTube channels since being released in October 2021—he spoke about the upcoming assembly election. “When you vote on 7 March,” he told the audience, “keep in mind what government you want for the next fifty years.”

A rising Hindutva pop sensation, Mittal is known as “Bhajan Samrat”—king of bhajans. He has performed in various states, including all five states where assembly elections were held this year. “Jo Ram Ko Laye Hain” was played in several BJP rallies. Mittal does not claim any direct affiliation with the political party, but his Twitter feed is filled with pictures of him with BJP politicians, such as the chief minister of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma. He has collaborated on a song with the Bhojpuri singer and actor Manoj Tiwari, a BJP MP. The last stanza of his most famous song has the refrain “Yogiji aye hain, Yogiji ayenge”—Adityanath has come, Adityanath will come. He often urged his followers to vote for Adityanath, claiming in one pre-election tweet that the popularity of “Jo Ram Ko Laye Hain” was an indicator that “Babaji” would be re-elected. He even shared a clip of Adityanath referring to his song.

The political messaging in Mittal’s concert was deftly executed. He was careful to stick to his forte: bhajans. Any endorsement of Adityanath seemed almost incidental. “I don’t support any political party, but I’m for any party that stands for my religion,” he told the audience. He reiterated the same point when we spoke, four days later. “Jo Ram Ko Laye Hain,” he said, “was sung to thank the government for bringing us the Ram Mandir and for Kashi”—referring to the BJP’s attempts to replace Varanasi’s Gyanvapi Masjid with a temple. “Anyone who works for religion, no matter what party it is, every Indian citizen should thank them.”

Mittal grew up in a very religious family that was not inclined towards music. He was never formally trained. “I have been singing from the age of seven and have learned it watching the great singers and priests of the country,” he told me. “It’s all god-gifted.”

While the other Hindutva pop stars I interviewed boasted about their connections with the BJP and other right-wing political leaders, Mittal downplayed his associations. There is a difference between Mittal and other Hindutva pop stars. While the others demonstrate open bigotry and hate for Muslims in their songs, Mittal places greater emphasis on his love for Hinduism. His Hindu supremacist views are more veiled. “There is no need for those of us who adhere to the Sanatan dharma to show our Aadhaar cards,” he declared at the Varanasi concert. “Our tikas will tell you about our religion.” The underlying assumption was that the country belongs to Hindus, while others must prove their citizenship. When I asked him about this, he had a clear response: “India is already a Hindutva country.”

SANDEEP ACHARYA WAS about eight years old when the Babri Masjid was demolished. He had grown up in Ayodhya, in the politically charged atmosphere of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. “From childhood,” he told me, “I had been hearing, ‘Mandir vahin banayenge, Ram Lalla hum ayenge’”—the temple will be built there; infant Ram, we are coming. It seeped into his music, which is blatantly Islamophobic. Acharya is a member of the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a militant organisation founded by Adityanath and infamous for instigating communal violence. When I interviewed Acharya, he was with Mahesh Mishra, the national convener of the Vishva Hindu Parishad.

“The hatred was there even before I started singing,” Acharya said. “I remember my mother was sick and wanted immediate blood for further treatment. Even in that condition, when the sole thing we were looking for was blood, she stressed that it shouldn’t come from a Muslim.”

Acharya is known as the trendsetter in the Hindutva pop genre. He emphasised that he had been doing this before 2014, when “the national environment changed.” Many devotional singers who did not sing political songs earlier, he argued, have seen a market for it and are seizing the opportunity afforded under the Modi government. He described Kanhiya Mittal as one such singer. “Mittal used to sing Shyam kirtans only, but when he started seeing songs like this being played, he sang ‘Jo Ram Ko Laye Hain,’ and that became a hit,” he told me. Acharya thinks most of the new singers do not go far enough. “If you notice, in a two-hour set, the other singers use one or two political songs in a mostly devotional repertoire,” he said. “But, for me, if I had a show for two hours, I would sing only my type of songs for the entire time: cow slaughter, Ram Mandir construction, Krishna Janmabhoomi, the lack of unity in Hindus.”

Acharya bemoaned his own late success despite being ahead of the game. “I have been singing for more than seven to eight years, but was able to meet Adityanath only two months ago, with difficulty,” he said, adding that the meeting was arranged by Mrityunjay Kumar, the chief minister’s media advisor, after Acharya released the song “Gorakhpur Wale Baba”—The holy man from Gorakhpur—referring to Adityanath’s power base.

Acharya grew up in a family with two other siblings. His mother was fond of singing, and he learnt music for six years. His career was enabled by a technological shift, he said, pegging the start of his journey to the rise of YouTube. He credited Modi and the internet provider Reliance Jio for creating the right conditions for musicians like him to prosper. “Imagine how hard it would have been to make, edit and publish albums within the one-gigabyte data that we would have to save for one whole month,” he said. The first thing he did was to start a channel in his own name, to which he uploaded songs on religion. This channel was suspended by YouTube for violating its guidelines, the first suspension of many. The most recent channel he started, Rudra Music—named after his son—was also suspended.

“It’s not hate speech, it’s the truth,” Acharya said, “and the truth is bitter.” Since Muslims had been “allowed” to stay in India after Partition, it was right to expect them to “stay within their limits,” he argued. “Is this hate speech? We were told these people will stay with us, not that they will dance over our heads after fifty years of Partition.”

His family did think he had crossed a line in a song and were upset with him. The song titled “Bharat Mein Jo Deshdrohi Hain Unki Ma Ka Bhosda” had an expletive in it. It was very popular with young people, he said. “My family scolded me. They said, ‘Till now Hindu–Muslim songs were what they were, but why are you using abuses?”

PREM KRISHNAVANSHI WAS SET set for a career in computer science engineering. Like Mittal, nobody in his family had a background in music. His father was a government servant. Krishnavanshi made his father promise that he would support his musical career after he had completed his studies.

He met Sandeep Acharya in 2017. “He is my guru,” Krishnavanshi said. “Under his guidance, I started singing his songs, written by him.” Under Acharya’s tutelage, Krishnavanshi’s songs became more jingoistic. “People started calling me ‘Hinduwadi Singer,’ but it is very clear that in this entire country there is only one famous and most popular Hinduwadi singer and he is Sandeep Acharya,” he said. “Nobody is like him.”

Krishnavanshi said his first song for the BJP, written by Acharya, was “Na Kamal Khilega, Na Vote Milega”—The lotus will not bloom, nor will you get votes. The song lays out the conditions Modi must fulfil to earn votes and urges the BJP, whose election symbol is the lotus, to keep its promises. The opening lines are “Modiji Ayodhya ao, mandir nirman karao”—Modiji, come to Ayodhya and construct the mandir. The music video features Krishnavanshi, wearing a saffron kurta, singing and wagging his finger, interspersed with images of Modi, Ram, BJP rallies and the destruction of the Babri Masjid. Krishnavanshi said it was his first hit song, with over four million views. “It was trending all over and, since then, I have worked with different music companies: Wave Music, Mayur Music, TF music.” He now has over seventy thousand subscribers to his YouTube channel.

In his conversation with me, Krishnavanshi denied having any hatred for Muslims, emphasising that he had Muslim friends. But, when it came to religion, he said, he would always side with the Hindus. On 17 February, he uploaded a song titled “Ek Din Wo Hijab Pehenaenge”—One day they will make you wear a hijab. Referring to the recent controversy over the Karnataka government banning hijabs in schools, the song warned Hindus about creeping Islamism: “Oh Hindus, keep sleeping, they will make you perform namaz.”

Krishnavanshi boasted about campaigning for the BJP during the Uttar Pradesh assembly election. He had been urging Hindus to vote for Adityanath for about six months. His Twitter feed was full of pro-BJP songs and Islamophobic content. One of his most controversial songs, “Mullon Jao Pakistan,” was flagged by YouTube after The Quint covered it in a video on Hindutva pop. Krishnavanshi told me that the song had over ten million views but, after he spoke to The Quint, YouTube lowered his channel’s reach and took down the video. “I still stand by my song,” he said. “I didn’t utter any word that was wrong. Pakistan became an Islamic state, why can’t India become a Hindu Rashtra?”

A few months before the elections, Krishnavanshi told me, he and some other singers received a call from someone connected to the chief minister’s office. They were asked to compose songs celebrating the chief minister. Krishnavanshi said, subsequently, he and other singers, including Acharya, had a meeting with Mrityunjay Kumar. The singers were felicitated and given a book on Adityanath. On 28 September 2021, Krishnavanshi posted a photo of him receiving the book from Kumar on Facebook. The following day, he uploaded a song called “UP Mein Goonje Do Hi Naam, BJP Aur Jai Shri Ram”—Only two names echo in Uttar Pradesh, BJP and Jai Shri Ram—while Acharya soon produced a song called “Yogi Baba Jaisa Koi Nahin”—There’s no one like Yogi. Krishnavanshi said that he was “asked to make a couple of songs, but I work at my convenience. I will not be restricted to one particular pattern of music. I will write as I want to and record whatever I feel is right.” But when he does make songs for them, he told me, he charged lower than his normal rates given the closeness of their ideological positions. I reached out to Kumar to find out about the patronage he extends to Hindutva singers but received no response.

