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Building fear song by song, video by video

Kunal Purohit’s debut book of non-fiction, ‘H-Pop’, is a searing account of how hate and paranoia are spread through pop culture

Purohit’s book is a glimpse into majoritarian anger and paranoia built entirely on falsehood. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO
Purohit’s book is a glimpse into majoritarian anger and paranoia built entirely on falsehood. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO

Kunal Purohit has made my tiny life as a part-time teacher simpler. Over two semesters, students of two different batches have come up with questions on how the pot of everyday communalism, bigotry and hatred against Muslims is kept on the boil. We have discussed and analysed videos and pamphlets. But nothing the way Purohit has.

He presents before us an India, or its dangerous slice, whose moral universe is built entirely upon hate and paranoia. A universe of propaganda-as-pop, which is accessible to ordinary citizens through a few clicks. Purohit highlights the sheer ordinariness through which poetry, music and books are used to attack critics by using alternative forms of distribution like YouTube and Facebook to reach audiences. His cast of characters, Kamal Agney, a poet, Kavi Singh, a singer, and Sandeep Deo, a journalist-turned-YouTuber, are all social media stars who have been fed hate which they spew with greater vigour. They represent a north India that looks at the political calculus only through the prism of hate, built through bazaar history where facts are on a permanent vacation and imaginary fear rules the roost. Or as my historian friend Aparna Vaidik says, the past is not past but the past is a smoking gun.

H-Pop: The Secretive World Of Hindutva Pop Stars, published by HarperCollins India, is a searing read on how majoritarian anger and paranoia built entirely on falsehood is being injected into the veins of ordinary citizens through the smart use of technology directly and freely available on mobile phones. The book also makes us wonder why the antidote of mohabbat (love) being bandied about needs to be way stronger than mere rhetoric.

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At a time when books on Hindutva are overly tilted in favour of its past, Purohit writes of contemporary foot soldiers who technically work outside the universe of the Sangh Parivar and keep it battle-ready at all times. So strong is the conviction of Purohit’s protagonists for a Hindu Rashtra that they would do anything to help achieve it, from extolling Nathuram Godse as Pandit Nathuram Godse and justifying Mahatma Gandhi’s killing to fuelling the fear of an Islamic takeover of India and exaggerating the death of four Chinese soldiers on the Line of Actual Control as the death of hundreds of Chinese soldiers, ignoring the real issue of loss of Indian territory.

It is an India we often miss or dismiss except when election results throw up repeated victories for the Bharatiya Janata Party despite its failure on key deliverables. Through the life and work of the characters of H-Pop, we can understand how a new India, a terrifying India, is being built, pamphlet by pamphlet, song by song, video by video, with the sole desire to see Muslims pinned to the wall and wriggling.

The book is an example of a reporter’s doggedness to get into the heart of a story. It’s a common experience for a journalist to encounter individuals, institutions and trends during assignments. On a trip to Jharkhand to report hate crimes, Purohit chances upon a story in Gumla town, otherwise famous for producing hockey stars, about how popular culture is being subverted to create the powerful narrative of the “otherness” of Muslims. He stays with the story and we are the beneficiaries. He follows the journalistic talisman of 5Ws & 1H (who, what, when, where, why and how), and lets his protagonists speak, but does not forget to link what is happening in India to the worldwide tilt towards the right.

This book makes a good companion to Shubh Mathur’s The Everyday Life Of Hindu Nationalism (2008, Three Essays Collective), an ethnographic study of the rise of Hindu nationalism in Rajasthan. Mathur’s two contentions—that it is through “culture that boundaries are created, belonging and exclusion are defined and the nation and its enemies are constructed” and the Hindutva movement is “first created in the realm of culture before it begins to operate in the political domain”—can be seen in the life and work of Purohit’s subjects.

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They are all ordinary individuals, and in some cases, like musician Kavi Singh, not even connected or affiliated with known Hindutva outfits, yet committed to the Hindu nationalist cause and angry with secular ideals. Originally from Alwar, Kavi, 25, was adopted by Ramkesh Jiwanpurwala, a popular Haryanvi singer and actor from Rohtak. He discovered Kavi “humming” in the kitchen in 2019 and immediately realised “yeh to ekdum fit hai” (she is perfect). Pulwama happened, a poem by Azad Singh Khanda Kheri, another Haryanvi singer and actor, landed on Ramkesh’s phone, and a star was born. The poem blamed Pulwama on Kashmiri Muslims, the “real enemy”: “Dushman ghar mein baithe hai, tum kos te raho padosi ko/Jo chuuri bagal mein rakhte hai, tum maar do na uss doshi ko (The enemies are among us, but we blame the neighbour/The one who is secretly carrying a knife, finish off that traitor)”. 

The song became a rage and Kavi a sensation. Her father Jiwanpurwala finds that Kavi possesses the same energy as “Modiji” and her millions of followers on social media platforms keep reminding her of the exalted status she enjoys in the Hindutva public sphere. Her songs, all of them unfailingly crude, invent a million ways to demonise Muslims as the sole reason for the insecurity of majority Hindus and the country’s backwardness. No political event—abrogation of Article 370, protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, or the Ram temple movement—is missed by Kavi as long as it helps normalise hate. Equally scary and polarising are the stories of spoken word poet Kamal Agney and influential YouTuber, writer and publisher Sandeep Deo. A dive into what drove these three towards hate could have added further to Purohit’s book. Somehow, we still don’t understand the making of these individuals.

Purohit’s book is also the story of the giant strides Hindutva has made since the 1980s when Doordarshan, the official broadcaster, showed Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan as part of the national culture at the expense of our diversity. The iconography of Ram helped mobilise the Ayodhya movement, and people like Singh, Agney and Deo are the legatees of that movement who, in the age of technology, don’t need state support. They need the state’s nodding head and a blind eye, never in short supply in new India.

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I do have a bone to pick, not with Purohit, but with his publisher, who is also my publisher. Asking readers to scan a QR code to access notes is just clumsy. I, like many readers, learn from notes. At a time when a simple outing for a movie costs over 1,000, the cost of few extra pages should not bother publishers. That said, H-Pop is a reminder of what good journalism can produce.

Akshaya Mukul is the author of Gita Press And The Making Of Hindu India and Writer, Rebel, Soldier, Lover: The Many Lives Of Agyeya

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