Hindutva Pop comes of age: the rising trend of hate music in India
42 YouTube channels host 79 music videos (down from 97 earlier) with Islamophobic undertones
Craigieburn, Australia, 4 March 2023. On stage before a large crowd of mostly Indian-Australian origin, singer Kanhiya Mittal is belting it out. During a pause in the performance, he asks, “Is anybody here a fan of Bulldozer Baba?”, in an obvious reference to Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath.
As the crowd roars approval, Mittal breaks into song again, “Isiliye Yogi bande kamal ke hain, jo Ram ko laye hain, hum unko layenge, duniya mein phir hum bhagwa lehraenge (This is why Yogi is amazing, we will bring back those [to power] who have brought Ram; the saffron flag will fly again)”. Depending on where he is singing, the lyrics change to “UP mein bhagwa lehraenge” etc. Unsurprisingly, the song has become a recurring feature of BJP rallies in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana and Rajasthan.
Later this month, journalist Kunal Purohit is set to launch his book titled Hindutva Pop or H-Pop: The Secretive World of Hindutva Popstars. In a post on X, Purohit describes the idea for the book as having been born "four years ago... the night I spent in a Jharkhand town, learning about a brutal lynching", by all appearances establishing a tacit bond between the music and the violence.
...there is another kind of speech that may not be offensive but is deeply prejudicial towards a targeted community. Evolving jurisprudence now recognises the systemic nature of such speech, which is called hate speechShahrukh Alam, Supreme Court advocate
In Rampur (UP), a group of Muslim lawyers objected to Mittal's song and sought the Election Commission’s intervention in 2022. Bhagwan (God) created the earth, who are these people to claim to have brought God to earth? Appropriating Bhagwan was an electoral malpractice, they argued. The EC did not even respond, but the complaint does find mention on Mittal’s website, which he uses as a springboard for his brag: “As long as I breathe, I will keep awakening Hindus..."
Most of the 1,000-plus songs listed on his YouTube channel appear apolitical, though. For example, his rendering of Balaji Achhe Laage Se has garnered a staggering 25 million views in 10 months, while UP Mein Bhagwa Lehraenge has touched 22 million in a year. The difference is that the latter, with its Hindutva overtones, has been amplified to a far greater extent, with numerous channels sharing and resharing it, notching up views of 400,000 to over a million.
The Chandigarh-based singer is an exponent of ‘Khatushyam bhajan’, a genre of devotional songs themed on Krishna and Khatushyam. The Krishna temple in Khatoo village, 40-odd km from Sikar in Rajasthan, houses idols of Lord Krishna and Khatushyam, a warrior believed to have offered his own head to Krishna before the Mahabharata war in Kurukshetra.
Curiously, Mittal is the son of a businessman who was apparently an atheist. The son may have taken to singing devotional songs and changed his name from Krishna to ‘Kanhiya’, but he seems to have inherited his father’s business acumen, often switching effortlessly to sing praises of bhagwa (saffron) and 'Bulldozer Baba’.
Occasionally, he also plays to the gallery and stokes Hindu sentiments by saying Aurangzeb destroyed not just the temple at Gyanvapi but Hindu self-esteem as well. Moments later, he breaks into, “Maan gaya sansar ki Hindu jaag gaya/ Jaag gaya Hindu is baar, Hindu jaag gaya (the world accepts that the Hindu has risen)”.
The 34-year-old reportedly charges anything between Rs 50,000 and Rs 3.5 lakh for ‘jaagran’ appearances (popular night-long sessions of devotional songs common across northern India), depending on the venue and sponsor.
Singing bhajans as a career has been popular in the northern states, and Mittal has become one of its foremost exponents. Of late, however, he and many others like him appear to have deviated to sing what has been loosely termed as ‘Hindutva Pop’, a curious mix of contemporary pop music and Hindutva ideology.
Laxmi Dubey, Kavi Singh, TF DJ Dhamaka, and Prabhakar Maurya are some of Mittal’s peers who have gathered steam over the past few years, not only across online platforms such as YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, JioSaavn, Winkly and Gaana, but increasingly moving into the offline space too.
Kavi Singh uploaded several patriotic songs on her YouTube channel ‘Kavi Singh Official’ around Independence Day this year. Most are along predictable lines (Yeh Dharti Hai Veer Jawanon Ki with 61,000 views in 10 days and Bharat Hai Pehchaan Meri with 51,000), but one of them is more troubling.
“Hum toh bhagwadhari hain/ Hum Shri Ram ke pujari hain (we wear saffron and worship Shri Ram)” are the opening lines of a song which was viewed 4.44 lakh times in less than two weeks. The stirring tune is set to rousing and provocative lyrics.
Starting with “Ghar ghar bhagwa lehra denge/Dushman ko dhool chata denge (every home will wave saffron flag, we will make the enemy lick the dust)”, it goes on to say, “Mewat sulagte dekha hai/ Jazbaat sulagte dekha hai/ Na system kuch kar payega/ Halaat ulajhte dekha hai/ Apni suraksha ke khatir/ Hum khud hee shastra uthayenge/ Khooni khel dikha denge…(We saw Mewat simmering, sentiments hurting/ the situation worsening/ The system is helpless, we will take up arms/ for our own protection/ We will play the game of blood…)”.
The reference to the recent communal riots in Mewat (Haryana), the failure of the system, and a call to arms are an all-too-obvious incitement, but the song, which is racing up the charts, has received little or no attention from law enforcers. People have been arrested for far less but the government has not asked YouTube to pull it down or made any moves to bar access, which it does with such alacrity and punitive force when it comes to anything critical of the government and its demi-gods.
