By Ajaz Ashraf
People dismayed at the decision of the Tata-owned Titan Company to withdraw its controversial Tanishq advertisement should turn to history for perspective. In January 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi released a commemorative coin to mark the 175th birth anniversary of Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, the Tata Group founder. This honour was bestowed for the first time on an industrialist. Over a century earlier, the British Indian government handed over to the Tatas 25 square miles in Jamshedpur, for which they paid merely Rs 12,000 to thousands of peasant cultivators dispossessed of their land.
The details of the British-Tata deal are in historian Dilip Simeon’s The Politics of Labour Under Late Colonialism. Simeon, in a 2015 interview, said, “Let us have no illusion – if you want to build a gigantic steel plant like TISCO [Tata Iron and Steel Company, Jamshedpur]…then you have to work with the power that exists.” After Jamshedpur was founded, the nationalistic fervour of the Tatas fluctuated with the shifts in the ruler’s attitude towards the national movement.
Jamsetji’s initial capital came from shipping opium to China. Alarmed at opium addiction among its people, China sought to curb the opium trade in the 19th century, following which the British accused China of undermining the idea of free trade. Two wars were fought – China’s defeat on each occasion had the British and Indian traders prosper. Trade in opium was legal then. Yet it was not morally right of Jamsetji to have had a role in debilitating a nation. “The whole history of capitalism is the creation of mythology,” novelist Amitav Ghosh remarked in an interview on his Ibis trilogy, a work of fiction dealing with the opium trade.
That myth is still perpetuated to conceal the relationship between power, capital, consumption and ideas. The depiction of an inter-faith marriage in the Tanishq advertisement was legal, as our laws recognise such relationships. These are not fictitious, but rare: Only 2.1 per cent of marriages in India in 2005-06 were inter-faith, according to a National Health Survey.
It is, therefore, a puzzle why the relative rarity of inter-faith marriages prompted the makers of the Tanishq advertisement to depict a Hindu-Muslim couple. One possible reason is that inter-faith marriages signify modernity, which has an appeal for educated middle-class women. The advertisement subliminally transfers the idea of modernity to the Tanishq jewellery brand in order to boost sales.
Inter-faith marriages are, however, also contentious. India’s first big post-Independence riot was in Jabalpur, sparked because the daughter of a prominent Hindu businessman eloped, in 1961, with a Muslim. But inter-faith marriages are also idealised in Hindi films, as a marker of an India defying community identity to fashion social harmony anchored in individualism.
In the bulk of films depicting inter-faith relationships, though, the women are Muslim. It was against this dominant trend the Tanishq advertisement went, provoking Hindutva supporters to take to social media to accuse the Tatas of promoting love jihad and calling for the boycott of Tanishq. Their fury scared the Tatas into withdrawing the advert.
It seems incredible that the Tatas did not anticipate the backlash. As recently as 2018, Uttarakhand banned Kedarnath for showing a Hindu girl in love with a Muslim man, who, quite conveniently, dies in the film’s climax — perhaps the reason why the rest of India was not outraged. The Tanishq advert, by contrast, explodes with happiness. Not for it, the pathos witnessed in, say, My Name is Khan, in which an autistic Muslim man marries a Hindu woman with a child.
In fact, those who cheered the Tanishq advertisement did so because they perceived its visualisation as a conscious decision by the Tatas to challenge the love jihad narrative: A Hindu girl married to a Muslim not only follows her faith, but even her in-laws respect her religious traditions. The foregrounding of unalloyed happiness in the Tanishq visuals became an audacious argument against Hindutva.
It may seem a stretch for a corporate behemoth like the Tatas to withdraw the advertisement out of the fear of social media warriors. Yet we cannot ignore that we are living in a post-May 2019 era, which saw the Bharatiya Janata Party return to power with a majority even bigger than it had in 2014. It has evidently emboldened the purveyors of hate, some among them followed by even the Prime Minister on social media. Is it too hard to imagine Hindutva hotheads ransacking a few Tanishq outlets in case the advertisement had not been withdrawn, and battering their staff? It was correct of the Tatas to not expose those who had no role in the making of the advert to its possible consequences.
That said, the joke was always on us. When did you last hear Ratan Tata, the most recognisable Tata face, speak out against the culture of hate? The Tatas, as all capitalists, are in the business of squeezing ideas for profits. Their stature and philanthropy numb us from realising that we are the Chinese of the 19th century. The Tatas cannot be on our side in the fight against hate. They will always be on the winning side.
(The writer is a senior journalist. The views expressed in this column are the individual’s)