Earlier this week, Tanishq, a jewelry company owned by the Tatas, released an advertisement that showed a baby shower thrown for a soon-to-be mother by her in-laws. In the spot, a Hindu woman is being led by a loving Muslim mother-in-law towards a waiting crowd of relatives – the distinctions in the two sides discretely demarcated by their clothing. The ad told a story of how despite belonging to different religions, the families united and adopted each other customs.
With its carefully curated imagery, the advertisement was clearly aimed at the market in South India – the gold jewellery beloved of Malayalis, the gajra of flowers worn by the mother-to-be beloved of Tamilian women. It was timed to capitalise on the upcoming Hindu festivals of Bhai Dhuj, Diwali and Dhanteras.
Needless to say the ad was carefully framed around the patriarchal idea of women and motherhood, matrimony, religion, and tradition – of celebrating these, not debunking or rejecting them. Marriage in India is never simply about the couple, about individual choice but also about everyone else. As the ad has been withdrawn, it is this “everyone else” that is of interest to me.
Shoaib Daniyal pointed out in Scroll.in what happened: “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 use, 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.”
Daniyal argues that even a loving depiction of harmonious inter-marriage has come to be termed “love jihad”, the conspiracy theory that Muslim men have launched a campaign to lure Hindu women into marriage merely to convert them to Islam. This “is a pointer to what the real underlying tension behind the idea is: inter-religious marriages between Muslim men and Hindu women”.
It is not as if inter-religious marriages were ever common in India or that they had widespread acceptance but that today theere is no way to discuss them other than by using the rubric of “love-jihad”.
Even depicting a loving, accepting, upper-class Muslim family as adopting their Hindu daughter-in-law’s customs to make her feel loved and comfortable is therefore deemed to be unacceptable. In the political project of Hindutva, a Hindu woman has no agency to marry and choose her own partner. The idea that Muslims could in fact put aside their own religious customs and adopt Hindu ones to welcome a bride into their fold cannot therefore be even depicted in a fantasy medium such as an advertisement.
It also makes one wonder at how fragile the votaries of Hindu culture think it is that they need to shut down anyone who even hints at assimilation.
Muslims as anti-national terrorists
This type of depiction is at odds with the ongoing public discourse to paint Muslims as the Other. Time and again via news reports, bogus claims and fake news, Hindutva supporters have reinforced and reiterated the trope of so-called love jihad. There is a campaign to depict Muslims as regressive, isolationist, backward, poor, uneducated and ultimately anti-national terrorists.
Any attempt by corporate entities to depict an India that has a composite nature or efforts by liberals to support this reality (such as during the protests against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act and planned National Register of Citizens) are swiftly condemned and silenced.
It is erroneous to think of the internet trolls as independent actors. As the recent study by five researchers at Microsoft Research, India, in the Sushant Singh Rajput case shows, rumours and conspiracy theories on social media were led largely by Bharatiya Janata Party politicians and pro-BJP handles. They are an intrinsic to the project of re-making modern-day Hindu India.
The first line of attack
Amorphous, unregulated, unaccountable and distanced from the official machinery of state apparatus, the trolls can easily be misread as an expression of general public sentiment. However, as the study shows, the social media trolls are one of the first lines of attack. This is the case in every instance where the state or its actors are questioned, queried or challenged.
In this way, the state can easily distance itself from the consequences, however the message sent is read and understood by those it seeks to quieten and discipline.
In India, capital and state are tightly entwined. One way of reading the Tanishq facedown would be by looking at it as a corporation or capital bowing down to public pressure. It is also important to note that in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the two states referenced in the ad, the ruling party and its “cultural arm, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh are finding local resistance and are yet to make their mark. Therefore, another way to look at it is that capital bowed to state pressure.
The message sent via the trolls was that a sympathetic view of inter-religious marriage and brotherhood is unacceptable. It is this silencing and shutting down by proxy that is to be feared. Capital, it is clear, will bend to state pressure in India. It is not in its ambit to challenge the status quo. It is therefore left to us, in our individual capacity, to resist – be it in what we wear, eat, choose to read, watch or who we marry.
Radha Khan is an independent consultant working in the field of gender, governance and social inclusion