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Tanishq episode shows secularism today has come to resemble power play

As #BoycottTanishq trended all through Monday, attacks on the brand sustained on two grounds-- condemnation and rectification

Written by Ishita Sengupta | New Delhi |
Updated: October 14, 2020 1:18:51 pm
tanishq, tanishq secularism, tanish secualrism, tanishq love jihand, tanishq love jihad controversy, indian express, indian express newsAs the social media campaign accusing Tanishq of promoting “love jihad” by celebrating an interfaith marriage gained momentum, the brand first disabled the comment section and likes/dislikes on YouTube and, late on Monday evening, withdrew the video.(Source: Anubha Bhosle/Twitter)

A new Tanishq ad opens with a note of celebration: people adorning a house with lights and flowers. The cause is revealed when a pregnant young woman is gingerly guided by a motherly figure as people gather for a baby shower. It ends with the visibly grateful expecting mother asking the latter, “yeh rasm toh aapke ghar pe hoti bhi nahin hain na? (these rituals are not observed in your household, isn’t it?). To this, she is told, “par bitiya ko khush rakhne ki rasm toh har ghar pe hoti hai na?” (but rituals to keep daughters happy are observed at every house). The big reveal here is not an unconventional representation of a compassionate mother-in-law but a compassionate Muslim mother-in-law. Within hours, the advertisement enclosing a message of communal harmony generated polarised opinions on social media and falling prey to online trolling was pulled back.

Brands being subjected to social media trolling is not a new phenomenon. Neither is them succumbing to it with an apology or retaliating by standing their ground. In this case, Tanishq went a step back and withdrew it. But when an advert with an interfaith consonance at the centre sparks debate in a country that still prides itself of being secular, what comes out in the open is not fragility of the concept but the extent to which it has been communalised.

As #BoycottTanishq trended all through Monday, attacks on the brand sustained on two grounds– condemnation and rectification. A section of social media users called out the advert on grounds of promoting ‘Love Jihad’ — a term coined to denote an alleged campaign run by Muslims to convert Hindu girls on the pretext of love. What the ad depicted then was rallied as dangerous misrepresentation. “What #tanishq is showing – HINDU girl 100% safe in Muslim house, What actual happening – Hindu Girl trapped in love jihad and get killed. Hindu girls are 0% safe in other religion houses. So Don’t go by this sick company mindset,” read one of the many ‘well-meaning’ tweets.

Actor Kangana Ranaut too weighed in. “The concept wasn’t as much a problem as the execution was, the fearful Hindu girl apologetically expressing her gratitude to her in-laws for the acceptance of her faith, Isn’t she the woman of the house? Why is she at their mercy? Why so meek and timid in her own house? Shameful,”she tweeted. Another thread of criticism called it out for projecting fake secularism and using the Hindu girl as a mortgage to suit their agenda. “Why the creative directors who make these stupid ads can’t think of a Muslim girl and a Hindu boy ? Why there is a deficit of talent ? creative ad guys in India fear Muslim backlash?” politician Geetha Kothapalli tweeted.

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The subtext of both these lines of arguments shares its rhetoric with ‘love jihad’ where female agency is not just undermined but is infantilised to the point of non-existent. The image of a Hindu woman being happily married in a Muslim household is so incredulous that it is deemed impossible without coercion. In both instances, the girl is considered a misrepresentation, a victim or a pawn. Her gratitude is perceived as subservience, and her decision to choose a Muslim partner wrong from the outset, if not forced.

By suggesting a reverse scenario as correction, the other argument lays bare how perilously close the country is tethered to an umbrella idea of secularism which is no longer shared but enforced. Kothapalli’s inconvenience is situated on the same ground as Ranaut’s latent apprehension: the representation of an accepting and congenial Muslim in-laws. For the Hindu girl to be a victim, her Muslim in-laws ought to be devious. And if the message is of acceptance, the benign role must be reserved for Hindus. Her argument further stresses how secularism today has come to resemble a power play, depending on the religion which accepts and not acceptance of all religions.

The way it stands, public memory and social media storm come with an expiry date. And even though an explanation from Tanishq is due, for now the advert is gone and the debate for or against it too will dry up in a couple of days. But the real irony of the situation resides in the jewellery line’s website where with all its message of inclusivity there exists a separate section for Muslim jewellery  (being pointed on social media, it has been subsequently removed). One can read it as a marketing decision, a service ploy to cater to differing aesthetic choices. But as no result yields to a search for “Hindu jewellery” one understands ‘otherisation’ runs deeper than our eyes are trained to perceive.

In this regard, their message for communal harmony is restricted to their new jewellery line, Ekatvam’, which comes right before Durga Puja and Diwali festivals. It is a short 45-second performance. The searing refusal to make space even for that speaks more of the country we have come to inhabit and less of the marketing choices opted by brands.

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