YouTube runs on the idea of virality, viewership and mass consumerism, which must cater to majoritarian tastes and attitudes. Most often, provocative speeches and songs find viralityBrahma Prakash, cultural theorist and assistant professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University
With lyrics that unabashedly promote communal hatred and celebrate xenophobic nationalism, Hindutva Pop has built a thriving ecosystem in the digital space, even though these incendiary playlists are usually tucked into the folds of devotional content.
A study of 42 YouTube channels such as Kavi Singh Official, Kanhiya Mittal Official, TF DJ Dhamaka, Laxmi Dubey Official, Janta Musical and Pictures, MAA Films, GR Music and Bhojpuri Express — all dedicated to devotional songs — throws up 97 videos with questionable content.
YouTube has taken down 18 of these 97 videos, citing its community guidelines, but 79 remain online, even though they dish out arguably inflammatory content and have totted up a combined viewership of over 150 million. Kavi Singh Official, Kanhiya Mittal, TF DJ Dhamaka and Laxmi Dubey Official account for 11 of those 79 videos and roughly 60 per cent of the 150 million-plus views.
In an email conversation, Brahma Prakash, a cultural theorist and assistant professor of theatre and performance studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University says he is not surprised. “We need to see YouTube as a corporate enterprise enterprise that aims not necessarily to democratise the space but to generate profit. YouTube runs on the idea of virality, viewership and mass consumerism, which must cater to majoritarian tastes and attitudes. Most often, provocative speeches and songs find virality.”
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With estimated annual earnings of $79,782 (approx. Rs 66 lakh), Mittal’s earnings are the highest in the Hindutva Pop genre. Dubey is a distant second with earnings of $5,153 (Rs 4.28 lakh) and Kushboo Uttam Official, with earnings of $4,328 (Rs 3.60 lakh), is currently at #3. Kanhiya Mittal Official has close to 2 million subscribers and well over a thousand videos. And this is just on YouTube. Kavi Singh Official too has totted up over a million followers.
A graphic analysis of the lyrics of 32-year-old Dubey’s music video Har Ghar Bhagwa Chhayega, Ram Rajya Ab Ayega (every home will wave the saffron flag, the reign of Lord Ram will now come) indicates that the song relies heavily on combinations of phrases like ‘Jai Shri Ram’, ‘har ghar bhagwa chhayega’, and ‘Ram rajya’. Uploaded on 31 May 2021, the video has garnered approximately 8.7 million views on YouTube.
Dubey denies her songs are Islamophobic. Instead, she argues that they are meant to counter “anti-nationals and traitors” funded by “foreign enemies”. In the same breath, she also claims to be a practising journalist and pledges support to any political party whose “ultimate goal is to help create a Hindu nation”.
The 23-year-old Kavi Singh’s music video, titled Dhara 370 (Article 370), employs catchwords like gaddaron (traitors) in the context of Article 370 of the Constitution; it fans the government-sponsored narrative that the abrogation of Article 370 ‘restored normalcy’ in Kashmir. The video has logged close to 33 million views on YouTube since it was uploaded on 6 August 2019, just a day after the controversial annulment of Article 370.
While she concedes that YouTube has removed “almost 50 songs” from her channel, she too denies that her content is inflammatory; she is apparently doing what she does “to save ‘Sanatan Dharma’”, and adds for good measure: “In India, nobody was born a Muslim; everybody is originally Hindu. Only terrorists are Muslims in India.”
Does Indian law have no provisions to penalise or regulate such content? It does. Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code specifies punishment for ‘persons indulging in vilification or attacks upon the religion, race, place of birth, residence, language etc. of any particular group or class, or upon the founders and prophets of a religion’.
Section 295A deals with punishment for deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs. “Indian criminal law punishes offensive/ hurtful speech, or speech that has the potential to cause immediate violence. However, there is another kind of speech that may not be offensive but is deeply prejudicial towards a targeted community. Evolving jurisprudence now recognises the systemic nature of such speech, which is called hate speech,” Supreme Court advocate Shahrukh Alam told National Herald.
“It is cumulative, it builds up prejudices and discriminatory behaviour over time, and causes structural violence in terms of pushing a community out of social and political spaces. Such speech is a problem of discrimination, not always one of law and order, though there is often that too,” she added.
Alam points out that the prejudicial nature of these songs is systemic rather than sporadic. So the incitement may not always be direct. A survey we conducted of 10 popular Hindutva Pop YouTube channels based on number of subscribers shows two categories of videos. The first is explicitly inflammatory, while the other is implicitly biased.
The explicit creators are more brazen in their use of Islamophobic slurs, while the implicit bias shows itself in the use of terms that indirectly target Muslims. From YouTube, these videos then circulate through WhatsApp chats, Instagram reels, and Facebook feeds in an endless cycle of amplification.
These communally charged playlists, which sprang from an online space — YouTube being their preferred home — have now made their presence felt in the physical world as well, and are a steadily growing feature of Hindu religious festivals/ events such as Ram Navami, Ganesh Chaturthi, Hanuman Jayanti and the Kanwar Yatra.
In a series of video tweets in March this year, multimedia journalist Meer Faisal attempted to highlight incidents of anti-Muslim violence from across India by Ram Navami processionists.
One of the videos shows unidentified men dancing to the tune of a song titled Bhagwa Rang Mein Bhagwa Dhari by Shahnaz Akhtar, and pelting stones at a mosque in Gujarat. Other videos show processions that appear to deliberately stop in front of mosques to play these provocative songs.
As you can see from the above embedded tweet, the videos are no longer available, thanks to Faisal's X account being withheld for now.
There was a time not so long ago when the Centre would try to keep its own hands clean even while winking at these so-called ‘fringe elements’ fanning a communally charged narrative. Those masks — and gloves — are now off.
(Edited: Yajnaseni Chakraborty, Manidipa Mandal, Rajesh Jha and Uttam Sengupta)