Ponder briefly on a thought experiment. Transport yourself to Germany of September 1934, after the death of President Paul von Hindenburg and the passing of the German referendum by a large majority that combined the posts of president and chancellor into a single one. Under that new chancellorship, would any German company have come up with an advertisement showing an aged Jewish man blessing an Aryan German lass?
You can bet all the Reichsmarks in the world that there wouldn’t have been any such ad. No German industrialist, company, advertising agency or copywriter would have dared to come up with one. Because of the fear of what could happen when the ad appeared and how the State might retaliate.
In 2020 India, we are not there. But the thought experiment is apt. As a prelude to festival season sales, Tanishq, the jewellery brand of Titan, a Tata company, created a soft, gentle and beautiful advertising clip. A young pregnant, presumably Hindu, mother-to-be dressed in all her finery is escorted to the baby shower by her Muslim mother-in-law. Half the invitees are obviously Muslim and the other half is not. As she sits on the couch, the mother-to-be says to her mother-in-law, ‘Ma, this ceremony doesn’t happen in your household.’
To which the older Muslim lady replies, ‘But isn’t it a tradition in every home to keep daughters happy?’ That was the ad. Gentle. And kind.
But it was more than enough for Hindutva bigots. There was vicious trolling on social media with #BoycottTanishq trending on Twitter. Absurdly claiming that ‘pseudosecular Tanishq’ promoted only ‘Muslim’ jewellery on their website, the trolls labelled this as yet another example of ‘love jihad’, which could only be countered with ‘Hindu jagaran’. Wrote one, ‘Why are you showing a Hindu ‘daughter-in-law’ to a Muslim family and glorifying it?’ Wrote another, ‘You are promoting #LoveJihad & favouring a particular Faith.’ These were the readable ones.
Most of the others were disgustingly virulent. There were some messages of support. Author Chetan Bhagat tweeted, ‘Don’t get bullied. Be Indian. Be strong’. Ex-Congress spokesperson Sanjay Jha advised Ratan Tata, ‘Be a titan. Don’t let bigots frighten you.’
Congress MP Shashi Tharoor tweeted, ‘If Hindu-Muslim ‘ekatvam’ irks them so much, why don’t they boycott the longest surviving symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity in the world — India?’
Soon, Tanishq took off the ad from social media. While I was disappointed, in all fairness, I can’t blame Tanishq or Titan. I am pretty sure that continuing that ad would have seriously risked hoodlums vandalising showrooms after a Tanishq showroom in Gandhidham in Gujarat was forced to put up an apology on Monday after a mob entered it and demanded one. As a business, Tanishq opted for safety.
The issue at hand is more ominous than a perfectly innocent ad being taken down under the threat of Hindutva trolls. It has to do with two words: ‘hatred’ and ‘fear’. It is shocking to realise that over the last six years, how a large and steadily growing cross-section of right-wing Hindus is carrying the licence to hate all others. Earlier, the ‘others’ were damned with a prefix, ‘I have nothing against them per se, and some are friends, but….’ Now it is full on. This hatred is spreading to the point of being endemic.
The other issue is ‘fear’. BJP patriarch L K Advani had chastised the media during the Emergency when he said, ‘You were asked to bend, you crawled.’ There is no Emergency today. Yet, the crawling has become pervasive. With exceptions, the media crawls for the fear of being rapped on the knuckles by fearsome rappers. Barring a father-son duo, most industrialists crawl in fear of what the State might do to their businesses. There are TV channels and their anchors who gleefully bray in favour of those in power.
And we ordinary citizens crawl because what will become of us and our comfortable lives if we don’t.
I have been observing India’s political economy over four decades. Truth be told, even under the aegis of a working democracy, I have never seen so much closed-door fear except during the Emergency.
Don’t blame Tanishq for putting down the ad. Blame ourselves for letting things get to where we have.
The writer is chairman, Corporate and Economic Research Group (CERG) Advisory