First they came for a Tanishq ad — and the mighty Tata empire did not stand up to a communal campaign against an image of an inter-faith home. A year later, the mob has trained its outrage on Fabindia, for advertising a festive collection that it called Jashn-e-Riwaaz. The public display of bigotry was endorsed by BJP MP from Bengaluru, Tejasvi Surya, who accused the clothing brand of “Abrahamising” the Hindu festival of Diwali, and warned it of “economic costs”. Other self-styled defenders of Hinduism plunged into this ridiculous battle by doing a close reading of the foreheads of the models in the ad — and rejecting them because they did not wear bindis. Instead of shrugging off this absurd campaign, Fabindia has withdrawn the ad.
That Hinduism and Hindus need to be defended against a phrase in Urdu — a language born in the north Indian heartland, one of 22 scheduled languages listed in the Constitution, spoken and written by freedom fighters and poets, lovers and lyricists, a strand entwined in the DNA of this diverse country — is a laughable proposition. But it gathers menace in the hands of an indignant mob that tweets first, thinks later. It becomes dangerous when hate and bigotry are so easily amplified by social media — and when the right to take offence is licensed by politicians who, it appears, wish only to speak the language of polarisation and divisiveness. And so, a mob of trolls, intent on torching the shared ritual and common ground of diversity, grows into a vigilante force.
True, such intolerance feeds on the complicity of politicians such as Surya and the dispiriting lack of trust in the state to defend the citizen or the businessman. But it is also emboldened by the silence of the biggest names of India Inc, who have enormous resources to defend themselves. Their reticence will not buy them a reprieve — it will not protect the bottom line nor prevent a campaign of calumny, as the recent tarring of Infosys as “anti-national” or the labelling of Fabindia, as stolid an example of indigenous “Make in India” enterprise as any, as “anti-Hindu” reveal. It is time for corporate India as a whole, and not just individual businesses, to look hard at the balance sheet of such capitulation, to realise that the mob will not stop at one ad. By deleting “Jashn-e-Riwaaz” — Urdu for a “festival of tradition” — or scrapping an ad campaign in the hope of muting the mob, it shrinks the space for both freedom and enterprise. And paves the way for another salvo from the bullies of new India.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on October 21, 2021 under the title ‘Muting the mob’.