If violence by Hindu nationalists (see here, here and here) across India has sharpened Indian Muslims’ unease, a less apparent strain on an already fraught relationship between the two communities has been the rise of Hindutva-Pop or H-Pop.
With catchy tunes and acerbic lyrics, these songs call for Hindu rule in India; suggest that Indian Muslims are unpatriotic; or recast historical events. They have become the common background score at provocative marches by right-wing groups (see here and here); they are recited at kavi sammelans and are hugely popular on social media.
In H-Pop: The Secretive World of Hindutva Pop Stars, award-winning independent journalist, documentary film-maker and podcast creator Kunal Purohit, 34, examines how this popular culture phenomenon has created societal acceptability for Hindutva's core beliefs, how inserting Hindutva into popular culture has normalised Islamophobia, demonised Islam and vilified those who criticise right-wing extremism.
Purohit profiles some of H-Pop's most prolific and popular creators, interrogates whether they are driven by ideology or commerce, and what motivates the audience to consume their daily dose of bigotry.
Forty-six-year-old Sandeep is numerous things.
He is a former journalist-turned-author and now also a YouTuber who openly identifies as a Hindu nationalist; he is an ardent supporter of the Hindutva cause, of the BJP, and yet will convincingly insist that he is an objective journalist who spares none.
But more significantly, Sandeep also likens himself to a warrior on the frontlines of what he believes is a cultural war that Hindus are fighting against enemies as disparate as the mainstream media to the West to Islam to Netflix. Hindus, he says, are under attack from all these quarters, and they don’t even realize it. Sandeep counts them all as enemies and stokes the fires of fear, anger and hatred against them.
To fight this all-pervasive war, Sandeep has opened multiple war fronts.
The most visible of those fronts is his popular YouTube channel, the grandly named ‘India Speaks Daily’. Sandeep is also the editor- in-chief of a news website by the same name as his channel, a website that never strays too far away from Hindutva thought. Through his channel and website, Sandeep constantly espouses the Hindutva cause, promotes it and articulates a Hindu nationalist viewpoint on everyday matters. In doing so, he backs the BJP up most days and launches strident attacks on its rivals, often by spinning a web of facts and half facts.
But that’s not what sets him apart. In doing so, Sandeep is just one of the many Hindu nationalist YouTubers who are attracting millions of eyeballs, and dollars, by popularizing their political ideology. He has a greater ambition, which, if fulfilled, could help Hindutva expand into newer, more insidious frontiers.
Sandeep is the founder of a publishing house called Kapot, which specializes in bringing out books that promote hard-line Hindu nationalism. Kapot aims to propagate Hindutva through the written word, by channelling the ideology into books across various genres, from spirituality and religion to politics and history.
Its books revisit history, offering a fresh spin on historical events or justifying historical wrongs in ways that suit Hindu nationalists.
The range of books Kapot publishes and distributes is vast: from books that specialize in ‘unmasking the realities’ of ‘Abrahamic religions’, a category on its website—titles like Love Jihad or Predatory Dawah? Shocking Ground Stories of Conversion—to books on history like Heroic Hindu Resistance to Muslim Invaders and Kaun Kehta Hai Akbar Mahaan Tha? Kapot also sells numerous books that justify the killing of Mahatma Gandhi by Nathuram Godse, as well as books that recast Congress leaders who fought for the country’s independence in poor light, from Nehru to Gandhi.
Sandeep’s own experience as an author drives much of this curation. He has authored six books in Hindi—including Hamare Shri Guruji, a biography of the Hindu nationalist ideologue and former RSS chief, M.S. Golwalkar, who wanted Hindus to take a leaf out of the Nazi playbook in dealing with the country’s minorities.
Sandeep’s first book, written in 2012, Sajish Ki Kahani Tathyo Ki Zubani, decries the Gujarat riots of 2002 that killed nearly 1200 people, mostly Muslims, as a conspiracy against Modi. He has also authored biographies of UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Baba Ramdev, the yoga teacher-turned-entrepreneur known for his proximity to the Hindu right-wing.
Kapot has been growing in popularity—it sells over 2,200 titles, and in 2022, it sold over 25,000 books, according to Sandeep’s office.
As Sandeep sees it, launching a publishing arm has multifold strategic benefits. To him, books offer a chance to rewrite history the way he likes it, to grant legitimacy to some of the deepest fears and biases that Hindu nationalists hold and to propagate it to many more. Sandeep, in line with the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS, also stresses on character-building as a key step in becoming a true Hindutva warrior. For him, books are a way to bring about a moral Hindu consciousness.
As a result, Kapot’s collection ranges from the unabashedly political to the deeply religious, always taking care to emphasize Hindutva ideals, either way. But even as he expands his publishing, Sandeep also wants to puncture the oligopolist online book distribution networks that he believes pose a threat to the growth
According to Sandeep, the West, through its many private corporations, controls the country’s e-commerce networks and thereby has the power to shape the distribution of books in India.
He is not far off. Amazon.in and Flipkart, the retail giants that have dominated India’s e-commerce landscape, are backed by US-based multinational companies Amazon.com and Walmart, respectively.
For him, this means that these handful of Western corporations are dictating what Indians must and must not read. In its war against Hindus and Hindutva, the West, through these corporations, are going to come gunning for books that champion the Hindutva cause.
Hence, Sandeep isn’t content just publishing these books—he has publicly announced an audacious boycott of both these e-commerce websites. He refuses to use these two e-commerce websites to sell books that Kapot publishes and distributes.
Instead, he has created his own e-commerce website to bypass these, what he calls, ‘anti-Hindu’ e-commerce websites. On this website, also called Kapot, Sandeep has listed all his over 2,200 titles that he is distributing and publishing across India and also across the globe. But steadily, Sandeep and his brother, Amardeep, are expanding the website to become a Hindu, ‘swadeshi’, homegrown e-commerce website, where they will sell only domestically manufactured objects—right from books to common household items.
There’s already a glimpse of what that would look like: by Diwali of 2022, the website had started selling what it called ‘Swadeshi Lights’, fairy lights made in India, as well as poojan samagri, essentials for Hindu prayer rituals. The Deo brothers are conscious that the website has to be in sync with Sandeep’s persona as a Hindutva warrior. This integration of ideology with commerce has led them to expand in 2023 to selling home temples and religious paraphernalia.
But Sandeep is conscious about the limitations of this war, and of fighting against his enemies in the digital world alone. His own life, his childhood growing up in rural Darbhanga, Bihar, has taught him that social media, though important, will not reach the deepest corners of the country he wishes to reach and rouse with Hindutva thought.
And so Sandeep’s next step is to take this cultural war offline, to smaller cities and towns. Sandeep intends to open bookstores-cum-libraries across 1,000 Indian towns and cities, where these books can be bought as well as read in-store so that those who can’t afford to buy them can still be enlisted in his war.
But the most significant of his plans, Sandeep’s Brahmastra, is to open centres that will teach Hindu boys shaastra, religious scriptures, as well as shastra, the use of weapons. For him, both deep knowledge of religion, as well as the capability to physically fight ‘enemies’, are equally critical in this cultural war. The funds that he collects from those like my uncle, he insists, will go towards these centres.
(Excerpted with permission from H-Pop: The Secretive World of Hindutva Pop Stars published by HarperCollins India.)