Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Book review: Popping up the ‘H’ question

If we go through the history of Right-wing propaganda in India, we can find mentions of stories like ‘Is Tajmahal a Shiv Temple?’ by self-declared ‘historians’ like P. N. Oak. One can find this ridiculous but I have listened to this story many times in my childhood and was very much influenced by it. However, because of the lack of sophistication in anecdotes like Oak’s, they did not live long. But with the advent of the Internet and the rise of Social Media, the Hindu Right in India has found a new recourse to propagate their ideas and build a network around it.

For instance, one can not forget what Union Home Minister Amit Shah said about their social media group, “ the group (social media volunteers) had the power to make any message go viral, whether real or fake”. This well-oiled machinery of the BJP’s IT Cell and the availability and access of Social Media in every nook and corner made things easy for the right wing in India to propagate their ‘ideas’.

“Future historians will be likely to conclude from Hitler’s success that only the great man makes history, by firing the masses with ‘his idea’”.

Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism

In the recent past, there is a whole genre that emerged out of this propaganda that Kunal Purohit in his new book H-Pop called ‘Hindutva Pop’. Purohit, a journalist based in Mumbai, has spent a good amount of time chronicling hate crimes in various parts of North India, and while doing so he encountered a certain kind of music that was ‘driving men into such mad frenzies’ (here he is referring to an incident of Mob Lynching in Jharkhand).

That incident forced him to think about questions such as: ‘What is this kind of music doing with the minds of the public that they can kill people? And ‘who are the pop stars of this world?’ That is the main theme of H-pop

Purohit tries to search for the answers to three questions: ‘Can a song trigger a murder? Can a poem spark a riot? Can a book divide a people?’ As a reflection of this search, the book is divided into three parts.

The first part deals with the realm of Hindutva music by studying the case of Kavi Singh, a singer from Rajasthan; the second part focuses on the poetry that propagates Hindutva thoughts through the example of a firebrand Hindutva poet Kamal Agney; and the third part delves into the world of Hindutva Propaganda book publishing by focusing on the work that Sandeep Deo, a hard-core Hindutva publisher, is doing. The most crucial thing that is common in all three pop stars is that they are not only contributing to the Hindutva ecosystem through their respective genres but are also ‘active’ on the ground. They are contributing to the cause of Hindutva in both the digital realm as well as the ‘offline’ world. 

One common thing in all three pop stars is their social background: they all come from middle-class families in North India, a social group that has to consider many things even before deciding on household matters. The other important thing about the middle-class population in North India is a large amount of them (mostly youth) became BJP sympathizers and voters in the recent past. Surprisingly some of these pop stars have ‘secular’ backgrounds and Kamal even cast his first vote in favour of the Samajwadi Party (p.143), a party which is seen as the flagbearer of secularism in UP.

The book delves deep into the personal lives of these pop stars and tries to find anecdotes that may have motivated them to join the Hindutva fold. Purohit chronicles the life events of these pop stars in a systematic manner: the starting, the ups and downs, and the new beginnings. 

The story of Kavi Singh is of a child who lost her father in her childhood and was ‘adopted’ by a well-known Haryanavi singer Ramkesh Jiwanpurwala who supported her in navigating her journey in the world of music (p.3). The fame that Kavi earned in her short career is surprising for Purohit: she is just 25 years old and has already recorded more than 80 songs (p.1). The first song that made Kavi famous was based on the Pulwama attack, the song went viral and she became a sensation.

The song very aptly captured the ‘anger’ of the Indian ‘masses’ over the attack and as a result, within weeks we have witnessed several cases of assaults on Kashmiris all across the country because of the song’s hint that there is an ‘internal conspiracy’ that worked in the killing of Indian soldiers. After that Kavi did not stop.

She tried producing songs on themes other than this propaganda but they did not get hype and after understanding that in an ecosystem that the BJP has built in the country since 2014, only hatred can be sold and will be consumed widely. She has recorded songs on highly politically charged themes such as abrogation of article 370, love jihad (p.51), etc. 

Kamal Agney’s poetry is charged with Hindutva’s ‘historical understanding’ in which portraying Godse, the person who killed Gandhi (p.81), as a hero, terming the critics of Modi as ‘gaddar’ (traitors) is very common. The roots of Kamal’s keen interest in poetry can be located in his childhood where his father used to take him to Kavi Sammelans (poetry recitals).

He has been writing and reciting poetry since his school days. He has performed at the Kavi Sammelans organized by the poster boys of Hindutva such as Yati Narsinghanand and Bageshwar Baba and he has also performed in the election campaign of the BJP all over UP in the 2019 general elections and 2022 for Yogi Adityanath (p.167). He has close ties with several leaders of the VHP, the BJP, etc. Kamal has ‘played’ an important role in the re-election of Yogi as the CM of UP. 

Sandeep Deo is a man who wants to be Tulsidas, the author of the famous epic Ramcharitmanas, to ‘reach as many people as he can’ because according to him, he is working for the rightful ‘cause’ (p.212). Sandeep is a journalist turned publisher, YouTuber, and life coach, all in one, who is working hard for the Hindutva cause. He publishes books that are distorted versions of history and pure propaganda.

He is fighting a ‘cultural war’ (p.182) against the enemies of Hindus namely the West, Islam, and Netflix. His cultural war has reached such an extent that he has to even ‘criticize’ the BJP because in his opinion BJP is also not ‘working for Hindus’ but funding Muslims, and forming his political party named Ekam Sanatan Bharat Dal (earlier Ekjutt Jammu) (p.276). 

How useful these pop stars are for the Hindutva regime can be understood by the quote that I used at the beginning of this review. The ‘firing the masses’, as Reich termed it, with ‘ideas’ is nothing new for us as citizens of the twenty-first-century world. Let’s take even a cursory glance at the process of popularizing certain political ideologies: We can find hundreds of anecdotes about the role of ‘popular culture’ in this process. Popular culture, in various forms, has been deployed by many regimes to get mass acceptance or to justify the horrors that they committed.

The dangerous potential of the ‘weapons’ that popular culture contains can be seen in the role that Radio Rwanda played in the genocide of the members of the Tutsi community in Rwanda. Popular culture propagates political ‘ideas’ in a way that they almost become the common sense of the time.

And that’s the crucial aspect of the works of these pop stars in present-day India: they are propagating the ‘ideas’ of the Hindutva regime in such a manner (with the help of popular cultural mediums) that it is becoming ‘common sense’ and ‘obvious’ understanding for several middle-class north Indians that Muslims are the root cause for all their miseries and the only way to get rid of all their miseries is making India a Hindu-Rashtra. 

As I am writing this review, Kavi is constantly campaigning through her social media accounts for Balaknath Yogi, who is considered a lighter version of Yogi Adityanath. Many Radical Hidutva sympathizers like Kavi want Balaknath to be the CM of Rajasthan. Kamal is going to Doordarshan and among Police officers for poetry recitals and propagating what he has mastered. Sandeep Deo’s Ekam Sanatan Bharat Dal has given an application to the Election Commission of India to register it as a full-fledged political party. One can imagine what amount of hate these pop stars will spew in the upcoming years. 

The detailed profile and the journey through which these pop stars have reached where they are today is very well documented in Purohit’s book. Purohit’s work is produced by his long-term hard work on the ground. He has taken some journalistic liberties to make the work accessible for non-academic readers too. H-pop is a must-read for readers who are interested in day-to-day casual Hindutva propaganda, digital media, popular culture, etc. 

Atul Upadhyay is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Hyderabad. His research areas include Masculinity, Popular Culture, Political Violence, and Identity. 

Kunal Purohit, H-Pop: The Secretive World of Hindutva Pop Stars. Harper Collins Publishers India, 2023, pp. xx+ 280, ₹499. ISBN: 978-93-5699-582-6

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