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Backlash Against Jewelry Ad Highlights Growing Religious Divide in India

People are seen outside a Tanishq jewelry store in Mumbai, India, Oct. 14, 2020.
People are seen outside a Tanishq jewelry store in Mumbai, India, Oct. 14, 2020.

After a leading jewelry brand in India pulled out an advertisement showcasing an interfaith marriage following a rightwing backlash on social media, concerns have been raised about a growing religious divide in the country since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party came to power.

The controversy has also generated a debate on whether big corporations should stand up to “faceless trolls.”

The 45-second video released by the jewelry manufacturer “Tanishq” featured a Hindu bride and her Muslim mother in-law holding a baby shower in the Hindu tradition. The company said it was meant to celebrate diversity -- the caption called it a “beautiful confluence of two different religions, traditions and cultures.”

But a flood of voices on social media last week slammed the advertisement, some accusing it of promoting “love jihad” while others called it “fake secularism.”

“Love jihad” is a term coined by rightwing Hindu groups for what they perceive as a covert attempt by Muslim men to convert Hindu women to Islam on the pretext of love and marriage.

“This is bizarre, highly objectionable and normalizing LoveJihad,” tweeted Geetha Kothapalli, a BJP politician from southern India.

Some opponents of the commercial questioned why it did not feature a Muslim woman married to a Hindu man.

Following the outcry, Tanishq said it withdrew the video due to "hurt sentiments, and the well-being of our employees, partners and store staff.” It had released the commercial to promote a new jewelry collection called “Ektavam” or “oneness” and said the idea behind the campaign was to celebrate people from different walks of life coming together.

The commercial’s withdrawal has prompted a flood of commentary and debates in the country.

“It’s a very disturbing trend and shows the fracturing of intercommunity relations. This will only embolden the fringe Hindu groups and few thousand trolls who used social media to make things toxic,” said Niranjan Sahoo, a political analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “These were not voices of the mainstream.”

Commentators point out that no evidence of “love jihad” was found in the southern Kerala state where authorities investigated 11 interfaith marriages.

Days after the controversy erupted, Home Minister Amit Shah warned against “overactivism” but said that such “small incidents” cannot break India’s social harmony. “The roots of social harmony are very strong,” he said during an interview with Network18 on a range of current issues.

However, commentator Sahoo said the outcry against the advertisement reflects the growing trend of religious polarization witnessed in the country in recent years under the BJP government. “While the ruling party does not directly support such intolerant voices, such incidents help to keep the pot boiling and stoke division,” according to Sahoo.

Prominent opposition leaders supported the advertisement. Senior Congress Party lawmaker Shashi Tharoor called it a “beautiful ad” and tweeted that if Hindu-Muslim “ekatvam” (oneness) irks “Hindutva bigots” so much, “why don’t they boycott the longest surviving symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity in the world -- India?”

It is not the first time that an advertisement featuring Hindus and Muslims has faced a backlash on social media. Last year a commercial by Hindustan Unilever for a detergent, Surf Excel, was trolled for showing a Hindu girl protecting a Muslim boy from revelers spraying color for a Hindu festival.

“It is not as if divisive forces are new, they have always been there,” points out women’s right activist, Zakia Soman. “But they have now started enjoying this kind of impunity due to the political climate in which you want to keep communities polarized.”

The controversy has also triggered a debate on whether leading companies should resist “cyber bullying” and stand by a social issue they chose to highlight.

In an editorial headlined “Craven Cave-In,” the Indian Express criticized the withdrawal of the advertisement by Tanishq, which belongs to the Tata group, one of India’s largest and oldest conglomerates.

“It is true that from cinema to business, few want to cross the foot-soldiers of a ruling establishment bent on having its way. But this shared experience of diversity is what has enabled the India story, and allowed the building and creation of wealth. It is worth a fight,” the newspaper said. It pointed out that with ample friends in business and politics, the Tata conglomerate “has the power to stand up to faceless trolls and defend what is right.”

Others however said that the company could not be blamed and pointed out how a “Tanishq” store in Gandhidham town in Gujarat state briefly put up a handwritten apology to the Hindu community for the “shameful advertisement” after allegedly receiving threatening calls.

“The company had little choice faced with tumult for the brand and tumult for their stores. We are living in tough times today, in sensitive society. The entire tone, decibel of conversation has gone up,” according to brand consultant Harish Bijoor. “And companies have to choose between brand idealism and brand pragmatism. Tanishq chose pragmatism. Brands cannot tread where angels fear to tread,” he said.