The Tanishq ad: What fears abound the patriarchal mind

The Tanishq ad: What fears abound the patriarchal mind

Tanishq ad

The recent Tanishq advertisement showing a Muslim mother-in-law performing a South Indian ceremony for pregnant daughters-in law (called Seemantham/Srimantham performed in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu) evoked controversy, with some people accusing Tanishq of promoting ‘love jihad’ through the ad. Tanishq, a Tata Group company, retracted its advertisement, stating that its Ekatvam campaign was meant to celebrate the coming together of people and the beauty of oneness.

The response to this advertisement and even the concept of ‘love jihad’ rests on the patriarchal premise of women lacking personhood and agency. That Hindu women have married Muslim men since time immemorial in India, a country that Shashi Tharoor reminds us is the biggest symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity in the world, is beside the point for those crying ‘love jihad’. Instead, what is at stake for them is the project of the Hindu nation, not the rights of women.

This is because women are treated not as ‘persons’ capable of choosing their partners but, instead, as possessions to be given away by parents through kanyadaan. Women are thus ‘transferred’ from one family to another, and these exchanges come to be made through the ritual of marriage. That the woman has a right to decide whom she marries is absent in the ‘love jihad’ perspective, which views even love that cuts across faith as an act of terrorism. The fear is of the Hindu woman being forcibly converted to Islam, to change her name and give up her Hindu identity. This is nourished by the view of women as possessing minds that are easily swayed or moulded, thus making it easier for the Muslim male to conquer. But can one really speak of love in terms of conquest?

At the core of this notion of conquest is tradition, and the ominous fear that somehow Hindu culture and tradition are under attack. As Tanika Sarkar points out in her journal article Pragmatics of the Hindu Right: Politics of Women’s Organisations in the Economic and Political Weekly over 20 years ago, the project of Hindu revival rests on the Hindu woman, who has the unique responsibility of preserving tradition, unlike the Hindu man, who was perceived as having compromised tradition.

Tradition and religion are fixed to the unchanging obedience of the woman to community demands, making her the sole source of authenticity, nation-making and freedom. But this project is not new and has its roots in the colonial period -- as Partha Chatterjee examined in Colonialism, nationalism, and colonised women: the contest in India in the American Ethnologist -- when women were employed to preserve and protect tradition from the onslaughts of the colonial government, its ‘civilising’ mission and ‘westernisation’.

This political role means that the Hindu woman has to give up all agency and self-determination. The reproduction of tradition relies on women marrying within not only religious but also caste lines. The woman who therefore chooses to marry a man from another faith thus defies expectations of the reproduction of the Hindu nation. Tanika Sarkar thus rightly asked as far back as 1999 whether the woman is a rights-bearing individual, or a culture-bearing one? In 2020 we continue to see this conflict, in the positions people have taken for and against this advertisement. While the trolls crying ‘love jihad’ deny women’s personhood and agency, those upholding this advertisement proclaim a woman’s right to choose her spouse.

While many see the trolls as bullying Tanishq into submission, this outcry reveals the real fears of the Hindu right. After all, in their worldview, one does not want young impressionable women to even imagine an inter-faith marriage, let alone a happy one. One does not want to trouble the status quo in Indian families, by presenting young women with ideas of rights. In a country where inter-caste marriages were a strict no-no, we see increasing acceptance of such marriages, specially in urban India. It is not far-fetched to imagine that inter-faith marriages, too, will come to gain more acceptance over time. This disproportionate response to a short 43-second advertisement celebrating an inter-faith marriage speaks volumes of the fear this arouses.

India has seen many films featuring inter-faith love and advertisements that have in the past been criticised, but not to this extent, with threats received by Tanishq stores and their personnel. Paradoxically, the very retraction of the advertisement has resulted in it gaining more attention than it otherwise would have.  

(The writer is Associate Professor, Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, O P Jindal Global University, Sonepat)