Thought Box



by Vinta Nanda January 30 2024, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 10 mins, 31 secs

I’m introducing the brilliant mind behind the thought-provoking book "H-Pop," Kunal Purohit, a young explorer of alternative perspectives, writes Vinta Nanda.

Photography: Vinta Nanda

He has dedicated about four years of his life to unveiling the hidden layers of popular culture manipulated by politics to sow seeds of fear and hatred. In a world dominated by mainstream narratives, Kunal, former journalist and now author of the book H-Pop, stands apart, challenging the status quo and offering a genuine alternative that prompts readers to question, reflect, and re-evaluate their understanding of contemporary society, which can threaten its evolution by the misuse of popular culture and social media.

Through his research and analysis, Kunal Purohit delves deep into the underbelly of popular culture, primarily popular music, unravelling the intricate ways in which it becomes a powerful tool in the hands of politics. "H-Pop" serves as a revelation, exposing the subtle threads connecting popular music to the spread of hate. Purohit masterfully uncovers the mechanisms through which politics exploits this cultural phenomena to influence public opinion, bringing to light the hidden agendas that often escape the notice of the mainstream audiences.

In a world inundated with sensationalism and superficial narratives, he challenges you to look beyond the beaten track and encourages you to question the narratives being fed to masses through lyrics and music of  nouveau pop stars notoriously celebrated in the Hindi heartland of India. H-Pop serves as an eye-opener, urging us to critically examine the intersections between popular culture and politics. With a fearless approach, Kunal invites us to break free from the shackles of conventional wisdom and explore the alternative truths that lie beneath the surface of our cultural landscape, which are being misused presently by political forces.

I spoke to Kunal about his book and an extract from the introduction of his book follows our conversation. Over to him then…

The extract we're going to be sharing at the end of the interview clearly tells us why you have written this book. So, let's begin from you. What brought you to journalism?

I came to journalism with a deep desire to shape people’s lives for the better and to mitigate their sufferings and struggles. I saw first-hand some of this: in my childhood, a distant relative was crushed under the wheels of a suburban railway train in Mumbai. That scene remained in my mind. Slowly, I started connecting this personal tragedy to systemic failures and felt an urgent motivation to bring change. Journalism became my vehicle to do so—to be able to bring stories and struggles of people to light, to make people aware of the changing world around us and to, at the end, bring about an informed citizenry. 

What is it that compelled you to give up journalism and to write H-Pop? 

Far from giving up on it, my book is an extension of my journalism. The book is an entirely journalistic enterprise, a deep dive into the little-known, secretive world created and inhabited by the people I called Hindutva Popstars. For four years, I burrowed through Hindutva-fused Popular Culture, like books, poetry and music whose ultimate aim was to popularise Hindutva, normalise its core tenets and radicalise its audience, every day. For this, as a reporter would, I followed the lives of three such ‘Popstars’ over four years, and chronicled their lives, their work and the way they were shaping our country and our society.

Tell us about your travels, the places you visited and the people you met and discovered along the way - those who became your subjects to explore. 

The book features reportage from across seven states—going into smaller towns, villages across these states, investigating why hate crimes were taking place and how ordinary Indians were being radicalised by hateful propaganda. It is in this process that I first witnessed the role that popular culture forms like music, poetry and books were playing in driving up hate. To explore this further, I narrowed down on these subjects who were creating this Hindutva Pop culture content: Kavi Singh, a young Haryanvi singer who writes songs on issues like ‘Love Jihad’, the need to curb Muslim Population and on hailing the abrogation of Article 370, Kamal Agney, a poet from Gosainganj, a town outside Lucknow, who targets critics of the Hindu right-wing, Modi and the BJP as well as relooks at historical characters like Mahatma Gandhi in a new light. Similarly, my final subject is Sandeep Deo, a journalist-turned-author who has now embarked on what he calls a ‘cultural war’ against the so-called ‘enemies’ of Hinduism, from Netflix to Amazon to book publishers. He is taking them on, one at a time, and has just started his own book publishing company that brings out books pushing Hindutva.

Did you nurse fears? Were there moments that made you want to give it up along the way? 

Not for a minute. Journalism is getting increasingly difficult as a profession to not just practice but also sustain. However, the worst times to be a journalist are also the best, and possibly the most critical times to be a journalist. 

As you know, the propaganda machine has been exposed a tad too late. The take-over of the narrative began from television fiction more than twenty years ago, with the shutting down of all urban, progressive storytelling and the spread of the saas-bahu sagas, which alienated diversity from mass media storytelling and became absolutely Hindu. The seeding of the Hindutva narrative in pop music is a more recent phenomenon, after both television and films were already under siege. Elaborate on your understanding of things around this. 

We have witnessed a gradual takeover of all popular culture streams, our sources of entertainment by the Hindutva project. This comes in different forms—in the run-up to the elections, we have routinely seen popular television shows parroting propaganda around the BJP and Modi. Similarly, we have also seen this play out in cinema, where hardliner jingoism, not uncommon in Hindi films, is now alarmingly commonplace while propaganda-as-cinema is now a regular occurrence, from films like the Kashmir Files, The Kerala Story, Dharmveer as well as Main Atal Hoon. What all this is doing is to mainstream Hindutva, to further anti-Muslim biases and prejudices and legitimise them. The BJP and the Hindu right-wing have realised that the Hindutva project cannot sustain on speeches alone—popular culture sends it into people’s drawing rooms and bedrooms.

