India's soundtrack of hate, with a pop sheen
RAIPUR, INDIA (NYTIMES) – The Indian pop star, swaddled in gold-trimmed tulle, stepped to the front of the stage at a neighbourhood concert. Thunder effects crackled through speakers stacked near an electronics store.
“Every house will be saffron!” the singer, Laxmi Dubey, yelled into her microphone, referring to the colour representing Hinduism. “We have to make terrorists run from our blessed land!” The crowd cheered when she added a throat-slitting hand gesture.
Dubey is one of the biggest stars driving the rise of Hindutva pop music in India over the last few years.
Hindutva is a word describing a devout Hindu culture and way of life, and the music that bears its name sets traditional Hindu religious stories or Bollywood clips to dance beats – with added lyrics that in some cases openly call for the slaughter of non-believers, forced conversions, or attacks on Pakistan.
The songs are amassing huge numbers of views on YouTube – Dubey’s most popular song has more than 50 million on its own – and a growing fan base among the young.
It is the music of the times in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India.
Muslims and other minorities fear that some of Modi’s Hindu-nationalist supporters are damaging the country’s secular foundation and making life dangerous for any who do not display extreme patriotism or Hindu religious fervor.
These concerns were only heightened with a court decision Saturday (Nov 9) in favour of Hindus over a contested holy site.
During Hindu festivals, the processions have started blasting the music in Muslim neighbourhoods in shows of intimidation.
Most of the songs prominently feature the call of “Jai Shri Ram!” meaning “Hail Lord Ram,” a major Hindu god, it has become the battle cry for Hindu nationalists. Mobs have attacked Muslims who refuse to chant it along with them.
“Hate bundled with so-called faith has become par for the course today,” said T M Krishna, one of India’s most renowned traditional singers. “The masks are off, and what we are seeing should deeply worry us.”
Dubey, a gleeful provocateur, travels India with a 28-person troupe and is in such demand that families invite her to their homes to bless newborn babies.
Her goal, she said in an interview with The New York Times, is to recruit foot soldiers to make India a Hindu nation. At least one state government dominated by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has used public money to stage her performances.
“Hindus used to be too innocent and docile to understand that Muslims are the biggest threat,” Dubey said. “They needed someone like Laxmi Dubey to wake them up.”
Some of the most violent expressions in Hindutva pop focus on Kashmir, the Muslim-majority territory that is disputed by Pakistan and that was stripped of its autonomy by Modi’s government in August. Popular lyrics call for harsher action against Pakistan and separatist Kashmiri militants, and for forced conversions and a Hindu settlement campaign in Kashmir.
For some of the millions of Indian Muslims, those hyper-patriotic expressions are seen as carrying a personal threat.
In one music video, Sanjay Faizabadi, another popular Hindutva pop artist, lunges toward the camera in military fatigues. Footage of Indian troops, exploding planes and a pack of lions punctuates the song, called “Kashmir Is Our Life.”
“I will come to Pakistan and play marbles with your eyes!” he sings, boasting in a subsequent verse of waging a campaign of sexual conquest there.
In an interview, Faizabadi conceded that his lyrics could give the impression that he supported violence. But the singer insisted that he had nothing against Muslims, only those who spread terrorism.
“I’m Modi’s devotee, but I’m not anybody’s adversary,” he said. “You can label me Hindutva, but I don’t spite those who are not.”
The far right has never been more emboldened in India. Some of the top figures in Modi’s government have repeatedly referred to immigrants as termites, threatened the citizenship status of hundreds of thousands of Muslims and encouraged vigilante violence against those accused of slaughtering cows, a sacred animal for Hindus. (Most butchers in India are Muslims or from lower castes.)
This summer, police arrested several musicians for recording a song urging Hindus to kill those who do not chant, “Jai Shri Ram!” Dubey’s biggest hits feature that chant prominently, and she is outspoken about her intention to incite a revolution through Hindutva pop.
In her songs, Dubey exhorts Hindus to “perform ceremonies with bullets,” “fight proudly against ungodly religions” and “cut off the tongues of enemies who talk against Ram.”
Dubey, 30, said she did not always feel as strongly about Hindu supremacy. She is originally from the city of Bhopal, in central India, and grew up in a musical family regularly singing songs that urged sectarian harmony, like “Hindu Muslim, Brother Brother,” she said.
But she said that as a teenager, she grew increasingly irate at an Anglicised political elite – embodied in the scandal-prone Indian National Congress party of the Gandhis – who had, in her mind, allowed Muslim terrorist groups to attack India.
Dubey drew closer to extremist Hindu circles and began subscribing to a belief that Muslims planned to take over India by marrying and converting Hindu women. To show her devotion, she vowed to remain single and moved away from estranged relatives to the nearby city of Jabalpur, where she persuaded 11 girls living in poverty to make a home with her and become disciples.
She spent a few years making music and putting it on YouTube, then found a surging popularity after Modi rose to power in 2014. Dubey and several people who work for her said she regularly performs for officials from his Bharatiya Janata Party.
“We go wherever BJP leaders invite us to perform,” Dubey said. “That’s because the BJP is helping to propagate Hindutva.”
In the state of Chhattisgarh, where Dubey often sings, Rahul Singh, a director in the culture department, confirmed that his office had paid for some of her concerts. But he said he did not know much about her. Two state politicians from the BJP said they knew the singer but denied support, though party leaders promoted her music before national elections this year.
Her performances draw thousands of people. One show in Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh, was marketed as a jagrata, an all-night vigil dedicated to deities.
For a couple of hours, she sang about the goddess Durga. Performers dressed as Hindu gods twirled a giant gold trident and lit torches. Much of the audience came for the free, religious-oriented entertainment and did not know Dubey specifically.
But the singer’s tone shifted after midnight, when most of the youngest children had gone to bed.
Turning her attention to the beef industry, which employs many Muslims, Dubey encouraged the crowd to take action to protect cows, echoing comments by Hindu mobs that have killed dozens of minorities accused of slaughtering cattle.
“People who I give milk to have become my butcher,” she said, channeling the animal. “Become a cow protector and fulfill your promise.” Dubey transitioned to one of her most popular songs, “Every House Will Be Saffron,” a YouTube juggernaut that has inspired covers sung by children.
During interludes, the singer promised to target those “living in Kashmir, exploding things” and to “spill blood in mother’s holy court.” The song’s tempo picked up. Clusters of men rose and danced. Dubey drew her arm back and let go of an imaginary arrow.
“People who don saffron will rule!” she screamed. “Only one slogan, only one name: Jai Shri Ram! Jai Shri Ram!”.
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