Supreme Court judge, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud recently raised eyebrows when he observed that it was “public intolerance” that led an advertisement depicting a same-sex couple to be pulled down. The judge, who was speaking at a seminar on “Women empowerment through legal awareness” last week, said, “It was an advertisement for Karva Chauth of a same-sex couple. It had to be withdrawn on the ground of public intolerance!”
Karva Chauth is a Hindu festival in North India where married women fast for the wellbeing of their husbands. The advertisement in question, for a fairness bleach, had raised the hackles of Hindu fundamentalists as it depicted a lesbian couple celebrating Karva Chauth.
Soon after a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician, Narottam Mishra, threatened the company for “objectionable content,” Dabur, the manufacturer of the fairness bleach, tendered an unconditional apology for “hurting religious sentiments,” and withdrew the advertisement.
Diwali, the Festival of Lights, is akin to the American Super Bowl season for the advertising industry in India, when every corporate and manufacturing unit profits. So it is no coincidence that there was a flurry of festival-related advertisements this season especially after a tough year of pandemic and lockdowns. However, what made it distinct from other years was the “backlash” that followed after these advertisements were released.
Clothing brand Fab India’s promo advertisement in the run-up to Diwali titled “Jashn-e-Riwaaz” (celebration of tradition) was targeted for using Urdu words to describe the Hindu festival of Diwali. The Urdu language is largely associated with Muslims.
The ruling BJP’s Yuva Morcha (youth wing) president Tejasvi Surya lashed out at the advertisement stating that it was a “deliberate attempt of Abrahamization of Hindu festivals.”
Significantly, Surya has been a serial rabble-rouser with a history of inciting people against Muslims by generating controversies.
The BJP’s troll army soon took to Twitter, with #BanFabIndia trending and some even demanding that models in advertisements should have “Hindu appropriate dressing” with women sporting a bindi, a traditional dot on the forehead of Indian women. A right-wing influencer lashed out at the “secularization” of Hindu festivals, tweeting #NoBindiNoBusiness and calling for a boycott of brands that did not comply with the sentiments of Hindu culture. Consequently, Fab India not only withdrew its promo advertisement but tried to mollify the right-wing by stating that its soon-to-be launched Diwali campaign was titled an innocuous “Jhilmil Si Diwali” (Sparkling Diwali).
While the targeting of the skin bleach advertisement is an attempt to enforce rigid codes of normative Hindu culture with a homophobic worldview, the Fab India advertisement controversy is an attempt to entrench Islamophobia in the masses. The saffron brigade and its votaries, namely the BJP politicians, assign themselves the role of custodians of Indian culture. In their myopic view, recognition of the LGBTQ community and its rights is anathema and they are highly intolerant of introduction of any progressive ideas into Hindu festivals and traditions. Highlighting India’s cultural and religious diversity, especially Hindu-Muslim brotherhood, angers the right wing.
Significantly, the increasing attacks on advertisements have coincided with the mainstreaming of hate politics championed by the BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Islamophobia in India has escalated to ridiculous heights. Linguists point out that the language Urdu is not the sole preserve of Muslims in the country, but Urdu words are widely used in everyday speech and literary texts of Hindustani language.
Incidentally, these were not the only advertisements that were targeted by the Hindutva brigade this festive season. CEAT Tyres was viciously trolled and faced an onslaught of online abuse after its Diwali advertisement featured Bollywood actor Aamir Khan advising children not to burst firecrackers on the streets but within the apartment complex.
BJP Member of Parliament Ananth Kumar Hegde, who habitually spews communal venom, wrote to the CEO of CEAT Tyres accusing the company of “creating unrest among Hindus.” In his letter which he made public on Facebook, Hegde also attacked the actor Khan, who is a Muslim. “Nowadays, a group of anti-Hindu actors always hurt the Hindu sentiments whereas they never try to expose the wrong doings of their community.”
In a long rant, Hegde lashed out at Muslims in general for offering namaaz (prayers) on the roads, which he said was public property. He described the Azaan, the muezzin’s call to prayer, as noise pollution. He issued a dire warning to the CEAT Tyres company to “not hurt Hindu sentiments” in future.
Hindutva leaders are now turning Hindu festivals into a weapon against Muslims, says Apoorvanand, a professor at Delhi University. The backlash against these recent advertisements is certainly an indicator of this trend.
Earlier this month, celebrated fashion designer Sabyasachi was in the crosshairs of the moral police after his jewelry advertisement depicted women in intimate poses and same-sex couples displaying the Hindu symbol of marriage for women, the mangalsutra. Sabysachi withdrew the advertisement for the “Royal Bengal Mangalsutra collection” hours after Mishra issued him a 24-hour ultimatum to remove the “objectionable content.” Mishra, incidentally, is home minister in the BJP-led government in the state of Madhya Pradesh. The right-wing troll army on social media had lashed out at the “skin display” and “lingerie-clad women” alleging that it was a deliberate attempt to hurt Hindu sentiments.
Such intolerance and backlash are undermining creative freedom in India and increasingly shrinking space for creativity. Advertisements in India have generally been a reflection or marker of changing times and society.
However, the spate of attacks by intolerant right-wingers will make advertisement makers and corporations more concerned about not upsetting them than giving free rein to progressive ideas.
The online abuse and trolling are not isolated or spontaneous acts but have the political backing of the powerful BJP IT cell.
Last year too, during the festive season, jewelry brand Tanishq faced the ire of Hindu right-wing. The jewelry brand in its advertisement “Ekatvam” (unity in oneness) depicted a pregnant Hindu woman being lovingly given a baby shower by her Muslim in-laws. The advertisement text read: “She is married into a family that loves her like their own child. Only for her, they go out of their way to celebrate an occasion that they usually don’t. A beautiful confluence of two different religions, traditions and cultures.”
Accusing Tanishq of promoting “Love Jihad” (a conspiracy theory claiming that Hindu women are being forcibly converted by Muslims through marriage), the Hindutva activists called for a boycott of the brand. #BoycottTanishq trended. The outrage spilled over offline as well with a Tanishq jewelry showroom in Gujarat being threatened and forced to display an apology at its store. They were reports of Muslim Tanishq store managers’ contact details being made public online.
Tanishq ultimately pulled out the advertisement stating, “We are deeply saddened with the inadvertent stirring of emotions and withdraw this film keeping in mind the hurt sentiments and well-being of our employees, partners and store staff.”
Tanishq’s capitulation to right-wing trolls was strongly criticized, with a section of Twitterati labelling it “spineless corporate India.” Many pointed out that when corporations make bold advertisements, they should not get brow-beaten by trolls but stand up for their values — as did the American footwear brand Nike, which despite severe backlash, boldly made National Football League (NFL) star Colin Kaepernick its brand ambassador. Kaepernick had “taken the knee” i.e. kneeled during the United States national anthem to protest against racial injustice.
Last year, soon after the Tanishq advertisement backlash, advertising bodies in India urged the government to act against intimidation by Hindutva trolls. But India’s ruling BJP is not inclined to fight hate. Rather, it is encouraging unbridled Hindutva for electoral gains. As intolerance gallops, vitriolic attacks against advertisements continue unabated.