Krishnavanshi said that his songs are automatically picked up and promoted on social media by the BJP’s IT cell, which “is directly connected with my YouTube profile.” On average, he added, his songs reach more than fifty thousand people a day, not counting the organic views they get. His songs are also shared on BJP pages that have millions of followers. Once he started making songs for Adityanath, Krishnavanshi said, his popularity soared, and his phone started ringing off the hook.

A SIGNIFICANT AMOUNT OF MEDIA attention has been reserved for Laxmi Dubey, not least because she stands out in a genre dominated by men. In her videos, Dubey is featured wearing bright-coloured turbans, a red tilak, dark lipstick and red, purple or orange clothes, giving the impression of a fiery religious preacher of the Radhe Maa variety. Her songs are rousing and incendiary, frequently urging communal violence, and are often played in political rallies. On the phone, however, she had a quiet, calm voice. Echoing Acharya and Krishnavanshi, she kept referring to Partition and rhetorically asked me, “If Pakistan can become a Muslim Rashtra, why can’t Hindustan become a Hindu Rashtra?”

Dubey and others of her ilk disregard the fact that India chose not to become a theological nation, so the comparison is erroneous. Instead, it fuels their fear and loathing of Muslims. “Muslims teach their kids to kill Hindus whom they consider kafirs,” Dubey told me. “By doing so, they go to heaven. Hindus need to be united. The youth are quite active on this today. Nothing makes me happier than seeing them all pumped up and energised.”

She had anecdotes of dangers posed by Muslims ready at hand. “One of my younger sisters had a friend who fell into the trap of a man who did love jihad and married her,” she said. “He hid his true identity, married and later murdered her. Such incidents have shaken me to the core. This is when I started working for Hindutva.” In several live sessions on Facebook and other social media handles, Dubey has criticised the idea of “secularism,” often bullying those who support it.

Before she became a vengeful Hindutva pop star, Dubey said, she had a career in journalism. She refused to tell me which news outlet she had worked for, citing security reasons, but said that she had been drawn to the profession because of her search for truth.

Dubey’s most famous song, “Har Ghar Bhagwa Chhayega”—Every house will turn saffron—has over sixty million views. She referred to it as “the national devotional song.” Its lyrics include “Bearing swords in our hands, we have come with saffron flags” and “Those who wish to remain in India will have to say Vande Mataram.” She told me that she often performs for the BJP. “I was invited during the Chhattisgarh assembly election and later for the Uttar Pradesh elections. I get so many invites that I’ve had to leave out a couple of states.” Her YouTube channel has also faced multiple suspensions, but the BJP’s IT cell has kept her songs in circulation. “When my channel got suspended, the central government came to my rescue,” she said. “Ever since, my channel has been running really well.”

Praveen Dubey, who said he oversees the BJP IT cell in Ayodhya district, told me that songs promoting aggressive nationalism and those that are aligned with BJP’s Hindutva model get maximum play. He said that they ensure that such songs are shared widely. “There are two things,” he said. “Firstly, songs are an easy medium to propagate the message that we want to. Secondly, songs generate energy like no other medium. It helps pass on the message very easily.” I had spoken to him before the Uttar Pradesh elections and asked him what they were prioritising at the time. “When it comes to the songs,” he said, “one thing that is very clear between us is that we need to pass on the message that Yogiji will win the elections again.”

“The IT cell works in six layers,” Lovekush Tiwari, the social-media in-charge for Ayodhya, explained. “The first set of times when the content goes live is around 9 am, the next goes live at 11 am, next at around 1 pm, then 4 pm, the second last at 6 pm and the last set of content that goes live at 8 pm. This is how we at the IT cell group work.” He said that Acharya was the Hindutva pop star of choice for him and many other IT cell members, but “not from the front, such as our leaders—as we are a political party, we cannot afford to do that—but we do support him from the backend via the party workers on-ground.”

It is difficult to say how much of the popularity of Hindutva pop is organic and how much of it has been fuelled by the Hindu Right’s propaganda machinery. However, that it has entered firmly into our cultural fabric is unmistakable. Music does many things for us. It appeals to our sentiment, our emotions, uplifts our mood or puts us in a state of melancholy. It can induce calm or aggression. It can be a private joy as well as a collective euphoria. But music harnessed by the ruling party, and based on violent majoritarian sentiment, is a perverse cultural expression of a grotesque politics. Most of these singers are opposed to secularism, which automatically puts them at odds with India’s Constitution.  

Samriddhi Sakunia is a freelance journalist and covers education, healthcare and policy issues.

https://caravanmagazine.in/politics/hindutva-pop-hate (Please subscribe to and support Caravan).

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