A new front has opened in the culture wars occurring in India. After silencing academics and print journalists, conquering TV news channels, maligning the Mumbai film industry, the trolls have made advertising the new battlefield. The release of the Tata-owned Tanishq advertisement was followed by a manic backlash with complaints about hurt Hindu sentiment , threats of violence, and its abrupt withdrawal. These threats were not empty; showrooms in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh were visited by goons demanding a written apology.
Message and the attack
What is the advertisement trying to communicate and what is hurtful about it? An affluent Muslim family is seen organising a baby shower for their Hindu daughter-in-law. Marriage brings unanticipated tensions for the families of the couple, and a particularly profound disturbance in the life of the woman who often moves into the home of her husband. Without an entire network of support led by the husband and the mother-in-law, this transition is painful. In the advertisement, the Muslim mother-in-law arranges a Hindu ritual, affectionately puts her arm around her surprised daughter-in-law and says that the custom of loving a daughter far outweighs the demands of religious tradition.
Playing upon vile communal instincts, the trolls attacked it for its ‘secular’ message. One extremist reason they offer is “love jihad”, allegedly a design to marry Hindu women with the sole objective of multiplying Muslim numbers and change India’s demography. This is why these marriages, they say, are not a personal or family matter but concern the community, and offend its morality. This intolerance of Hindu-Muslim marriage is entirely politically constructed. Instances abound of such marriages being turned into hell, at least in the initial years, by politically encouraged intolerance. The trolling must be seen in the context of a long-standing practice of politically triggered harassment of inter-religious couples.
A less hysterical reason is embedded in the assumption that the compatibility of two individuals due to their class, education and temperament is trumped by the natural incompatibility between a Hindu and a Muslim. This explains the social wrath against inter-faith marriages, particularly between Hindu women and Muslim men. There is something in this argument: if conversion and a change of the bride’s name is made a condition of inter-religious marriages, then an objection against it is understandable. But this is not always true. In any case, this advertisement emphasises that the young woman remains a Hindu. This should take the wind out of the sails of the objector. If it does not, it is because of a third reason: the impregnable belief that inter-religious marriages go against incontestable social norms. Thus, for one ‘realist analyst’, the advertisement proves the disconnect of secular elites from Indian social norms. How unrealistic to expect that Indians will tolerate inter-religious marriage, when social norms do not permit even inter-caste marriages within Hindus, Muslims or Christians?
Moreover, inter-faith marriages are never arranged. The advertisement then appears to celebrate not only communal harmony but ‘love marriage’, individual choice, and the new egalitarian family that respects the distinctive identity and wishes of women. This provides an additional ground for conservative anger. Covertly, the trolls prey upon social anxieties surrounding the young falling in love, rebelling against the rigid traditions of community, and giving women equal respect. The backlash against inter-faith marriages comes from communalism’s juxtaposition with this asphyxiating conservatism.
At odds with reality
This deeply conservative general portrayal of Indians is a simplistic myth, at odds with the ever-changing, equally Indian social reality. Large towns and cities generate conditions for a partial collapse of the old community-dominated order. Public transport, the work-place, restaurants, malls, educational institutions — all facilitate and encourage inter-caste and inter-religious intermingling. This real and virtual proximity generates conflict as well as opportunity for friendship that can transform into love and even marriage no matter how much it enrages the socially orthodox and intolerant. No society has ever managed to completely control the emotional life of individuals. ‘Love marriages’ have a long ancestry. Even the Dharamshastras acknowledge and endorse love marriage at least for the Kshatriyas — the Gandharva Vivaha. The epics speak of Kshatriya women choosing their husbands too. Indian films build upon such long standing socio-mythical archetypes and frequently support individual choice and love as the only basis for marriage. Given this counter-current against caste and community-based arranged marriages, is it surprising that the young dream of falling in love and marrying the person of their choice?
Not a general trait
Moreover, the older generation is not as stubborn as is assumed. At least in metropolitan cities, the initial period of social boycott and disapproval gives way to acceptance, forgiveness, accommodation and reconciliation, particularly after couples have children. Many understand that beyond a point they cannot impose their own will on consenting adults. To ignore this fact portrays Indians as unalterable, heartless bigots for whom traditional custom has insuperable priority over love, which is an inaccurate depiction. A fanatical commitment to religious dogma may be common among habitual haters of other communities but this a hardly a general trait of all Indians.
In short, social intolerance of inter-religious marriages exists but is exaggerated by the trolls. What then is the springboard of this intolerance and hostility? This is driven by the ambition of new power elites out to displace older ones. A minority within the majority community is forcing itself on everyone by claiming to be the voice of the people. It uses the rhetoric of ‘the people’, because in democracy, anyone who claims the backing of the larger number gains social and political power. If mass opinion matters, large political benefits can be had from passing off a sectarian view as mass opinion. If a choice is to be made between curbing the voice of corporates or of “the people”, as one television commentator put it, one must curb corporate voice. In reality, this wrath and hate is manufactured by a predominantly, male-dominated discourse of new elites with a surfeit of power and money. Love jihad is part of this discourse.
There are two stories
In this polarised climate, it takes courage by a commercial enterprise to convey a message of understanding, acceptance, love and communal harmony. Instead of supporting it, most electronic and social media have openly chastised this effort. The Indian state has stood by passively; at best as a silent witness and at worse as irresponsibly backing the disruptors
Much is at stake in India today. Not just communal harmony but also individual freedom, gender equality, and freedom of speech, besides economic freedom and equality. Capitalist markets have many drawbacks but they allow buying and selling irrespective of a person’s religion, ideology, race, colour and sexual preferences. The withdrawal of the advertisement undermines principles of freedom and equality associated with a safe business environment.
It is not true that all Indians are resistant to social change or that Hindus are inveterate Muslim-haters. Ground reports on ordinary people tell two stories, not one as the trolls and their followers would have us believe.
Rajeev Bhargava is Honorary Professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi