Of the many philosophical debates and questions that underpin our society, one peculiar question stands out: Can money buy everything? While I do not intend to add anything of philosophical substance to this question, let me submit a fact: Money cannot buy courage or spine. Recent controversies and India Inc’s response to them suggest the same.
Two of India’s most prominent brands – Fabindia and Dabur – recently withdrew advertisements after a virtual mob hounded them for allegedly ‘demeaning’ Hindu festivals and values. While Right-wing extremists and vigilante groups taking offence at progressive and inclusive advertisements is hardly surprising, there is now a clear pattern and design to dictate what’s acceptable and what’s not.
Fabindia’s ‘crime’ was that it used an Urdu phrase, Jashn-e-Riwaaz, to describe its new festive collection that coincided with the festival of Diwali. The offence-taking mob’s argument – that using an Urdu phrase is somehow derogatory to a Hindu festival – is both laughable and illogical. It lays bare the mob’s ignorance of India’s centuries-old “Ganga-Jamuni” tehzeeb ingrained in our cultural discourse. Fabindia’s innocuous Urdu phrase translates to “celebration of tradition” in English but this mob wouldn’t have taken offence had Fabindia stuck to the English words. Never mind that Urdu is one of the 22 scheduled languages recognised by the Constitution, and, therefore, more Indian than the English of our colonial masters.
Not so long ago, one of India’s most respected conglomerates, the Tata Group, withdrew an advertisement of its jewellery brand, Tanishq, after a similar mob went on a rampage on social media and even issued threats to vandalise its physical stores. Back then, this mob had taken offence to an ad portraying a Muslim family organising a baby shower for their Hindu daughter-in-law. This message of inter-faith harmony and love was, of course, lost on a mob bent on deepening religious divide who instead saw in the ad a promotion of the so-called ‘love jihad’, a propaganda bogey that targets Muslim men.
Succumbing to mob
While nothing better can be expected of religious extremists, corporates succumbing to social media noise and failing to stand up to bigots is more worrying. One could argue that businesses are better off staying away from sensitive issues like religion and that if taking down a progressive ad is what it takes to keep making profits, then so be it. But then brands do not operate in silos anymore. They are representative of the churn in our society and politics and often steer social change. Conceding to the bigotry of mobs instead of showing them the mirror, is a candid acceptance of the lack of a spine and a willingness to put profits over everything.
However, India Inc must remember that business is not so much about profits but about the people it serves. Serving a hate-filled mob will only beget more hate and one concession would lead to another. Today they came after the Urdu phrase, tomorrow they may even question the presence of women in the ad or the clothes they are wearing. Mobs once emboldened will hit newer lows and the pressure to yield will be higher with each outrage.
Moreover, who decides what is Hindu enough or not? Corporates misconstruing a tiny but loud mob as representative of the larger community are committing a cardinal sin. After all, bigots speak for themselves and not for the silent majority. They cannot be allowed to redefine Hinduism narrowly. Corporates refusing to stand up to these bullies will only make them complicit in furthering an increasingly assertive and aggresive brand of religious nationalism.
As I close my arguments, I am itching to add a philosophical take: Money can buy you almost everything in today’s world. But even the world’s richest often fail to find the courage to stand up for what’s right, because you cannot shop courage. India Inc should better find its voice or be prepared to lose sleep in the days ahead.
Abhishek Kumar is a student at University of Calcutta. Views are personal.