Think about the Nation

Skye Arundhati Thomas

The Bollywood actor Kangana Ranaut visited the Israeli embassy in Delhi at the end of October for a photo op. ‘Like we deserve a Bharat dedicated to Hindus, Jews also deserve one nation,’ she said. ‘As a Hindu nation we stand with Israel’s cause.’ The Israeli ambassador nodded, smiling, and the two held up a model of a fighter jet. The visit was part of the publicity run for the movie Tejas, in which Ranaut plays a daredevil pilot who volunteers for a mission to rescue a kidnapped Indian spy from ‘a Pakistani tribal area, the epicentre of terror’ (‘when in doubt,’ she tells herself, ‘think about the nation’).

Tejas, which means ‘radiance’ or ‘splendour’, is the name of a fighter jet manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics, in production since 2001 and operational since 2016. It uses a General Electric engine imported from the United States. Last June, during Modi’s to the US, a deal was signed with GE to produce the engines in India.

Two months later, a company called Atharva Advanced Systems and Technologies was incorporated in Gujarat as a wholly owned subsidiary of Adani Defence Systems and Technologies. In November, Adani sold a 44 per cent stake to Israel’s Elbit Systems. Adani and Elbit have been building Hermes 900 drones together in Hyderabad since 2018; the primary user is the Israeli Air Force. Last year Adani bought a majority stake in the Port of Haifa (where Elbit happens to be based). The Indian tricolour flies next to the Israeli flag.

Ranaut said that Hamas were a ‘modern day Ravana’, the ten-headed villain of the Ramayana, whom Rama must slay to rescue his wife, Sita, and travel back to Ayodhya, where his empire awaits him. On 22 January, Modi opened a temple at the site in Ayodhya where Hindu mobs tore down the Babri Mosque in 1992, leading to deadly communal violence. To celebrate the inauguration of the new temple, millions of small saffron flags waved across the country, some forcibly affixed to mosques and churches. Shops and businesses closed. Ahead of the ceremony, the airline IndiGo carried passengers dressed as Rama, Sita and Lakshmana to mark the opening of a new route from Ahmedabad to Ayodhya.

A video circulating on social media shows the razed Great Omari Mosque in Gaza, its central dome cracked open, with the caption ‘cheap copy’. Cut to Ayodhya in 1992, Hindu men with sledgehammers on the main cupola of the Babri Mosque, and the caption changes to ‘masterpiece’. For a brief second in between there’s the flash of a yellow bulldozer. When in 2022 the New Delhi government began unwarranted demolitions in Muslim neighbourhoods – bringing bulldozers to tear down shops and homes – an anchor from the national news channel Aaj Tak climbed into the driver’s seat of one machine: ‘You are now watching live,’ he said, ‘as the crane destroys an illegal construction.’ The demolitions continue. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, has been affectionately nicknamed ‘Bulldozer Babu’. There’s a hit song that simply repeats the words ‘long live Bulldozer Baba’ for three minutes.

Songs like this are played at weddings and birthdays but most of all at rallies, which may lead to violence and the deaths of Muslims. As Kunal Purohit describes in H-Pop: The Secretive World of Hindutva Pop Stars, this music has been seeping into the Indian subconscious over the past decade. Kavi Singh is one of the most popular stars, with millions of listeners. She wears a tricolour turban, buttoned-up Nehru jacket and white dhoti – the dress of patriarchs. She shot to fame in early 2019, hours after the suicide bombing of a paramilitary convoy in Pulwama, Kashmir, which killed forty Central Reserve Police Force officers.

Singh headed to the studio to record a song: ‘The enemies are among us, but we blame the neighbour;/the one who is secretly carrying a knife, finish off that traitor.’ Kashmiris living in other parts of India were attacked after the Pulwama incident and some were evicted from their homes. When Kashmir’s special constitutional status was revoked a few months later, Singh said it was like Diwali.

Late last year, Indian soldiers in Poonch filmed themselves torturing three Kashmiri men, alleged militants: beating them, pulling down their trousers, covering their wounds in chilli powder. The video went viral. Footage of humiliation, beating, stoning, lynching, has become commonplace in India, on messaging apps, social media, even primetime TV. The Reddit thread R/IndiaSpeaks has more than 560,000 members. It contains – among a host of very violent content – outright threats and calls for violence against Muslim men and women.

Telegram enters even darker territory. Chats claim to be open-source intelligence (OSInt) groups, who, through ‘covert sources and publicly available information’, work to ‘produce actionable intelligence’. The content is a mix of pornography, jokes and war-mongering. The images are sourced from all over the world. If you haven’t been inured to it, it’s unwatchable. Since October, Indian Telegram chats with more than fifty thousand members have been sharing, commenting and clicking ‘like’ on indiscriminate images of the torture and death of Palestinian men, women and children.

The Bollywood film Fighter, starring Hrithik Roshan, was released on 25 January, the day before Republic Day. In one scene, used as the climax of the trailer, Roshan’s character, a member of the Indian Air Force, is punching a villain in the face. ‘POK stands for Pakistan Occupied Kashmir,’ he says. ‘You have occupied it, but we are the true owners.’ The music peaks. There are interspliced images of the Indian flag, fighter jets in the sky. ‘If terrorists like you keep pushing us, every single one of your neighbourhoods will be turned into IOP,’ he continues. IOP is an unusual term. He spells it out slowly, landing a punch after each word: ‘India … Occupied … Pakistan. Jai Hind!’ Cue explosions.