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  Books   27 Jan 2024  Book Review | The naïve and poisonous world of Hindutva pop

Book Review | The naïve and poisonous world of Hindutva pop

Published : Jan 28, 2024, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Jan 28, 2024, 12:00 am IST

The book sheds light on the rise of stars, providing insights into their impact on the Hindi heartland and the larger political landscape

H-Pop: The Secretive World of Hindutva Pop Stars. (Image: DC)
 H-Pop: The Secretive World of Hindutva Pop Stars. (Image: DC)

Music stirs the soul, as does poetry. Ask any soldier. Marching bands are as at least as old as the medieval Turkish armies that built the Ottoman empire, and drums sustained marching beats even earlier.

Ask any politician. Patriotic songs are woven into the culture of any totalitarian regime. The Soviets used them, as do the Chinese, and the North Koreans. In a variation of the theme, the Taliban in Afghanistan, by banning music and restricting other means of entertainment, have stripped the opposition of one of the cheapest and simplest means of subversion.

The introductory chapter contains examples of songs being used to serve racist or other political ends by defining the ‘enemy’. It ranges from the 1930s, from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, besides later examples from Africa and from various recent Islamic regimes in Asia. Even the Indian nationalist movement used poetry...

With all this in the background, it’s no surprise that the BJP, the most media savvy of India’s political parties, has quietly gone around its Hindi strongholds encouraging its own brand of stirring music. Three questions stand on top of the back cover. Can a song trigger a murder? Can a poem spark a riot? Can a book divide a people? The answers are — and have been for centuries — yes, yes, and yes. The introduction makes that clear.

The title is mildly misleading: given the apparent ease with which the author managed to get into the lives of the stars, the word ‘shadowy’ might have been more appropriate than ‘secretive’. Despite that little slip, though, the book contains much that’s useful. It details the rise — and, in one case, the fall — of three Hindutva pop stars, Kavi Singh, Kamal Agneya, and Sundeep Deo. Their stories offer valuable pointers to how and why the BJP and its philosophy have established themselves so strongly in the Hindi heartland.

First, the how. Kavi Singh, the only woman among the three, started late. Her father discovered that she could sing only when heard her hum a tune. Success came early and in good measure, and her career flourished under the direction of her adoptive father, also a singer and song-writer. Among her fans: incumbent Chief Minister of Haryana, Manohar Lal Khattar, whose praise no doubt contributed to her quick rise. Her songs, with catchy tunes and varied attractive settings, speak of showing Muslims their place – aukat – in society. It’s a popular sentiment in many northern states, and her downfall came as a surprise: she’s still trying to make her way back up the charts, riding on the coming elections.

Kamal Agneya’s story is a little more complex. Early in his life, he had Muslim friends whom he visited and who visited him. The story of how he changed is interesting because in some ways it represents the growth of the BJP: it was a poet that changed him. Kamal is a kavi at heart, a poet, with some mileage at popular kavi sammelans. In one of his early poems, Kamal described Mahatma Gandhi as being hurt by the suffering of Muslims but looking away when Hindus suffered: Godse was the martyr. From that base, he looks to Yogi Adityanath to grow further.

Sundeep Deo is a popular journalist-author-YouTuber, not a poet or singer, firmly on the BJP’s side, presenting strongly that Hinduism is under threat, and that Hindus must rise to defend it. Deo sees himself as a culture warrior of sorts, reviving the shastras as weapons and as knowledge. Most importantly, Deo “peddles narratives that might be too controversial for the party itself...”

And this brings us to the heart of the matter. Having informal control of a means of capturing hearts and minds offers deniability. BJP leaders, at least at the policy level, can stick to the line that they have nothing against any of the minorities, and leave the day-to-day business of violent discrimination to “free agents”.

It also brings us to the elephant in the room: what are the implications for Indian democracy? A little further analysis would have made all the difference. Just asking why such movements fail in the long run would have provided much food for thought. That’s one question the book should have addressed but doesn’t, and that is its only significant weakness.

Excerpt (page 89, para 3-5): For Kamal, ‘constructing’ enemies through the telling of real and imagined injustices is an essential part of his craft. The ‘enemies’ that he creates are in line with critics and dissenters who find themselves in the crosshairs of the BJP.

Such alignment with the country’s dominant Hindutva ideology and the Modi government’s policies has tangible benefits.

Kamal has often been recruited by BJP leaders to campaign for them in their individual constituencies during elections across UP and Madhya Pradesh. In these rallies, Kamal uses his craft and his oratory to pitch these candidates before audiences, attack rivals, and sprinkle Hindutva as and when required...

H-Pop: The Secretive World of Hindutva Pop Stars
Kunal Purohit
HarperCollins India
pp. 283; Rs 499

Tags: hindutva icon, bharatiya janata party ( bjp), patriotic brand