New Delhi: The advertisement is over a year old, but internet has a long memory and a short temper.
As Ganesh Chaturthi fever gripped parts of the country over the weekend, a section of Hindus were also taking a break from the euphoria to lead a #BoycottRedLabel movement on Twitter — the tea, not the alcohol.
A seemingly innocuous advertisement of the beverage, released in September 2018, was retrieved from the archives of the world wide web to give parent company Hindustan Unilever (HUL) a hard time.
The ad shows a Hindu man approaching a Ganpati idol-maker to take home a murti of Bappa for the first time. The elderly idol-maker offers parcels of knowledge about Hindu traditions and tales to his customer, leaving the man suitably impressed. But then, because it’s time for his namaaz, the idol-maker puts on a skull cap, revealing his Muslim identity. The Hindu buyer is surprised, feels betrayed and disappointed.
“I have some work today, I’ll come back tomorrow,” he says, excusing himself from the interaction.
The idol-maker asks him to at least stay for (Red Label) tea. Facilitated by a glass of chai, the Hindu man’s bigotry disappears when the Muslim man explains why he does what he does: “Bhaijaan, yeh bhi toh ibadat hai” (Brother, this is also worship).
The last frame reads, “Inspired by a true story.”
For many Hindus on the internet, HUL’s campaign was more about showing their community as bigoted and exclusionary than about fostering a sense of secular harmony among people.
“Very easy to pick on Hindus,” user indy_jones3 wrote, while internet-famous Payal Rohatgi (with “Ram Ram ji. Can anyone in this advertising world make an advertisement preaching Muslims in India to not slaughter animals on Eid,”) also joined the chorus.
Some users even made placards asking others to “Boycott Red Label who insult Hindus on Ganesh Chaturthi.”
At the foundation of this outrage was a sense that Hindus, who constitute nearly 80 per cent of India’s population as of 2011 census, were the victims of selective targeting.
— hindu nitesh (@ynitesh466) September 1, 2019
This isn’t even the first time that Red Label, let alone HUL, has been at the receiving end of the Hindu population’s ire at the perceived threat to their cultural pre-eminence. Earlier this year, the tea brand was under fire for depicting a Hindu man deliberately losing his elderly father in the chaotic crowds on the Kumbh Mela, only to change his mind and return with a cup of Red Label tea.
“#RedLabel encourages us to hold the hands of those who made us who we are. Watch the heart-warming video; an eye-opener to a harsh reality,” the brand’s tweet read.
— Hindustan Unilever (@HUL_News) March 7, 2019
Hindu nationalists fought vociferously against what they saw as an affront to their values and their holy festival — #BoycottHindustanUnilever trended on Twitter, with calls to avoid all HUL products, including the completely unrelated Vaseline and Dove.
You deleted this.. But we won't forget or forgive… Time to say No to Unilever products and yes to Indian brands… My fav is Patanjali pic.twitter.com/NYQSy55za0
— नंदिता ठाकुर (@nanditathhakur) March 7, 2019
Yoga guru and owner of Patanjali products Baba Ramdev capitalised on this opportunity, comparing HUL to the East India Company, which had laid the foundations for British colonialism in India.
From East India Co to @HUL_News that’s their true character. Their only agenda is to make the country poor economically & ideologically. Why shld we not boycott them? For them everything, every emotion is just a commodity. For us parents are next to Gods #BoycottHindustanUnilever https://t.co/suozbymLBI
— Swami Ramdev (@yogrishiramdev) March 7, 2019
What HUL wanted to highlight in their ad isn’t a work of marketing fiction — old parents are often purposely abandoned at Kumbh Melas, and have to make their way to the volunteer-run lost-and-found camps on site.
Incidents of communal violence have also risen by 28 per cent between 2014 and 2017 – marked particularly by increasing cow vigilantism and the use of hateful as well as divisive rhetoric by high-ranking politicians.
When Surf Excel’s Holi ad portrayed a girl protecting her Muslim friend from the onslaught of colours and water so that he could reach the mosque to offer his namaaz in white clothes, worried Hindus cried out ‘Love Jihad.’
They poured HUL’s Surf Excel down the toilet, demanding an apology for the advertisement that preached the ‘offensive’ idea of inclusivity.
Dear HUL, holi is a festival of joy and love. Colour make lives joyful.
Holi colour is not dhaag – black spot, pl. note.
You started, we will end it, if don't apologise. pic.twitter.com/stOrSI2Hxu
— SahaJio🇮🇳 (@oldhandhyd) March 11, 2019
— हिंदुपुत्र तुषार दळवी (@Tushardalvi97) March 10, 2019
The power of #
It’s not just about online posturing, though. The unfortunate truth is that the hashtag outrage of thousands of Hindus does come at a cost for those at the receiving end. Online anger has been mobilised into mob murders and lynchings over fake WhatsApp rumours of child kidnappings.
And brands know only too well the impact of a call to boycott them or their products.
In 2017, an online campaign demanding the boycott of Amazon for selling toilet seat covers with pictures of Hindu gods on its US website resulted in a police case. The Sector 58 police station in Noida had registered an FIR against the e-commerce giant for “hurting Hindu sentiments” under Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code — promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc and performing acts prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony.
Amazon promptly removed the products from its website, just as they would, a year later, remove a tweet endorsing outspoken Bollywood actor Swara Bhasker.
