Issue 20

Hindutva Beyond Politics: The Rise of an Alternate Pop-Culture in India

Biplob Kumar Das

Since 2014, India has not only witnessed the electoral and political rise of Hindutva, but also an evolution in popular culture that is much more committed to Hindu Nationalism. Industries like Bollywood and independent artists across YouTube are now producing art that espouses Hindutva sentiments.

The rise of Hindutva, especially in the past seven years, has proved that it is not only a political or electoral phenomenon. The ideology of Hindutva, a blend of creating a purely Hindu nation-state while othering non-Hindus, has today penetrated all levels of our social systems and democratic setup. It has infused exclusionary values of religious nationalism in our bureaucratic institutions, bent large parts of the judicial system in its favour, has completely encapsulated the media ecosystem to propagate its ideology, and is working towards saffronising Indian academia. However, nothing represents Hindutva’s deep dive into shaking the foundations of an imagined liberal and secular India more than the evolution of popular culture in the past seven years. 

The vandalisation of the sets of Padmaavat, protests against the release of the film Sexy Durga and its eventual ban, protests against the film PK, are only a few examples of the intolerant and reactionary attitude of Hindutva organisations towards art and artists. However, the attempt to influence popular culture has gone beyond mere mob reactions. There is a concerted effort to demand a nationalistic and often Hindutva narrative from the cultural industries. 

For instance, the number of nationalistic movies that were released in the years 2018 and 2019 is insightful, especially given that was the election year and the BJP government was at the peak of its popularity. Aiyaary, Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran, Satyameva Jayate, Kesari, Uri – The Surgical Strike, Bharat, Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi are the most notable ones. Each of these movies either portrays the Indian army’s valour or represent a version of India’s past that espoused religious nationalistic pride. 

Whether or not these films had any impact on the results of the 2019 General Elections, where BJP expanded its majority in the parliament, is debatable. But the fact that there was an overflow of superhit nationalistic movies in 2018 and 2019, reflects that Bollywood producers are seeing opportunity in the film market where there is commercial benefit in making nationalistic films. Furthermore, the rise of actors like Kangana Ranaut, who minces no words in expressing her love for Hindutva, has to be seen in the context of the expanding influence of Hindutva in the cultural industry. Both these phenomenons; a rise in the number of nationalistic movies, and the emergence of Hindutva superstars, indicate the extent to which the ideology has been infused in our cultural trends and media discourse. To top this all, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has declared that a film city will be created in Noida, possibly a sign that Hindutva is willing to challenge Bollywood’s hegemony over Indian culture.

Hindutva’s ascendance in popular culture is also visible in the most prominent cultural wars that have emerged in the past few years. Take for example the entire debate on nepotism and the alleged drug mafia in Bollywood. A debate that emerged in the backdrop of the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, this debate soon transformed into a slugfest of targeting specific superstars who may have been perceived to be against Hindutva. Similarly, the arrest of Aryan Khan, son of Shah Rukh Khan, can also be understood in the same context. It is not only its attempt to shape the narrative of popular culture, but Hindutva has also succeeded in creating a civil society in its favour that is willing to aid them in manufacturing cultural wars on the pretext of cultural issues, such as the nepotism debate. While it is indeed true that Bollywood as an industry remains extremely inaccessible to most of the country, and the art it produces continues to lack diversity, it is also important to note that Bollywood’s failure itself offers an opportunity for Hindutva to expand its cultural agenda.

Hindutva civil society is also moving towards the production of an alternate popular culture that is committed to its ideology. Consider the rising popularity of Hindutva pop music for instance. Laxmi Dubey is a singer from Madhya Pradesh whose songs have lyrics that espouse Hindu nationalist ideas. Some of her most popular songs are titled Fir Modi Ko Lana Hai, Har Ghar Bhagwa Chhayega, Yogi Aditya Nath Gatha. Each of these songs amassed at least 2 million views on YouTube. Another singer, Sanjay Faizabadi, is equally popular, with some of his most popular songs on YouTube being; Pakistan Hila Denge (16 million views), Har Hindustani Chahe Pure Pakistan Ko (10 million views), Lehrayenge Tiranga Lahore Mein (4.5 million views). The videos of their songs are filled with visual effects of saffron pride, the Indian army bombing its enemies, and often feature BJP leaders like Modi, Shah, and Adityanath. Apart from artists like Dubey and Faizabadi, there are numerous lesser-known artists and content creators who produce music, videos, and memes, in relatively low quality but follow a firm pattern of propagating Hindutva ideas. The scale of production of such xenophobic, bigoted, and chauvinistic music or art, and the popularity it has gained is unprecedented. 

That there is a concerted attempt by Hindu nationalist organisations to take over popular culture is amply clear. However, the disconcerting fact is the pace at which the production of an alternate popular culture is emerging. While an industry like Bollywood is relatively inaccessible for artists and production companies prioritise profit over any ideology, platforms such as YouTube and Spotify give artists like Dubey and Faizabadi an opportunity to share their music and gain a following, not to mention the inordinate amount of Hindutva content that is produced in Instagram and Facebook daily by other Hindu nationalists accounts. 

In India, however, cultural clout has a catch named diversity. The sheer diversity in our country, and internal diversity in each state, render an attempt to homogenise and dominate culture almost impossible. Cultural identities are so ingrained in every Indian community or social group, that it is hard to imagine Hindutva pop-culture dominating national culture on its own. Unlike Nazi Germany and Stalinist Soviet Russia’s success in dominating culture through propaganda, similar projects in India may yet again be saved by the sheer strength of our cultural diversity. 

While Bollywood has largely surrendered itself to the pressures of a Hindu nationalist government, film and music industries of other languages across different states may provide suitable resistance to Hindutva. The solution to such an onslaught on popular culture is in diversifying the output in our popular culture. After all, culture persists only when it connects to people.

Biplob Kumar Das is a Graduate Student at Ashoka University currently pursuing an Advanced Major in Political Science and a Minor in Media Studies. He completed his undergraduate degree in Political Science and takes a keen interest in anything related to Indian politics, media, art and culture. 

Picture Credits: YouTube

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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