The news media doesn't belong to neutrality any longer - what are the dangers, with factual information coming under this dark cloud? 

Our news media, especially television news, is now an active instigator of hate and prejudice among its viewers. Much of TV news now promotes hardliner biases against minorities and critics of the ruling establishment. It has now become an unquestioning vehicle for the hardliner groups to push their propaganda to millions of viewers. All this carries very grim implications for our democracy: instead of pushing citizens to ask questions of those in power, television media is helping the establishment in distracting us from real issues and directing our ire towards fellow citizens while dehumanising and villainising them.

What are your plans for the book and what's coming up next? 

The book tells a crucial and urgent story and I am doing all I can to reach out to more and more people, so that they read and understand how the country we have known is rapidly changing. I hope people understand how popular culture is manipulating and radicalising audiences. While I continue my journalism, I am traveling across the country, talking to more and more audiences about Hindutva Pop.

An Extract:

At a time when Hindu nationalism has become the most dominant political ideology in the world’s largest democracy, this study becomes even more important to undertake.

In my travels, I saw tectonic shifts in the way people were constructing their realities, conceiving their histories and imagining their futures. People’s identities, complex and multi-layered, were stripped down to their religion. Syncretic traditions and old relationships were breaking down. Communalism was being normalized, hatred for other religions was now acceptable.

The BJP, its ideological mothership the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and their allied Hindutva outfits, have strived to ensure that these changes are not dependent on political victories—i.e., the genie is out of the bottle, whether the BJP is in power or not.  

This new social order hasn’t been built overnight. Helping the Hindu right-wing achieve this is an assembly line of dedicated workers, constantly striving to fulfil responsibilities they have either been allotted or have taken up voluntarily, purely out of their commitment to the cause or their rabid hatred for their ‘enemies’. Unlike the politics of the past, these workers don’t go door-to-door, nor do they hit the streets. Instead, they dominate social media platforms and drum up support for the party by drowning out all criticism, taking down critics and dissenters.

It is here, in this constant tug-of-war of narratives, that popular culture becomes important as yet another vehicle for narrative-setting.

Clothing propaganda in cultural forms like poetry, music and books makes it a lot more effective than undisguised political speech. By being insidious, it creeps up on unsuspecting victims, lodging itself deep inside their veins, eventually shaping their thoughts and beliefs.

A song with foot-tapping beats and a catchy rhythm might actually be warning you about an impending ‘Islamic takeover’ of India. Or a book that promises you the ‘truth’ behind the Partition of India is filled with conspiracy theories rather than historical facts, biases in place of evidence, all in line with the core beliefs of Hindu nationalists.

What makes propaganda-as-pop culture so effective is its everydayness, the easy access that it has to its prey. Its prey does not need to take the effort to visit a political public meeting, nor does it need to seek out passionately delivered political speeches. The prey just has to feel the need to be entertained. The prey needs to seek out a break from the routine—often, just a few clicks away. That’s where propaganda-as-pop culture swoops in, locks the prey in a soft embrace on the pretext of delighting them, be it with beats, rhymes or easy prose. That’s when it enters the veins, slowly, one moment at a time. Then with each repetition, it slowly builds up passions the prey didn’t know existed before, passions of hate, anger and suspicion towards others around it.

These passions linger, bidding for an opportune time, building up their strength, nonetheless. Then, be it a Ram Navami procession, a heady crowd full of men sharing similar passions or a minor dispute with that neighbour from a different religion—these passions get activated whenever they get a chance.

Having spent months investigating hate crimes, both their geneses as well as their afterlives, I saw how they came to be built, slowly, gradually, over time.

We, in the media, have often covered them as events—sudden, mindless outbursts of violence triggered by something immediate. The truth is, they are anything but that—lying at the core of these outbursts is a constant, unending supply of everyday communalism. Hindutva pop culture is custom-built to address this need for everyday communalism.

Instruments like music, poetry and books help in this slow radicalization, dripping bit by bit like a tap into a bucket, till the bucket overflows, eventually. Riots, hate speeches, public processions and rallies are passé—they are time-consuming, costly affairs and carry the risk of earning the perpetrators bad headlines. These events also don’t reflect too well on the global statesman-like image that Modi has sought to craft for himself.

Hindutva pop solves some of these dilemmas. It provides ways to disseminate hate and stoke anger against minority groups and rivals each day, without ever becoming a tangible event, like a hate speech rally or a riot.

Instead, each time the cultural product is consumed—i.e., each time the song is heard or the poetry recited or the book read— Hindutva beliefs are pushed and reiterated, in a bid to provoke rage and fear for the ‘enemy’.

It is time we take this slow, everyday communalism seriously. It is time we understand a rapidly changing India.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.