Behind the rising Islamophobia in India lies a network of Hindu right-wing artists composing songs played during hate campaigns.
New Delhi, India – “Insaan nahi ho saalo, ho tum kasaayi; Bahut ho chuka Hindu-Muslim bhai bhai” – You are not human, you are butchers; it’s enough of Hindu-Muslim brotherhood.
These are the lyrics of a ‘bhajan’ (devotional song) that singer Prem Krishnavanshi posted on YouTube three years ago and has been viewed thousands of times since.
Triggered by contemporary hate politics, Krishnavanshi’s song is a part of a new mass culture in India where anti-Muslim songs are played in rallies by Hindu supremacist groups, mainly in what is called the country’s “Hindi belt” northern states.
Dozens of such music videos can be found on YouTube and other social media platforms, with the supporters of the Hindu far-right loving and sharing them for their messages of hate, abuse and even threats of genocide targeted at the Muslim minority.
Krishnavanshi, an engineering graduate from Lucknow, capital of Uttar Pradesh state, wanted to be a Bollywood singer. But it was too competitive. So he turned to live shows and events to make a living.
The turning point came in 2014 when the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power. The arrival of a new government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi saw an unprecedented polarisation of Indian society, with hate attacks on India’s minorities, mainly Muslims, becoming a near-daily affair since.
In such a scenario, cultural products such as music, poetry and cinema also became the tools by which this politics of hatred is sustained.
In the past few months, India witnessed religious violence in several states during Hindu festivals when right-wing groups held marches in mainly Muslim neighbourhoods and played loud music laced with Islamophobic lyrics outside mosques.
Krishnavanshi sings in Hindi and Bhojpuri languages. His fan base is mainly in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state with nearly 205 million residents, governed by the BJP’s saffron-robed Hindu monk, Yogi Adityanath, who is known for his anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies.
In many of his songs, Krishnavanshi suggests Muslims are “anti-nationals who should go to Pakistan”. One of his songs says: “Muslims will eventually force Hindus to pray namaz if they don’t wake up soon”.
But the singer claims they are not hate songs.
“I don’t think my music is Islamophobic. My music signifies truth and if someone thinks it’s Islamophobic, I can’t stop them from feeling that way,” he told Al Jazeera.
Recently, the Uttar Pradesh government gave him an award for his song praising the state’s hardline chief minister, Adityanath.
Many of these hate songs are also tributes to Hindu nationalist politicians such as Modi, Adityanath and other top BJP leaders.
The songs also talk about the Mughals and other Muslim rulers of the subcontinent, calling them “invaders” who spread Islam through violence and threats. Their music videos feature Hindu men sporting vermillion on their foreheads and brandishing swords, tridents and pistols.
Born in a middle-class family in Bhopal, the capital of central India’s Madhya Pradesh state, Laxmi Dubey grew up listening to Hindu devotional songs from her late grandfather who was a musician.
Back then, she said she used to sing songs of Muslim-Hindu brotherhood and religious coexistence in school events.
Dubey, 31, started her career as a part-time reporter in a local newspaper she did not want to name. But, like Krishnavanshi, things changed for her with Modi’s rise as prime minister in 2014.
“I don’t belong to any party, but I thank Modi for everything he has done for the Hindus,” Dubey told Al Jazeera.
When Dubey performs with vermillion on her forehead and a marigold garland around her neck, the listeners groove to her “Hindutva pop” songs. “Hindutva” is a Hindi word that refers to the Hindu supremacist movement.
One of Dubey’s more popular songs says: “Agar Hindustan mein rehna hoga, To vande mataram kehna hoga” (If you want to stay in India, praise the motherland).
“Vande Mataram”, a song written in Sanskritised Bengali by writer Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, is patronised by India’s Hindu right for its nationalist imagination that borrows heavily from the Hindu religious pantheon.
Brahma Prakash, a professor at New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University, told Al Jazeera the music of hate has changed the pattern of religious violence in India.
“We know the historical patterns of riots and massacres in India: the leader will give a speech and the riots will spill into the streets. But it seems that the pattern has changed. You don’t need a leader. What you need is a ‘Bhakti vibrator’,” said Prakash.
