In the India of 2020, even the banal can become dangerous – if it offends majoritarian sentiment. Earlier this week, Tanishq, a high-end jewellery company released an ad that showed a baby shower thrown for a soon-to-be mother by her in-laws. Saccharine sweet, the ad would have passed by unnoticed, except that it touched a raw nerve for many of India’s angry Hindu nationalists. The problem: the marriage shown was inter-religious. The wife was Hindu, the husband, Muslim.

The internet exploded with violent trolling that is now almost a weekly occurrence in India. Also following a well-worn template, the trolling soon spilled over into real life. One Twitter user, Hardik Bhavsar, released private details of a Muslim employee of the Tanishq media team, exhorting his 1.2 lakh followers with the words: “now you all know what to do”. This wasn’t a threat to be taken lightly: Bhavsar is important enough to be followed by the Indian prime minister.

In Gujarat, a group of men forced the employees of one Tanishq showroom to display an apology to the “Hindus of Kutch” for its “shameful” advertisement, the Indian Express reported.

The opposition wasn’t limited to pressure of this sort. The pro-government magazine Swarajya claimed that the reaction against the ad was expected given that “there is a big debate around ‘love jihad’”. In another instance, the headline of a national newspaper Mint described the fracas as a response to an ad “glorifying love jihad”.

Even though the reaction to the ad now encompassed harassment and threats, governmental authorities were conspicuous by their absence. In the end, Tanishq had to withdraw the film, citing the “well being” of its “employees, partners and store staff”.

Defining ‘love jihad’

The campaign by Hindutva supporters to push the “love jihad” conspiracy theory is not new. The neologism has been around for a decade. Till now, however, it was usually defined as a purportedly fraudulent act. It suggested a criminal conspiracy by Muslim men to court Hindu women and marry them, merely as a strategy to convert them to Islam – even though the Bharatiya Janata Party government admitted in Parliament as recently as February that there was no evidence of such a phenomenon.

The Tanishq ad portrayed nothing fraudulent or even worrisome. It, in fact, depicted a voluntary union between a Muslim man and Hindu woman as well as a loving bond between a woman and her in-laws. That even this is now being called “love jihad” is a pointer to what the real underlying tension behind the idea is: inter-religious marriages between Muslim men and Hindu women.

The propaganda around “love jihad” is used to whip up passions that lie at a powerful intersection of communalism and patriarchy – the idea that women are to be controlled by their communities. By this warped understanding, the marriage of a Hindu woman into another community is a calamity. In this world, what the woman wants is nowhere as important as “community honour”.

This idea goes the other way too. So when Muslim actor Nusrat Jahan married out of her religion and participated in Hindu rituals, this was celebrated.

Reversing progress

India has always had problems with inter-religious marriage. In fact, Indian society is unique when it comes to extremely fractured levels of endogamy that have persisted with respect to castes for thousands of years.

In the past few decades, however, at least in theory community endogamy was seen to be bad and cross-cultural marriages a sign of national unity. This is why, even when positing ideas of “love jihad”, its proponents had to in theory argue that it involved some elements of criminality.

But the last few years of untrammelled Hindutva have allowed for even that pretence to be dropped. There is no need for a dog whistle anymore: now even a happy, voluntary inter-religious union can be tarnished with the ugly, communal epithet “love jihad”.

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Tanishq pulls ad featuring inter-faith match, a sign of the angry, fearful times in which we live