Pop siren whose simple melodies carry a message of hate
As campaigning for the last parliamentary elections in India began earlier this year, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party went all out to sway the country’s 900 million voters, using Prime Minister Narendra Modi as its star campaigner and dominating advertising space as well as social media.
The BJP also roped in several well-known artists and singers, including Bollywood stars, by holding music concerts around the country, with politicized songs conveying the party’s message.
Among the performers was a 30-year-old, slightly built woman from a middle-class family living in central India. Backed by a 28-member troupe and with tens of millions of views on her YouTube videos, Laxmi Dubey was exactly the sort of campaigner the BJP needed to seek votes.
However, Dubey’s songs carried a potent message quite at odds with her simple, cheerful melodies. Strongly anti-Muslim, the songs promoted militant Hinduism and carried thinly veiled threats to Muslims “who refused to chant the name of Lord Ram,” a Hindu god popular in northern and central India.
At one performance during the election campaign, the singer suggested that “terrorists would have to flee India or face death” — a message delivered with a gesture of throats being slit. Her audience cheered loudly.
In the past four years, Dubey’s popularity has climbed rapidly on YouTube, which lists several of her songs among its biggest hits in India.
With some songs clocking more than 10 million views each, the singer has become a major name, mainly in central and northern India, and is frequently invited by families to bless newborn babies.
Dubey has said that her objective, through her music, is to recruit “foot soldiers” to make India a Hindu nation, and “restore pride among India’s Hindus, who have been docile and cowed for 1,000 years by Muslim rulers.”
Her growing popularity has also been used by the BJP, whose leaders have repeatedly invited her to perform at functions, often using public money.
Dubey said that she began learning songs at an early age when her father sang devotional songs at temples and social events.
The songs that she grew up with preached unity between Hindus and Muslims, she said.
Rabidly communal and hateful songs, such as those sung by Dubey and dozens of others, have emerged on the scene, often stirring hatred, and triggering religious tensions and even riots.
Ranvir S. Nayar
However, the singer began to be attracted to militant Hindu groups that claimed India was being threatened by its Muslims, who were out to trap Hindu women into marriage and convert them.
Like many others, she began to voice her anger at the political elite — the Congress party, which has ruled India for almost 50 of its 70 years of independence.
She told media that the elites had allowed the country to be attacked by Muslim terrorists and appear weak in front of Pakistan.
Two key factors lie behind the success of singers such as Dubey. The first is the rise of the Hindu nationalist BJP in the past decade, culminating in it winning power in New Delhi in May 2014.
Using a message aimed at rousing Hindu nationalist sentiment, the party has since gone on to win control of most states in the country. The party had also made nationalism and “Hindu first” a key plank of its campaign, and succeeded in winning a bigger majority last May.
The other reason for Dubey’s success — and perhaps even the BJP’s popularity — is the unprecedented explosion in social media networks in India.
Social media’s growing reach has come on the back of a smartphone boom, which has seen the number of mobiles jump tenfold to nearly 900 million in the past 10 years, aided by the cheapest data in the world.
Dubey and others have used the smartphone boom to generate tens of millions of views on platforms such as YouTube.
The boom in social media, notably WhatsApp and Facebook, has also made India a hotspot for fake news.
In the past five years, more than 300 people, mostly Muslims, have been lynched in India following fake news reports. During election periods, the generation and dissemination of fake news reaches new heights.
Rabidly communal and hateful songs, such as those sung by Dubey and dozens of others, have emerged on the scene, often stirring hatred, and triggering religious tensions and even riots. India has strong laws against stoking communal or racist tensions, but these have been selectively applied in recent years, allowing hate and misinformation to spread through the omnipresent social media networks.
To add to the problem, a large number of the nation’s youth are poorly educated or illiterate, and are unable to filter fact from fiction. As a result the flames of hate fanned by individuals including Dubey end up consuming the lives of many innocent Indians every year.
• Ranvir S. Nayar is the editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India that encompasses publishing, communication and consultation services.