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How Lata Mangeshkar's death exposes India's communal rifts

February 8, 2022

Many left-leaning Indians pointed out that the legendary singer had supported PM Narendra Modi, while some Hindu extremists accused Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan, a Muslim, of "spitting" on Mangeshkar at her funeral.

People gather to catch a glimpse of the funeral procession of late Bollywood singer Lata Mangeshkar
Mangeshkar's fans are angry over unnecessary "politicization" of a singer whose voice comforted people from all religionsImage: Sujit Jaiswal/Getty Images/AFP

Even the death of Lata Mangeshkar, the legendary playback singer whose career spanned seven decades, could not unite India.

Mangeshkar died at the age of 92 after weeks of hospitalization due to a COVID infection.

After her death, the Indian government announced two days of mourning and cremated her body with full state honors.

As condolence messages started pouring from all over the world, some Indian liberals found it pertinent to point out that Mangeshkar was a supporter of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Hindutva (Hindu supremacy) ideology, hence her musical legacy should not be celebrated.

Some liberals said the state honor for the late singer was proof that she was close to the ruling party, ignoring Mangeshkar's remarkable body of work – over 25,000 songs in more than 2,000 Indian films.

Another controversy erupted during her last rites.

Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan (R) and former Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar (L) at Mangeshkar's funeral in Mumbai
Shah Rukh Khan (R) often finds himself at odds with Hindu extremist groups Image: Sujit Jaiswal/Getty Images/AFP

Politicizing Mangeshkar's death

Scores of prominent Bollywood figures attended Mangeshkar's last rites in Mumbai. Shah Rukh Khan, nicknamed "King of Bollywood," also joined the funeral to pay his respects to the "Nightingale of India." But he landed in a controversy after a video emerged in which he is reciting an Islamic verse and then blowing air to ward off "evil spirits," which is an Islamic custom.

Khan was soon trolled on social media, and some BJP leaders said that Khan was "spitting" on Mangeshkar's dead body.

Arun Yadav, a ruling party leader from Haryana state, tweeted on Sunday: "Did he spit?"

Experts say the Hindu right-wing groups targeted Khan for not only being a Muslim but also for not toeing the ruling party's line.

Mangeshkar's death has brought India's communal problem to the fore, and analysts say that the country's entertainment industry is not immune to political tensions.

"There was a need [for the Hindu right-wing] to put a spin on Khan's viral image in which he paid homage to the singer as a symbol of secularism," Anubha Sarkar, a lecturer at Monash University, Australia, and a Bollywood expert, told DW.

Saira Shah Halim, a thespian and documentary filmmaker, believes Mangeshkar's death was used politically to further polarize Indian society.

"It is no secret that the 'Hindutva brigade' is trying to polarize the country. Their concerted efforts to enter every walk of life, including the entertainment industry, which has historically been an embodiment of unity, must be resisted," Halim told DW.

Bollywood – a symbol of secular India

Despite being in a minority in India, Muslims have dominated the Indian film industry since its inception in the 1930s. From poets and script writers to singers and actors, Muslims have left their indelible mark on Bollywood.

In the early stages of Indian cinema, Muslim and Hindu figures were inspired by the socialism and secularism that was championed by Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first premier.

"Bollywood is not just about entertainment; it is also India's cultural ambassador to the rest of the world. Indians should do everything to protect its image," Halim added.

Halim's uncle, Naseeruddin Shah, a Bollywood actor, has also been a target of right-wing trolling on many occasions. In 2018, the veteran actor was branded "anti-national" by Hindu extremists because he expressed his concern over the country's political milieu.

Bollywood figures who support the strengthening of cultural ties with Pakistan have also been ridiculed and insulted on social media, and, sometimes, opposed by actors and singers that dub Pakistani artists a "security risk."

Mangeshkar's political association

Like many other Indian artists, Mangeshkar's political liking tilted from secularism towards the right-wing over the past few decades.

The iconic singer supported, at least publicly, the secular Indian National Congress party after India gained independence from British rule in 1947.

But in the past decade or so, she had been quite vocal in her support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist party.

Backed by the BJP, Mangeshkar was elected to Rajya Sabha (upper house of parliament) in November 1999. She remained there until 2005.

In 2013, she lent support to the then chief minister of Gujarat state, Modi, for premiership.

A voice that comforted everyone

Mangeshkar, however, always spoke highly of Muslim artists in India, and also showered praise on many Pakistani singers.

She is highly respected in Pakistan, and her death was mourned in the Muslim-majority country as well.

Irrespective of her political leanings, Mangeshkar was beloved across sections of society in South Asia. Many of her fans have expressed their revulsion over unnecessary "politicization" of a singer whose voice comforted people from all religions, castes and creeds.

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Edited by: Wesley Rahn