Friday, October 16, 2020

Controversy over a Beautiful Tanishq Advertisement That Had To Be Pulled Out: The Troll Is Not the Problem, Religious Division Is


By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

16 October 2020

A beautiful advertisement, celebrating inter-faith marriage, was pulled down after being pilloried as another instance ‘love jihad’. For right wing Hindus, any marital or pre-marital relationship in which the man happens to be Muslim is defined as ‘love jihad’. It does not matter if the relationship was consensual; it does not matter if the women in question publically proclaims that she was not forced into it. All that matters is the shrill cacophony of right wing Hindu men who are increasingly getting to define what Muslim men and Hindu women should do and how they should conduct themselves. Tanishq, the jewellery company, withdrew the commercial keeping in mind the ‘hurt sentiments and the well-being of our employees, partners and store staff’. One might want to ask who got hurt and what really constitutes this so called hurt sentiment, but then what is the point? That the company acknowledged that sentiments did get hurt just because a Muslim household was celebrating a ‘Hindu’ occasion tells us how deep our society has got fragmented.


Not very long ago, there were certain common rituals, which were observed both by Hindus and Muslims. The breakdown of that cultural bond has many reasons but the larger effect has been that today it feels foreign if a Muslim participates in a Hindu ritual and vice versa. Discourses of separation have been building on both sides: Muslims orthodoxy arguing that one should not play Holi and Hindu orthodoxy arguing that one should desist from all things Muslim. In the process of this religious boundary making, we have created deep social divisions.

The company was right in pulling off the advert as it feared physical repercussions, which it would have been in no position to dispel. Yesterday’s event in Gujarat, where a mob threatened the staff at a local Tanishq store proves that the threat of physical violence is real. The decision of the company can be called a capitulation to the Hindu right wing mob, but then at a time when even the left has stopped resisting, why should we expect anything different from a business house?

It is certainly unfortunate that such a beautiful advert was forced to be pulled down, but then we have been there before. One just has to remember the brouhaha which erupted after Nusrat Jahan, the TMC Member of Parliament, married a Hindu and sported a vermillion. That time, the online mob largely comprised of Muslims and they were vicious in their condemnation of this Muslim actor for marrying a Hindu. Our republic of hurt sentiments has both Hindus and Muslims in it and it certainly marks a shift on how we as a people have started to view religion.

We have come to a situation where trolls have the power to dictate what we should watch, eat, read and even how we should think. It will be simplistic to limit this phenomenon to India alone. Worldwide, the online mob is dictating terms, especially in academic institutions as to what should be taught and how it should be taught. In the western world, academics are being fired for their ‘unconventional’ views which may not be politically correct. This June, the UCLA suspended the services of a professor because he refused to inflate the grade of his black students. The professor was pilloried in the social media, dubbed a racist bigot and eventually the university was forced to take action against him, because he had become unpopular with the students. If things continue this way, then the day is not far when university appointments and major policy decisions will be taken by such trolls. The problem is getting worse in India because the sentiments of these trolls are shared by many in the government. We are heading towards more trouble, because in many ways, the troll is the government.

Videograb of Tanishq advertisement.


And yet, this is not just the problem of trolls. Ultimately, it is a reflection of who we have become as a society. Two distinct trends have been noticeable throughout in our cultural history. One has always fostered an identity, which is non-binary, the other has continuously stressed on the development of monolithic identity. While the philosophy of Tantra went beyond the binaries of established schools and even subverted the everyday symbolism, other traditions stressed on faithfully walking on the path of established orthodoxies. As the centuries wore on, Kabir and Bulle Shah would caution against the tyrannies of Mullahs and Pandits and search the Ram within; other traditions continued to vilify the other, either as the Mleccha or the Kafir. Throughout the sub-continental history, both these traditions have existed in close proximity. It is a fallacy to assume that India was once a secular and tolerant landscape where religious divisions and hatred did not exist. This fable, fondly recalled in the annals of our historians is another attempt at creating a secular-communal binary. The fact is that our history is not just the celebration of inter-faith harmony but also one of contested orthodoxies. This hasn’t been just the land of Ashoka and Akbar but also of Pushyamitra Shunga and Shaikh Sirhindi.

The very fact that both these contested traditions existed in the country should have alerted us that exclusionary tendencies can become hegemonic at any given time, given the right context. Alas, we kept on deluding ourselves by projecting only one kind of historical past tolerant and pluralistic- without trying to encode this into social policy so that it becomes part of our daily lives. Instead, by eulogizing our so called tolerant past and by not paying attention to fissiparous tendencies, all we have done is just hope that with the passing of time, religious orthodoxies and hatred would wither away on their own.

Today’s right wing trolls are heirs to that exclusionary ideological imagination which has been an intimate part of our history. Attacking a ritual which tries to go beyond the binaries of Hindu and Muslim is the very reason of their existence.  Critiquing them as products of colonial divide and rule will not do any good to us. In order to challenge them, the first thing that needs to be done is to stop seeing them as products of non-Indian thought systems. The second thing that needs to be done is to understand how, each one of us, are enmeshed in such binaries. Even though many well-meaning people are tolerant and plural, the ways in which they have advocated religious pluralism has only ended up in another kind of orthodoxy.


Arshad Alam is a columnist.


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