Time to Wake Up and Smell the Bigotry

Giving in to the rabid trolling of the Hindutva right wing only encourages them to become more vicious.

Bollywood, which has always been pilloried for being cowardly and standing up for anything, has banded together to file a suit against two television channels. The corporate sector, which functions on two default modes – complete silence or generous praise of the government and its leader – is putting its money where its mouth is and refusing to advertise on toxic channels. Clearly, they are sending a message to the hate-mongering media they have had it and won’t tolerate it anymore.

Is this the beginning of a new movement to stand up to crass bigotry and fake news? Will others follow? Most important, will television channels get so shaken up that they will change their ways overnight? The joint action by stars and production companies means they will not appear in the many awards ceremonies the large media groups frequently hold—it will hit the Times Group the most, because stars attend and perform at Filmfare awards nites etc. Besides, they may not give interviews.

As for the decision by the Bajaj group and Parle G not to advertise, it will almost certainly hit the wallets of the channels, because the companies are big advertisers. And advertising industry associations in India and abroad have supported the ad, finding nothing particularly objectionable, though they have focussed on the freedom of expression angle.

Yet, while cheering these actions, caution is called for. The filing of the petition is not likely to create a wave among stars or tycoons to boycott the channels. I doubt if the Khans, Akshay Kumar or Ajay Devgn are going to hold a joint press conference soon, or even make any statement on the case or any major public issue.

At the same time as these welcome steps were taken, a wonderfully heartwarming ad of Tanishq jewellery, showing a pregnant Hindu girl being escorted by her (Muslim) mother-in-law to a baby shower, was withdrawn by the company after a nasty and sustained campaign online that it promoted ‘love jihad’. It is a well-made ad with a much-need message in these times. But that obviously didn’t matter to the trolls – they may have seen it as downright dangerous.

Also Read: What’s Behind the Sudden Spate of Attacks on Bollywood?

It is obvious what has angered these Hindutva warriors – a Muslim man married to a Hindu woman, to their warped mind, obviously suggests that she has somehow been defiled. Perhaps the other way – a Hindu man with a Muslim wife – would have been fine, because it would have implied that a Muslim had been ‘conquered’ by a virile Hindu male? Somehow I doubt that – deep down, the idea of peace and harmony with Muslims is such anathema to hate-driven Hindus that they will simply not accept any representation of it.

Ratan Tata has been roundly criticised (somewhat unfairly, I think) by those appalled at the decision to pull the ad down. At the same time, the trolls going after Tanishq too went after him, calling him ‘anti-national.’ But Tata personally does not run Tanishq, nor the Tata empire. Tanishq itself may have felt the ad could be a public relations disaster. There may be threats, perhaps of violence too. It may lead to a boycott of their products and could affect sales and profits. We don’t know.

Tata’s own credibility when it comes to consorting with the ruling party is so low, that he became the obvious target when the ad was pulled. It was he who praised Narendra Modi repeatedly in Gujarat and after that, when he became the prime minister. He made major investments in the state; he went to meet the RSS bosses in Nagpur and finally, the Tata Group has made handsome donations to the PM-CARES fund. His continued supping with the Hindutva bosses and sucking up to them makes it natural to assume that he had a major role to play in the pulling of the ad, even if he was not directly behind it.

Ratan Tata. Photo: Reuters

A chilling effect

This kind of coordinated hostility will have a chilling effect. After Aamir Khan bore the brunt of unbridled hate after his mild suggestion that his wife had brought up the topic of leaving India because it was unsafe, his fellow stars got the message. He lost the Snapdeal endorsement contract – which the late Manohar Parrikar boasted about – and after that everyone went into a shell.

Only a few days ago, Karan Johar – whose company is among the petitioners in the latest suit – announced that the industry will tell stories of “Indian valour and values”, an initiative inspired by Modi. Safe to say therefore that he and several of his colleagues are not suddenly going to become vociferous advocates of secular ideals. The irony here is that most of them are not personally of the Hindutva ilk and the industry over the years has generally promoted the idea of harmony. But now, they want to play it safe.

No industrialists are likely to put their hand up and support Bajaj or Parle and announce they will not advertise. Some may do it under the radar; others may congratulate Bajaj; but they will choose the ‘silence is golden’ rule. And when the next opportunity rolls around, they will hail the big chief for his vision and his wisdom.

But both, the Mumbai film industry and the corporate sector are making a big mistake if they think that keeping their heads down will save them. For this ruling establishment, it is not enough that someone not oppose them – they want full-throated support and that too, constantly. The dissenters will soon find out that it doesn’t pay to step out of line, but the ones remaining quiet will not necessarily get a pat on the back or even rewards – that is how the right-wing works. Many supporters of this prime minister found swiftly that they were not going to be the chosen ones or get any rewards and nor are they insured against the vilest attacks from the Hindutva trolls, as Ratan Tata has. There is news of a Tanishq store being attacked in Gujarat. No infraction is tolerated, no slight forgotten.

A screengrab from the Tanishq ad.

Should Tanishq have stood its ground and simply refused to take the ad down? The answer is obviously yes, but companies don’t work this way. Managements invariably take the safest route; their rationale is that it is to ‘protect’ the brand from any ‘negative’ connotations. But here, the connotations were positive, so their reaction was clearly one of cowardice, not discretion. In a corporate structure, no one wants to be seen sticking their neck out. The company’s face will now be rubbed into it.

It thus boils down to a moral choice which each individual, each institution has to take. And while making this choice, they must consider the long term implications—what if, for example, there is a demand from someone powerful or even a large number of (paid) trolls to not hire Muslims? Will the company comply? If a well-known person wants to marry a Muslim, will they be forced to reconsider? This has ripple effects, because it could become difficult to get an apartment or, in the case of a company, the public could stop buying its products. These are not far-fetched fantasies – they have happened in the past. Each time someone gives in, it only encourages the Hindutva brigade to up the ante. This brigade has now tasted blood and will become even more feral.

In the past few years, many people have stood up to the onslaught of the Hindutva machinery, of which toxic channels are a big part, and some have paid a heavy price for it. The students of JNU and Jamia, the protesters at Shaheen Bagh, activists like Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao and Stan Swamy, or intellectuals like Anand Teltumbde, all of whom were put in jail. But that didn’t stop others, who still speak out. That an ad like the one for Tanishq got made is by itself a sign that the Indian spirit of tolerance and secularism is alive and well. This is the time to make more ads and films like this one which promote the ‘real values’ of India and show all bigots that their propaganda of hatred will not work, instead of just withdrawing into a shell and keeping a low profile, because that will not save you.

This article has been slightly modified to say that the donations to PM-CARES were made by the Tata Group and not the Tata Trusts. The company has also clarified that Ratan Tata is no longer on the board of any group company.