It’s the time of year again when the corporate sector displays its weakened spine to the world.
Last October, it was jewellery brand Tanishq that withdrew an advertisement featuring a Hindu daughter-in-law and her Muslim mother-in-law after. The company backtracked after being accused of promoting “love jihad”, the conspiracy theory promoted by Hindutva supporters that Muslim men entrap Hindu women in romantic relationships merely so that they can get them to convert to Islam.
This October, clothing and furnishing firm Fabindia withdrew an advertisement that used the phrase “Jashn-e-Riwaaz”, celebration of tradition. Hindutva supporters claimed that the use of an Urdu phrase in the ad was an attempt to “de-Hinduise” Diwali.
This week, it’s Dabur’s turn. The manufacturer of Ayurvedic and natural health care products recently ran an advertisement featuring the Hindu ritual of Karva Chauth, which involves women fasting to pray for the long lives of their husbands. But the spot has been withdrawn “for unintentionally hurting people’s sentiments”.
Sentiments were allegedly hurt because instead of showing a man and woman, the ad shows two women who are seemingly in a lesbian relationship. The women were fasting not for the long lives of their non-existent husbands but for each other.
The demand to withdraw the ad has come from the home minister of the Bharatiya Janata Party-run Madhya Pradesh government. Rather than challenge him legally, Dabur has chosen the easy way out. It has kowtowed to pressure and not just withdrawn the advertisement but has also apologised for it, when in fact it has done nothing wrong.
According to the company, the ad has been discontinued because it has hurt people’s sentiments. But the company does not say which people’s sentiments have been hurt. It does not call for rocket science to figure out that the people whose sentiments have been hurt are heterosexual Hindus, especially heterosexual Hindu males.
But what if one argued that the feelings of the LGBTQ community are hurt by the withdrawal of the ad? Do only the feelings of the majority matter? What about the feelings of hundreds of lesbians in India who have been separated from their partners, and are coerced into traditional marriages by their unsympathetic families?
What if one said that the ad is actually a tribute to the many lesbians who have committed suicide in various parts of the country, as indicated by case histories and various studies by lesbian support groups such as Sappho for Equality?
Opposing gay marriage
Dabur’s withdrawal of the advertisement implies that the decriminalisation of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code by the Supreme Court in September 2018 really means nothing. The very people who claim that they are offended by the ad must also come forward and admit that they are offended by the judgement.
Post September 2018, whenever the question of gay marriage has come up, the BJP government at the centre has stated in no uncertain terms that it is opposed to gay marriage. There are some who have noted that Karwa Chauth is a highly patriarchal ritual and the LGBTQ community does not need to replicate it. But then this concerns the larger debate on gay marriage itself: not all in the LGBTQ community support gay marriage.
To those who do, however, the advertisement still subverts the ritual: the two women in the advertisement are not husband-and-wife, but wife-and-wife, if that is terminology that must be used. And it is only through such subversion that a change in thinking is possible.
Let me say in conclusion that the Dabur ad is an educational tool that teaches consumers that at the end of the day, marriage is marriage, whether same-sex or cross-sex.
R Raj Rao’s novel Mahmud and Ayaz is to be published by Speaking Tiger in 2022.