Jewelry Ad Featuring Interfaith Couple Sparks Outrage in India

October 13, 2020 

An Indian jewelry brand withdrew an advertisement featuring an interfaith couple after Hindu nationalists accused the company of "love jihad," a pejorative used to describe marriage between Muslim men and Hindu women in India.

The forty-three second ad, released last week, featured a pregnant woman in a sari, making her way through a luminous home to a garden prepared for her baby shower. The advertisement, since removed from Facebook and YouTube, was described by the jeweler, Tanishq, as a "beautiful confluence of two different religions, traditions and cultures," reported the BBC. It was meant to promote a new jewelry collection called "Ekatvam," a Sanskrit word that translates as "oneness."

"Beautiful things happen when people come together," reads a description on the company's website, including the slogan: "The beauty of oneness. One as humanity. One as a nation."

But on social media, the ad quickly created fault lines, and #BoycottTanishq soon topped Twitter trends. "Why are you showing a Hindu 'daughter-in-law' to a Muslim family and glorifying it," Khemchand Sharma, a member of the country's governing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, asked on Twitter. Mr. Sharma accused the company of love jihad, and of favoring one faith over another. "Why don't you show a Muslim daughter-in-law in your ads with a Hindu family?"

"Love jihad" is a term coined by right-wing Hindu nationalists who have accused India's Muslim minority of persuading Hindu women into marriage to convert them to Islam. The term was previously used by Yogi Adityanath, also a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, who was later reprimanded for hate speech.

Shashi Tharoor, one of the country's most influential opposition politicians, pushed back against the ad's critics. "If Hindu-Muslim 'ekatvam' irks them so much, why don't they boycott the longest surviving symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity in the world -- India?" Mr. Tharoor wrote on Twitter.

Others said it was "foolish" of the company to "bow down" to online trolls, and described the removal of the ad as a "very sad state of affairs." Chetan Bhagat, an Indian author, tweeted for Tanishq to "Keep the ad. Stay Strong. Stay Indian."

In a statement posted on Twitter on Tuesday, the company said that the ad was meant to "celebrate the coming together of people from different walks of life," and that the severe reactions to it were "contrary to its very objective." The ad was removed to protect the "well being of our employees, partners and store staff," according to the company's statement.

Interfaith relationships are very rare in India, and when they do exist, they create additional social pressures, said Amit Thorat, an assistant professor at the Center for the Study of Regional Development at Jawaharlal Nehru University. A survey that Mr. Thorat helped conduct found that only 5 percent of marriages in India are intercaste. A 2016 survey found that a majority of people opposed marriages across both caste and religion.

"Society is not ready, the social protection which is required from the state is just not there," said Mr. Thorat. "And the environment which we have right now, a kind of a Hindu religious fundamentalist kind of government, it's going to be that much more difficult." Critics argue that policies enacted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi have fanned religious hatred.

Muslims make up around 14 percent of the population in India while Hindus account for roughly 74 percent of the country's 1.3 billion people. The centuries-old practice of arranged marriages is still common and interreligious couples often face threats and violence.

India's Muslim minority has been increasingly demonized in the pandemic. The health ministry has blamed Muslims for spreading the virus across the country, which now has more than seven million cases. Following a crackdown in Kashmir and a new, contested citizenship law, Muslims have also faced a wave of violence in recent months.

In 2018, India's Supreme Court upheld the right of citizens to choose their spouse and convert to another religion. The ruling was considered a blow to the Bharatiya Janata Party, leading right-wing Hindu nationalists to embrace the term "love jihad."

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