The intriguing thing about the Tanishq ad controversy is not that there was an outcry by self-appointed Hindu censors and immediate self-censorship by the Tatas. This was only to be expected in today’s condition of social intolerance enforced by powerful vigilantes of community “sentiment”. The state governments of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, for instance, are considering a law against “love jihad”. This is not a new campaign. Over a decade of media activism and random vigilantism by “anti-Romeo” squads have tried to compel a consensus on the illegitimacy of inter-community love.
Given the velocity of this campaign, what has surprised many is the positive advocacy of inter-community relationships. The withdrawal of the Tanishq ad led to an astonishing blowback. Besides intense social media criticism, inter-faith couples appeared on television, courageously disclosing their identities, risking the possibility of social coercion, if not worse. All this for just a 43-second-long idealised representation of the wealthy life. Is there something in the romance of inter-community love that is so much a part of our culture that ordinary folk would stand up for it, risking reputation and limb?
Stories of transgressive love or parakiya prem have been popular in both the Vaishnav and the Sufi traditions. But there was something new in the 19th century. Lovers no longer doubled up as divine figures. Stories of love provided the heart of early novels, which featured people recognisably of this world. More significantly, in its founding moment, novels featured inter-community love. The most important one is Bankim Chatterjee’s Durgeshnandini (1865). While Bankim went on to write novels that could be interpreted as forerunners of Hindu nationalism, Durgeshnandini is different. Here, Ayesha, the daughter of Katlu Khan, the Pathan king of Orissa, falls in love with Jagat Singh, the son of her father’s enemy, Man Singh. The key moment is when Ayesha addresses Jagat as praneswar, the lord of her life, making it clear that she values personal choice over the demands of her community, family and the expectations of proper womanly behaviour. This scene lives on as an iconic cultural memory.
The danger of personal choice was quickly grasped by conservative critics. They criticised such love as “western” and even proclaimed the virtues of child marriage that would make the wife devoted to her husband and family. But more was involved than personal choice. Jyotirindranath Tagore’s play, Asrumati, features a stock Hindu nationalist situation: The fall of Chittor. Asrumati, the princess of Chittor, is abducted by Mughal forces. The outcome of this situation, however, is startling. Prince Selim, the son of Akbar, falls in love with Asrumati and, more astonishingly, Asrumati falls in love with him and repeatedly declares her love. The affair ends tragically but not before Asrumati raises an important question. How could she look at Selim as enemy when he had not behaved like one, she asks her father.
Asrumati was written four years after Sarojini, a play that features an iconic scene of johar following Alauddin Khilji’s conquest of Chittor. Both plays were written in the 1870s, in a period of early nationalism. Sarojini places its action in a Hindu-Muslim framework that foretells the onset of Hindu nationalism. More interesting is Asrumati’s reversal of a stereotypical communal plot of an abducted Hindu heroine. Clearly, the early imagination of nationalism could insist on religious nationalism as well as imagine alternatives to it. Jyotirindranath himself was associated with the Hindu Mela, an early nationalist initiative, and even founded a secret nationalist society. But he also warned against excessive nationalism that could produce hatred for others.
A number of inter-community romances proceeded to explore the nature of identity itself. Should identity be confined and restricted by one’s religious community? Two stories open up new possibilities in the conflicted 20th century. The first is Rabindranath Tagore’s Mussalmani Galpa published a year after the Pakistan resolution (1940). Here, Kamala, a Brahmin girl, is spurned as polluted by her family for having been abducted. She converts to Islam after falling in love with a Muslim. But she goes on to rescue her abducted uncle and cousin, restoring them to their Hindu society. The other romance is Pratibha Basu’s Samudrahriday (1959). It features the Dacca Nawab and Sulekha, the daughter of a respectable Hindu lawyer — childhood sweethearts driven apart by communal hatred to the point that they wish to kill one another. Yet, confronted by the Partition riots, the Nawab accompanies Sulekha to Calcutta to protect her from Muslim mobs. In Calcutta, Sulekha wishes to return to Dacca but is prevented by Hindu rioters who drag away the Nawab.
Both stories are about dual selves. The duality within each character endures even in situations of extreme communal polarisation. This duality produces doubled relationships. Kamala becomes a Muslim but restores her cousin to her Hindu family, asking her to remember her Muslim sister if she ever needed anything. The Nawab and Sulekha in Samudrahriday regain their intimacy because of the duality that survives their own hatred. Instead of a single religious identity, these stories open out the possibility of having conjoined identities that allows individuals to be both related to and different from others. These individuals become bridges between separate communities and families to mark — and risk — the possibility of conjoined social identities.
Stories of inter-community love have not had an easy career. Hindu nationalists attacked Asrumati for sullying the Maharana’s reputation. The Hindi translation of the play had to be withdrawn. Yet Hindu nationalist censorship could not abort these stories. Instead, the representation of inter-community love not only remained but developed — from asserting personal choice to thinking about alternative identities for a country that looked for freedom but was torn by the violent obsession with community boundaries. The story of the Tanishq ad is, then, not a simple one of suppression and violence. It also excavates layers of an equally powerful tradition. That is, of imagining a country that would be free to dare, experiment, conjoin and link up the identities of its citizens.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 4, 2020 under the title ‘We have always been both’. The writer is a former professor of political thought at JNU
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