BY ANANYA AHLUWALIA
In multicultural India, cohabitation among different religions, even if not exactly peaceful, has been keeping a tolerant attitude towards each other. You do your customs, while we do ours and we live in peace, even though there has always been some tension simmering underneath this peaceful restraint. Not that there haven’t been communal skirmishes between Hindus and Muslims, but the idea that we are a one united nation of many faiths has been the belief of peace-loving common men. This has found representation in songs, tv shows and somewhat in films too. Ads like red label tea and cricket ads championed the spirit of unity. But over the last couple of decades the social fabric of the nation has undergone some visible and unimaginable changes; the 90s communal atmosphere fuelled by the political segment, the riots of 2002 and several others has culminated in the intolerance of the other to a point where the idea of harmonious coexistence has come to appear odious to some. The Tanishq ad controversy that broke out recently, is such an instance of intolerance towards, and negation of interfaith harmony.
What the ad shows is an interfaith family- muslim in-laws incorporating Hindu baby shower rituals for their daughter-in-law. The ad was badly trolled online by right wing Hindutva supporters for allegedly supporting ‘love jihad’ with #boycottTanishq trending on twitter and threats issued to individuals, all over the portrayal of the two faiths incorporating each other’s rituals. Tanishq was forced to take down the ad as well as issue an apology. Although the brand’s decision in this regard was taken “to avoid inadvertent stirrings of emotions”, that in such conflict ridden times can quickly turn into vicious mobs of bloodthirsty men causing damage to precious life and property, seems a legit reason for the safety of its employees, the pulling down of the ad sends across quite another message. It emboldens individuals who sit in anonymity behind screens actively spewing hate against Muslims, to continue propagating the sentiment against anything or anyone who doesn’t align with their views and have their way. Film Padmavat in the past met with similar hostility with the lead actors receiving death threats, forcing them to tweak some portions of the film that were ‘offensive’ to Hindus. Threats of violence against individuals or brands portraying sentiments of national integration and assimilation of cultures acts as a deterrent to their free creative expression. Withdrawal of the ad and issuance of the apology for its depiction of national integration under pressure from a section of extremists goes against interfaith harmony and its expression in creative media. It instills a fear among people, and threatens the choice and personal freedom of secular citizens.
In itself the Ad portrayed nothing wrong, there was absolutely no reason for the brand to apologise for depicting a happy interfaith marriage. Such marriages though they have never been very common, or been able to gain widespread acceptance from concerned families or society at large, these have happened and been happy and harmonious at large. Despite deep conservatism and underlying tension between the two religions in question, resulting in checks like ‘anyone but muslim’ placed onto the freedom of individuals in matters of friendship and marriage, the young have fallen in love not barring caste or religion and chosen their life partners as is their right. After initial hostility, families make their peace with it. For all their conservatism, Hindus or Muslims have shown to be not so intolerant, even if for the sake of the happiness of their children. This is not to deny incidences of intolerance, like families demanding a change of name and religion of the woman marrying into the family, they are no doubt condemnable. The point is that despite everything, common people have always wanted peace, and lived in communion or kept their differences, but maintained peace and harmony. Laudable, as it teaches tolerance. The picture of intolerant India being painted by extremists in which interfaith alliances are not and will not be tolerated is a political construction. It is true there is a rising intolerance and little secularism remains outside the constitution. But Hindutva crying ‘love jihad’ creates an atmosphere that makes the idea of any harmony between the two religions sound unreal, negative, or even impossible. It has acted as a potent form of political provocation targeting inter-faith marriages, particularily those between Hindu women and Muslim men, maligning muslim men for luring away Hindu women for the propagation of their community. Every Hindu-Muslim marriage is love-jihad from a bigots lens. But this is far from the actual reality of secular India.
Given this, the brand’s actions appear to be bowing down to bigotry. Taking down the ad only means a victory for haters who wish to erase interfaith harmony, national integration and assimilation of cultures- the collective patriotism of the country, from the minds of the people of India.