Hate is suffocating every aspect of life in India. No space seems safe.
Early morning on Oct. 18, a neighbor alerted me to a WhatsApp message distributed by our building’s security guard celebrating the killer of Mahatma Gandhi and urging people to take up the gun to protect the idea of Hindu sovereignty. These types of messages are popular with Hindu nationalists and right-wing supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. When I posted it on my social media, many unabashedly supported the hate and threat in the message.
And when the iconic jewelry brand Tanishq recently ran an ad showcasing an interfaith marriage, the resulting Hindu right-wing backlash on social media forced the company to pull the commercial.
The beautiful 45-second ad encapsulated the Indian traditions of pluralism and cultural diversity, with a Muslim family celebrating Hindu customs and traditions in a ceremony to make a pregnant Hindu daughter-in-law feel loved in her home. But the video swiftly triggered a wave of threats of physical violence against employees of the jewelry brand. Indian social media flared up, with the term #LoveJihad trending, a slur invented by Hindu nationalists for interfaith marriages in which a Muslim man is married to a Hindu woman.
This is where division and hate have driven us, in a country that ranks second only to the United States in the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases. Many felt that ad, which dominated news coverage for days, was the real existential threat to India and not the horrible mismanagement of the pandemic response. In less than 24 hours, the brand announced the withdrawal of the commercial, titled “Ekatvam,” or unity, saying “the film has stimulated divergent and severe reactions contrary to its very objective. ”
The fact that a major brand, part of the conglomerate once run by Ratan Tata, one of India’s richest and most powerful men, had to withdraw a commercial promoting unity to protect its employees offers a clear example of the disturbing depths we have reached in 2020 under Modi. The ad’s withdrawal led to anger and disillusionment. The 152-year-old iconic business group has been known for its commitment to pluralism and integrity; many tweets and editorials condemned Tata, who is considered the face of the company by many but has stayed a mute spectator through the intimidation.
As I’ve written many times before, these campaigns of hate are generated, circulated and amplified by government supporters, senior officials and prominent news channels alike. A well-meaning ad couldn’t stand in the way of well-funded media corporations tasked with dividing and fanning the flames of division for political gain.
But not everyone has bent the knee. Unlike many invertebrate personalities in India’s business community who have chosen to prostrate themselves before the Modi regime, allowing themselves to be censored and co-opted, there are important exceptions. Bajaj Auto and iconic foods company Parle Products have refused to advertise on channels that broadcast toxic news items that lead to polarization and majoritarian sentiments in the country.
But not all is lost. Indian officials are investigating news channels for fudging viewership numbers. These channels have been consistent in their pro-state activism, spreading misinformation about Indian minorities that gives a shot in the arm to communalism in India.
It will take great political will and a mobilized Indian society to hold these powerful forces accountable. These independent investigations are a powerful bulwark against the further erosion of Indian democracy.
Many still refuse to face the racism and communalism that has permeated and flourished in recent years across virtually all facets of Indian society.
Rahul Gandhi, one of the key leaders of the Indian National Congress, recently tweeted that “the shameful truth is many Indians don’t consider Dalits, Muslims and Tribals to be human.” The tweet sparked outrage, including from many liberals. The tweet came in the wake of the alleged gang rape and killing of a lower-caste young woman in the state of Uttar Pradesh by upper-caste men. Police officers burned the body of the victim in the hopes of making the story and justice vanish. The young woman’s parents were gagged from speaking to either the media or any political party, and members of the ruling party rallied in support of the accused. Gandhi hit a raw nerve and exposed the systemic hate against religious and caste minorities, whose women are the most vulnerable.
The controversy over the ad simply reinforced this: Hindu nationalists were outraged at a Hindu woman exercising her agency to love and be part of a Muslim family, an idea that is anathema to supremacists who hold women as objects that need to be controlled and destroyed to establish their hegemony.
Now the ad has been censored and wiped out from our imagination under a flood of violence, exposing the moral deterioration in our country. I’m sure my building’s security guard agreed with the decision to pull the ad. Many want to deny it, but bigotry and hate are everywhere. Closer than many might want to admit.
Rana Ayyub is an Indian journalist and author of “Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up.”