NEW DELHI – The ad was meant to portray interfaith harmony: a Muslim household preparing a Hindu-style baby shower for their Hindu daughter-in-law. The tagline read, “A beautiful confluence of two different religions, traditions, cultures,” in a tribute to India’s reputation as a multiethnic home to more than a billion people of all faiths.
But just days after the ad aired on YouTube and Twitter, the Tanishq jewelry company pulled it from all social media platforms following a flood of angry calls from Hindu nationalists, including members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to boycott the brand.
Kothapalli Geetha, a former BJP legislator, called the ad “highly objectionable” for “normalizing love jihad.” Love jihad is a conspiracy theory espoused by right-wing Hindu activists that Muslim men are engaged in a deliberate effort to convert Hindu women through marriage. A law enforcement probe in 2018 into 11 interfaith marriages found no evidence of coercion.
A prominent right-wing lawyer also shared the details of a Muslim employee of the company on Twitter, a move known as doxing, calling on his followers to “expose” Tanishq and make the company apologize.
The call for boycott and the subsequent withdrawal of the ad is the latest instance of the bitter religious divide sweeping India under the Hindu nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He and his supporters envision India as a Hindu nation, not the secular republic enshrined in the Indian constitution.
Nearly 80% of the Indian population is Hindu, while Muslims make up 14% – which is still nearly 200 million people. After India gained independence from Britain and split into two countries with the birth of Muslim-majority Pakistan, India’s founders envisioned a secular republic in which all religions would have equal rights.
Relations between India’s Hindu majority and minority Muslims have come increasingly under strain since Modi assumed power in 2014. In August, Modi laid the foundation of a grand Hindu temple at a bitterly contested site where a 16th-century mosque was illegally razed by Hindu extremists. In February, Delhi was engulfed in the worst religious violence in decades, leaving dozens dead. Last year, Modi’s government passed a contentious law that makes religion a basis for citizenship – specifically excluding Muslim migrants – prompting fierce protests.
In a statement late Tuesday, Tanishq said it was withdrawing the ad in view of the “hurt sentiments” and “well-being” of employees and partners. The company said the idea behind its new collection – “Ekatvam,” or oneness – was to “celebrate the coming together of people from different walks of life” during “these challenging times.” The jewelry brand is a division of the Tata Group, one of the largest and oldest conglomerates in the country, with interests in energy, automobiles and consumer goods.
This isn’t the first time a brand in India has come under fire for promoting Hindu-Muslim harmony. Last year, an ad for a detergent showing a Hindu child protecting a Muslim child during the festival of colors elicited a boycott call, too.
Hard-liners feel that ads like these promote a secular viewpoint, which they see as a threat to the essential Hindu identity of India.
Interfaith, and for that matter intercaste, marriages in India are frowned upon and often met with violence or stiff opposition.
Two of the country’s top advertising bodies condemned the threats against and targeting of Tanishq. In a statement, the Advertising Club said its review found that the ad is “not derogatory” toward any religion and does not hurt any national sentiment, while the Indian chapter of the International Advertising Association said the government should act against “intimidating behaviour.”
Karthik Srinivasan, a communications strategy consultant, said a shift from online trolling to offline threats appeared to have tipped Tanishq to withdraw the ad.
“I feel very sad that something that promotes unity is being withdrawn for the wrong reasons,” Srinivasan said.
“We’ve always had intolerance,” he added, but it has been “emboldened” as those in power look away.
Shashi Tharoor, a member of the opposition Congress party, shared the ad on Twitter, saying, “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?”
Calling it “really sad,” one media executive asked why a brand as strong as Tanishq would “chicken out” in this manner.
“The Tanishq ad showed how I was born and raised in this country through the 90s. What happened to it depicts where we’re now,” read a tweet by another user.