In 2018, Bhasker had dared to hold a #JusticeForAasifa placard on Twitter, pushing hurt Hindus to call for a #BoycottAmazon campaign.
I am Hindustan. I am Ashamed. #JusticeForOurChild #JusticeForAasifa
8 years old. Gangraped. Murdered.
In ‘Devi’-sthaan temple. #Kathua and lest we forget #unnao Shame on us! #BreakTheSilence #EndTheComplicity #ActNow pic.twitter.com/O8rABOrZq9
— Swara Bhasker (@ReallySwara) April 13, 2018
Many online protectors of India took offence to her and other actors’ anger over the horrific Kathua rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl, while members of the Right-wing Hindu Ekta Manch — with a BJP leader in front — had waved the tricolour in support of the accused in Srinagar.
— Insanely Sane (@Sanity_3) April 19, 2018
How many times you will hurt the sentiments of Hindus? Why do you do this every year, every time? Till when will this continue? Will it ever stop? pic.twitter.com/XuwlHHu4qY
— Anshul Saxena (@AskAnshul) May 16, 2019
“There’s an organised set of trolls tracking what I do and say,” Bhasker had told ThePrint in May, adding that “I’m too far down that path now, I’ve crossed that bridge”.
After the actor started campaigning for Kanhaiya Kumar and other “candidates from secular platforms,” during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, she had said, “I’ve lost four more brands.”
— विजेश जैसवाल🇮🇳 (@vijesh21) April 22, 2018
Despite their hard-lining Hindu(tva) stance, the pious packs of online trolls don’t discriminate when it comes to the kinds of brands they boycott and urge others to. With fashion, online shopping, food, detergent and tea now out of bounds, apparently, one can only wonder what a true Hindu is actually allowed to use anymore.
Most recently, the trolls even declared they were ready to stop eating halal meat of McDonald’s, which only broke a profit in 2018 after 22 years in India.
Unorginally, #BoycottMcDonalds flooded the internet, with hungry Hindus, like user @HasdaaPunjab asking the chain to “Go To Hell,” along with the thinly veiled threat of “If you not want to end up like ZOMATO, ensure that JHATKA MEAT is served.”
Go To Hell, then. We Hindus only have JHATKA MEAT, Will educate others as well to not have any Non Veg Food From your chain. If you not want to end up like ZOMATO, ensure that JHATKA MEAT is served. Else, embrace for Financial Loss. https://t.co/ySGeo7Cxec
— ਪੰਜਾਬੀ (@HasdaaPunjab) August 23, 2019
Why don't you open separate outlets for discerning 0.1% peaceful clientele in each city ? Let's see if you can keep this open even for a day…why you expect majority of your clients to suffer halal?
— ravinder.k.malhotra🇮🇳 (@marquee58) August 23, 2019
— Chintamani Gogate (@crgogate) August 23, 2019
In late July, when a customer whose Twitter handle was @NaMo_SARKAAR (now deleted), refused to take an order from a Muslim man, Zomato founder Deepinder Goyal had said that his company “wasn’t sorry to lose any business that comes in the way of our values”.
Just cancelled an order on @ZomatoIN they allocated a non hindu rider for my food they said they can’t change rider and can’t refund on cancellation I said you can’t force me to take a delivery I don’t want don’t refund just cancel
— पं अमित शुक्ल (@NaMo_SARKAAR) July 30, 2019
We are proud of the idea of India – and the diversity of our esteemed customers and partners. We aren’t sorry to lose any business that comes in the way of our values. 🇮🇳 https://t.co/cgSIW2ow9B
— Deepinder Goyal (@deepigoyal) July 31, 2019
Overnight, more than 5,866 one-star ratings hit the Zomato app, with over 100K tweets of #BoycottZomato and #ZomatoUninstalled surging on Twitter.
Patriotism is blind, especially when conflated with religious identity
If, as the Hindu majority claims, it is being unfairly attacked and underserved, then being a minority should logically be a good thing. And yet, the same Hindus who rally against minority appeasement are also fearful of becoming a minority in their own country.
A series of false equivalences, like Bhasker using the word ‘Hindustan’ on her placard must mean she is against all Hindus, is also a significant trope in Hindu trolling.
The logic doesn’t need to stick, as long as enough people get behind it.
When Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel was accused of saying that he didn’t want to expand to “poor nations” like India and Spain, the internet backlash was so strong that it carried those who didn’t even bother to read the app’s name.
#BoycottSnapchat may have been trending, but those blind with rage accidentally uninstalled Indian e-commerce app Snapdeal instead.
If things weren’t already complicated enough, Snapdeal had already dealt with a similar controversy of its own before this — brand ambassador Aamir Khan’s statement that “India was intolerant” had pushed customers to respond with…intolerance. They asked for the company to fire him.
Names don’t even have to be similar for trolls to misdirect their wagging finger. In August 2016, a cartoon carrying Myntra’s logo, which had showed Krishna ordering a sari for Draupadi from the online fashion retailer went viral.
Soon, people starting uninstalling Flipkart-owned Myntra, as the Quartz reports, “for an ad it didn’t even make”.
We did not create this artwork nor do we endorse this. https://t.co/EWyWUEsky5
— Myntra (@myntra) August 26, 2016
These hashtag revolutions might seem like trivial politics of distraction, but they have the power to affect actual change and not just for those directly involved.
#MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter are some examples of effective online mobilisation for social justice. But for some, they are used to promote only one idea of equality — in which they are at the top of the food chain.