By Ghazal Asif Farrukhi and Natasha Raheja
Emergent Conversation 17
This essay is part of the series PoLAR Online Emergent Conversation on Aesthetics and Politics of Far Right Movements
Pakistan’s public sphere is saturated with Islamic visual and aural cues. The distinct architecture of mosques and their attached loudspeakers broadcasting announcements between calls to prayer form a critical aspect of landscapes and soundscapes across the country. Islamic symbols such as crescents or Quranic calligraphy are widely visible, including as public monuments. By contrast, Hindu gods and goddesses are tucked away inside the private homes and sacred spaces of minoritized Hindu confessional communities. In Pakistani nationalist discourse, the figure of the Hindu has long been constructed as antithetical to the ideal citizen in line with the Pakistani state’s painstaking efforts to excise Hindus from the body politic. Meanwhile, nationalist mythologies across South Asia depict Hindus and Muslims as historical, irreconcilable enemies (Jalal 1995).
In recent years, however, some Pakistanis have deployed Hindu religious iconography in the form of internet memes that publicly debase their political opponents by depicting them as Hindu gods. On the one hand, these aesthetic expressions contribute to a long-standing, polemical project of reinforcing ideas of Hindu and Muslim difference and the Sunni majority as “the people,” of Pakistan. At the same time, majoritarian politics thrive through the process of erasure rather than its realization. As we show in our discussion of three images, the evocation of Hindu gods/goddesses as a mode of political debasement reveals how these processes are, paradoxically, reliant on an intimate knowledge of Hindu iconography and cosmology that goes beyond stereotype. The use of Hindu images in a Pakistani visual field gestures to an interreligious polis, a heterogenous “people,” even while reifying majoritarian exclusions of “non-Muslim” religious others. Thus, we argue that a close reading of these simultaneously worldly and divine images reveals residual intimacies between majoritarian imaginaries and minoritized others.
In 2018, a meme (Figure 1) circulated across social media that depicted the then-Prime Minister Imran Khan as the muscular god Shiva, a chief deity in the Hindu pantheon. In this image, Imran Khan’s face is transposed as Shiva. Spanning over a third of the frame and centered in the foreground, Khan’s slightly tilted face is adorned with gold hoops, a crescent moon, and a tilak, with a coiled cobra around his neck. Among his accoutrements are a leopard skin, drum, and trident, each a mark of his cosmic power. Even his topknot towers above the icy peaks of the Himalayas, Shiva’s holy abode. Khan’s bare blue skin appears impervious to the cold. Blue is the color of halahala, a deadly oceanic poison. Shiva is also known as Neelakanta, or the one with the blue throat, whose sea-colored tone symbolizes his godly capacity to contain toxins. The image evokes the perceived supernatural singularity of Khan’s divine status.
An Urdu caption overlaid onto the image states, “Yuthio ka deen hai na imaan hai, unka sirf Imran bhagwan hai” ([Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf] supporters have no faith or belief, all they have is their God Imran). When posted on a fan page of the opposing Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) political party on Facebook, the image included instructions to “share [the image] and embarrass Imran Khan’s slaves.” Mocking Imran Khan’s popularity, this image, its attendant caption, and subsequent memes appropriate a Hindu icon as a visual insult. The representation of PTI followers as Hindu devotees exploits stereotypes of idol worship as irrational and undignified on the part of the worshiper.
In 2021, an image of Imran Khan’s rival Maryam Nawaz (Figure 2) also leveraged stereotypes of Hinduism, and by proxy certain Pakistani politicians and their supporters, as irrational. The image suggested that like Hindus, these politicians and their supporters are unwanted outsiders to the national body. In a viral tweet, a legislative assembly member from Imran Khan’s party depicted their rival Nawaz as the goddess Kali in a televisual caricature of feminine rage. Across multiple Hindu tellings, Kali is a fierce goddess. In the image, the bright whites of Maryam Nawaz’ eyes stand out next to her reddened and blued skin. Her voluminous black hair is unbounded, cascading from the golden crown on her head. She is garlanded with marigolds. A third eye stands vertical in the center of her forehead, lined up with a golden tika that matches her nose ring and starry earrings. The viral image is split in half, with the left side dominated by a direct quote from Nawaz warning her opponents that they will now see her “doosra roop” or “second form” (“yeh ab mera doosra roop dekheinge”). Accompanied by the hashtag #doosraroop (second/other form), the tweet invokes Hindu concepts of dualism, polytheism, and reincarnation. The reference to the phrase doosra roop in the meme also invokes the suspicion that religious minorities have allegedly double loyalties—suggesting that Nawaz is not to be trusted. That those who made, understand, and circulated the meme were able to pounce on this phrase and produce a concomitant visualization for the purposes of insulting Nawaz suggests a specific and ready knowledge of Hindu cosmology beyond the depiction of polytheistic irrationality.
In the same year, an image appeared of the Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah of Sindh, a province known for its relative religious pluralism and a government that is frequently at odds with the center. In the image Shah is depicted as Yogeshwar, one of the Hindu god Krishna’s incarnations. Shah’s face stands tall, photoshopped onto a bare-chested, toned body draped in shiny green, pink, and yellow fabrics. A gold choker, necklace, earrings, and cuffs are among his ornaments. A peacock feather and ruby stone in his crown sit atop his flowing black locks. His reddened hands hold a conch shell and the Sudarshan chakra, a spinning celestial disc. The caption “Sindh ka bhagwan (Sindh’s god) accompanies this cosmic rendering of the provincial chief minister. The online circulation of the above image coincided with reports about the smashing of a Krishna murti in a temple in Sindh.
All three of the above memes are meant to insult the politicians in question by using Hindu imagery and association with Hindu gods. In response, journalists and minoritized community leaders have raised objections about such forms of symbolic and material denigration. Using Hindu religious imagery to insult and mock crystallizes the degraded position of Hindus within the Pakistani political imagination as second-class citizens and threats to the nation.
Deploying religious iconography to make political claims is not at all uncommon in South Asia (Dadi 2007, Pinney 2004). In Pakistan, political figures have frequently and none-too-subtly cast themselves or their opponents as prominent religious and historical figures, but usually using Islamic references within a heroic narrative. Given this wider context, the compelling pattern among the images we consider here is the deliberate turn to Hindu religious iconography. Depicting popular leaders as Moses or the martyrs of Karbala, for example, makes sense in a society where Islam is an intellectual wellspring for much national mythmaking. However, Hindu iconography is set apart from these cues not only through a polarized imagination that understands Islam and Hinduism as oppositional, but also from the excesses that lurk within this visual economy and the national body-politic writ large.
While religious iconography is source material for political demands, mob violence and blasphemy accusations police such expressions in the public sphere. Pakistan’s powerful anti-blasphemy laws, first introduced in 1979, lay out long jail terms and even the death penalty for “wounding religious sentiment” or “insulting” the Quran or Prophet Muhammad. These laws have emboldened a pattern of lynchings and mob violence against vulnerable communities and individuals on the basis of speech and figuration (Eleazar and Khan 2021). The complex relationship of Islam to anthropomorphic imagery adds a sharp edge to the wide circulation of these idolatrous images that transmogrify professedly pious Muslim leaders as powerful Hindu deities. It would have been impossible to circulate images leveraging beloved Islamic figures for mockery without extremely grave repercussions. Given the ever-present, unbidden potential danger of blasphemy accusations, especially for audiovisual material that falls outside mainstream readings of Islam, the confidence of these memes indexes a majoritarian impunity.
Yet the otherworldliness of these deities exceeds the shifting binaries of majority-minority politics. The divine forces of Shiva, Kali, and Krishna have their own agentive charge. Despite authorial intent, these images have multiple significations that point to questions of containment and excess in images. Even as the memes deploy an iconoclastic understanding of idolatry as a set of repulsive practices, they evoke residual desires and intimacies that have been otherwise overtly excised from the national body politic. The leveraging of gods requires, and thus reveals, familiarity with Hindu iconography. This agonistic intimacy evokes a shared interreligious past of both conflict and cohabitation, where it is the neighbor or the friend who may be excised as the other (Singh 2011, Thiranagama and Kelly 2012). The knowledge of the other revealed in these insulting images therefore, builds not only on visceral repulsion of Hindu-Muslim relations but also visceral intimacy with them (Tareen 2015).
In the theatrical visual economy of popular political contestation, the images we have analyzed are particularly compelling because they demand the viewer to move beyond “established and sedimented meanings” through the accrual of layers of visual meaning and intimate knowledge (Dadi 2007). These images are insults to prominent politicians that are offensive for multiple reasons to different audiences. At the same time, their offensive qualities emerge from within the residues and hauntings of an interreligious milieu. Indeed, pluralistic pasts haunt homogenizing nationalist projects across the region and can often emerge in uncanny ways. Gods in the Pakistani political sphere thus reveal anxious intimacies between majoritarian imaginaries and minoritized others.
Ghazal Asif Farrukhi is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at LUMS University, Lahore. Her research and scholarship focus on dilemmas of citizenship, secularism, and sexuality for minoritized Hindu and Dalit women in Pakistan. Her book manuscript is tentatively titled Marvi’s Sisters: Hindu Belonging and the Muslim State in Pakistan.
Natasha Raheja is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Performing and Media Arts at Cornell University. Her current writing and film projects explore questions of migration, belonging, citizenship, and majority-minority politics across the India–Pakistan border. She has published with Cultural Anthropology and Visual Anthropology Review, and she has distributed her film work with Documentary Educational Resources and Kanopy.
 A murti is a divine image or sculpture of a deity. In August 2021, images of a temple desecration in Khipro, Sindh, were shared online by Hindu community members. In many of the reports, the images focused graphically on a smashed Krishna murti lying on the ground. The attack coincided with the festival of Krishna Janmashtami, as well as the online circulation of the meme depicting Murad Ali Shah as Yogeshwar. Strikingly, the smashed murti was also a depiction of Krishna in his Yogeshwar form, creating strong visual resonances among these circulating images. These resonances create a troubling visual excess, possibly including incitement to violence against Hindus in Pakistan as well as politicians who have been linked to them.
 For example, in 2022, Imran Khan was portrayed heroically in a full-color advertisement issued by his own party as Moses leading his followers across the parted sea to answer an electoral “final call.” Similarly, an election poster from 1971 depicts the erstwhile populist Zulfikar Ali Bhutto astride a white horse, the caption clearly alluding to Bhutto as a warrior for the cause of Islam in the mold of the venerated martyrs of Karbala (Paracha 2017).
 Conviction rates for blasphemy accusations (Sections 295 A, B, and C of the Pakistan Penal Code) perhaps do not justify the grip that fear of accusation has over much expression in Pakistan. Studies show clearly that lynchings and mob violence against minorities and vulnerable communities increased exponentially after the introduction of the laws, and that the extreme sanctions laid out in the law have encouraged impassioned Muslim citizens to assume state support for public violence against minorities (Ahmed 2009, Froystad 2019).
 While the majoritarian visual culture in Pakistan today invokes Hindu iconography in a denigratory fashion, other evocations of Hindu imagery are also available albeit far less common, as in this 2023 poster for an Aurat March in celebration of International Women’s Day. The poster makes a creative point about women’s overwork and feminine power through figurative substitutions in the archetypal Hindu goddess’ multiple hands. It assumes an intimacy with Hindu iconography on the part of the intended mass audience. Yet the ongoing invisibilization and erasure of Hindus in the Pakistani public sphere, as well as the striking absence of religious references from the accompanying text (in the extended Twitter thread), means that the image also indexes a present absence.
 Iftikhar Dadi (2022), Aamir Mufti (2007), and Jürgen Schaflechner (2021) have argued that a shared past with Hindu others continues to make its presence distinctly felt in Pakistani art forms, whether cinema or literature. Most relevant to our context, Dadi (2022) analyzes the film Ghoongat to argue that “’figural sublimations and displacements’ (Sarkar 2009) are central, based on ‘irrational’ Hindu beliefs in reincarnation that the consolidation of Pakistan as a Muslim nation ought to have put to rest” (69).
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Schaflechner, Jürgen. 2021. “A Specter Is Haunting Pakistan! Nationalism in Pakistan’s Horror Pulp Fiction.” Asian Ethnology 80(1): 31-56.
Singh, B. 2011. “Agonistic Intimacy and Moral Aspiration in Popular Hinduism: A Study in the Political Theology of the Neighbor.” American Ethnologist 38 (3): 430-450.
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Thiranagama, S. and Kelly, T. 2012. Traitors: Suspicion, Intimacy, and the Ethics of State-Building. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
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