‘Bhakti’ in Hindi literally means devotion, but is also used to refer to the BJP’s supporters.
“You just play the DJ [disc jockey] and it will fulfil its task. It will move the mobs and make them participate in massacre. You don’t need an instigator to incite violence. You set the tone, you set the track and the hate will rock,” he said.
Prakash said this form of music has “shocking” parallels with those produced under the Nazi regime in Germany in the 1930s.
“March band, processional music, repetitious slogans, communal singing, repeated cries of Jai Shri Ram [Hail Lord Ram] like ‘Heil’,” he said. “Music stirring the crowds into an emotional frenzy are not just a few resonances. The similarities are shocking.”
Dubey’s YouTube channel has nearly 300,000 followers, and her songs have millions of views and hundreds of provocative comments against India’s Muslims. She is often invited by BJP members to perform in their cities.
But the singer says she “does not have anything against the Muslim community” but only against those “who are enemies of the country and support Pakistan”.
“Will someone from Pakistan just come and attack our country unless they are getting massive logistical support or shelter from anti-nationals of their religion? We have anti-nationals in countries who eat in India but support the neighbour,” she said.
In her team, Dubey has a manager, background singers and other people who help her perform. She earns handsomely and claims she spends all her money on the welfare of Hindu widows and the poor.
What troubles Dubey, she told Al Jazeera, is “love jihad” – an unproven conspiracy theory propagated by the Hindu far-right that alleges that Muslim men form relations with Hindu women in order to marry them and then convert them to Islam.
Dubey also believes in another right-wing conspiracy theory: that a large number of Muslims practice polygamy to have “a lot of children” and “increase their population”.
“Why would they [Muslims] marry Hindu girls and convert them? The minority communities are doing 5-10 marriages and have 20-50 children. Their population is growing heavily. If our country didn’t support them, would their population grow to this extent?” she said.
Uttar Pradesh-based lawyer Areeb Uddin says such “hateful songs amount to hate speech”.
“It is time that hate speech jurisprudence should take its place and it is time for the courts or the concerned legislative organs to frame guidelines for such cases where hatred is being poured and no action is being taken,” he told Al Jazeera.
But Dubey claims her songs “spread awareness” among the Hindu community – a work that “makes her proud”.
“The youth who used to wear hoodies and torn clothes now proudly wear saffron. They are ready to sacrifice themselves for Hinduism,” she said. “I want to bring Hindus together to create an army.”
Dubey lauds Modi for abrogating the semi-autonomous status of Indian-administered Kashmir in 2019. “We had almost lost Kashmir, it’s because of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that we still have it,” she said.
She also thinks the 1947 partition of the subcontinent to form India and Pakistan was not done properly.
“When the partition was done on the basis of religion by then stakeholders, Pakistan should have been given to one religion and India to another religion. Then this fight could have been avoided.”
India is home to more than 200 million Muslims, the third-largest population after Indonesia and Pakistan. But Dubey thinks India should be declared a Hindu nation.
Singer and songwriter Upendra Rana, from Uttar Pradesh’s city of Noida on the outskirts of the Indian capital, has more than 370,000 subscribers on YouTube.
Rana used to record devotional music through audio cassettes with a local label. When he started getting fame, he decided to do songs independently and created his own channel.
Rana’s journey in “Hindutva pop” began in 2017 when he began writing mostly songs about history in which he praised the Hindu rulers of the past, despite historians insist it is incorrect to use the prism of religion to understand pre-modern history.
One of Rana’s songs says: “Dharm ke naam zameen gayi, Islami mulk banaye” (In the name of their religion, we lost our land; they made it an Islamic nation).
The video of the song was shot at Dasna Devi Temple in Ghaziabad, a district neighbouring Noida. The temple is managed by Yati Narsinghanand, a controversial Hindutva leader who was recently arrested for his hate speeches against Muslims. The music video features Narsinghanand brandishing swords with Rana.
“Hindu mythology is missing from school curriculum. Through my songs, I want the children to remember Hindu warriors,” he said.
Academic Prakash says the mass production of “Hindutva pop” is a new phenomenon.
“Earlier it used to be done by political organisations. The danger is that now it is becoming a part of the mass culture,” he told Al Jazeera.
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