India's hate-filled "saffron pop"

In India, ultra-nationalist musicians are providing a soundtrack for Hindu extremists with songs that glorify violence. The goal is to make the secular and pluralistic country a Hindu nation. By Till Fähnders

By Till Fähnders

Singer Sanjay Faizabadi's music videos are anything but subtle. Images of explosions, marching soldiers and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi flicker across the screen in rapid cuts.

One video begins with the focus on the singer himself, clad in a camouflage shirt with a black scarf wrapped around his head, his face and teeth apparently smeared with blood. An old fort looms into view, along with flaming fighter planes, exploding warships and tanks charging across rough terrain. Then Modi's face appears, alongside other international leaders such as Donald Trump and Xi Jinping. "We have the power to deflect cyclones and crush mountains! Listen carefully, enemy of the nation, every Indian is an atomic bomb!" sings Faizabadi.

Mixing national pride, militarism and agitation against neighbouring Pakistan, the Indian singer's videos are popular in India. The one described above has racked up nearly ten million views on YouTube, while another of Faizabadi's videos has been watched 15 million times.

The singer is just one of a number of musicians who have been enjoying increasing success in India with their ultra-nationalist songs. They sing the praises of the immortal Indian nation, praise Hindu deities and rail against Muslims and Pakistan. The music style is sometimes called "saffron pop" after the colour that is sacred to Hindus and has been adopted as the trademark of the Hindu nationalists who have been the majority in government since 2014.

More attacks on Muslims

The star of the scene is thirty-something Laxmi Dubey, whose videos attract up to 40 million views. She takes the stage at concerts in splendid gowns and with an entourage of some two dozen musicians. "Jai Shri Ram!" is a frequent refrain: "Victory to the god Rama".

For his part, Sanjay Faizabadi displays more of a penchant for the military, war and arch enemy Pakistan. But his YouTube channel shows that he is also increasingly turning to religious themes. In one of his more recent videos, he appears in front of temple backdrops and wears saffron robes instead of camouflage.


Saffron pop is the soundtrack to a set of policies that seeks to transform the secular and pluralistic nation of India more and more into a Hindu state. Under the rule of Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), attacks on Muslims have increased, while other minorities such as Christians and Dalits (the former "untouchables") are likewise being marginalised.

The mere suspicion that a Muslim may have mistreated or slaughtered a cow is often enough to provoke a beating. Dozens of Muslims have already been lynched in such incidents. Critics accuse Modi and his party of wanting to turn secular and pluralistic India into a "Hindu Rashtra", a nation of Hindus.

Adolf Hitler as role model

We met Sanjay Faizabadi in a recording studio in a suburb of Delhi, the Indian capital. This was before the coronavirus pandemic tightened its iron grip on the world. The studio is located on one of the upper floors in a typical Indian apartment building. After a brief conversation, the singer takes up his position behind a pane of glass. A fast disco rhythm booms out of the loudspeakers, accompanied by stringed instruments playing hectic melodies. Sanjay speaks into the microphone: "Dear compatriots, today I bring you a new song. If you like it, give me your blessing. Hail, India."

After recording this short opening sequence, Sanjay takes a seat in an anteroom. Music is actually more of a hobby for him, he says; he usually edits videos for other musicians. "I'm not doing this for the money," he remarks. His YouTube videos have only just started to bring in a few thousand euros. "Sometimes military personnel give me a few thousand rupees to mention their names in one of my songs." He is clearly proud that his videos are so popular. He has already posted more than 60 on the internet. "I have not received one negative comment!" the singer claims.

Sanjay says his music is not directed against Muslims per se but against the terrorists who are supported by Pakistan. And he makes no secret of who his role models are. One of them is Adolf Hitler, whom he calls an "inspiration". Another is India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In one of his songs, Faizabadi praises the legendary broad chest of the head of government. He just likes the prime minister, he says, adding that that does not mean he would let himself be co-opted by Modi's party.


Hindu temple on the site of a mosque

As his name suggests, the singer hails from Faizabad in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Faizabad is not far from the city of Ayodhya, which is sacred to Hindus because the deity Ram is said to have been born there.

In 1992, a Hindu mob stormed a mosque in Ayodhya, wreaking destruction with shovels, ropes and their bare hands. They believe that the Muslim Mughal ruler Babur built the mosque in 1528 on the site of a temple that marked the birthplace of the god Ram.

Faizabadi says that he was too young to have been among those demolishing the mosque, but he did help one of the groups involved to hand out food. "Who has the power to stop us from building the temple?" is a line in one of his songs. Building a temple on this site is one of the central projects of the Hindu nationalists. After years of litigation, the Supreme Court finally gave the green light for the temple to be built in 2019.

In 2020, Prime Minister Modi laid the foundation stone for the temple in the form of a 40-kg silver ingot. Modi has made history by making it possible to build the temple, Faizabadi says. It also shows that the Hindu nationalists are making progress towards their vision of a Hindu nation – with, among other things, the help of saffron pop.

Till Fähnders

© FAZ 2021

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor