A Secular State?

December 10, 2020

On October 13th, 2020, Tanishq, a popular Indian jewelry brand, withdrew an advertisement for their new collection after facing widespread backlash from Indian netizens. The ad, which showed a Hindu bride’s Muslim in-laws organizing her baby shower, was accused by many of promoting ‘love jihad’. Love jihad is an Islamophobic conspiracy theory, which claims that Muslim men commonly force their Non-Muslim brides to convert to Islam by feigning love. This belief, among other anti-Muslim sentiments, is common in India, where religious polarization is rapidly increasing under the current Hindu nationalist administration.

Love jihad is not just a far-fetched theory prevalent amongst extremist groups in India, but has quickly made its way into legislation. Last week, the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh pushed through an emergency law to prevent the so-called forced conversion of Hindu women, by prohibiting marital religious conversion.

Officials say the law is made to “prevent any kind of deception, fraud, and misrepresentation.” Civil rights groups, on the other hand, insist that the practice is not a danger to society and that the new law is simply a way to limit inter-faith marriages and ensure that the state can dictate who Hindu girls should marry. “There is no concerted conspiracy that has been unearthed in India,” said Madhu Mehra, a feminist lawyer, “It’s just about demonising Muslims.”

When I first heard about the controversy through Instagram, I was, for the lack of a better word, confused. Even after watching the ad carefully, trying to pick it apart to find something, anything, that could cause someone to be offended, I was still baffled. The description for the video posted to YouTube read: “She is married into a family that loves her like their own child. Only for her, they go out of their way to celebrate an occasion that they usually don’t. A beautiful confluence of two different religions, traditions and cultures.” The ad, in essence, was simply about a Muslim family attempting to make their Hindu daughter in-law more comfortable in their home.

The fact that so many people found so many problems with this notion is proof in and of itself of how rampant both Islamophobia and Hindu nationalism have become, especially in a country with almost  200 million Muslims. Muslim marginalization in India isn’t a recent occurrence, but the attachment of a malicious motive – love jihad –  to the minority group is relatively new phenomenon. “This advert is wrong on many levels, Hindu bahu [daughter-in-law] is living with the family for significant amount of time but acceptance happens only when she is carrying their heir,” popular Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut tweeted on the 13th. “(…)Is she just a set of ovaries? This advert does not only promote love-jihad but also sexism #tanishq.”

As if the blatant Islamophobia of one of India’s most prominent public figures isn’t bad enough, Yogi Aditnayath, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and current Chief Minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, which also happens to be home to the most Muslims in the country, stated that “[Muslims] can’t do what they want by force in India, so they are using the love jihad method here.”

What is alarming here is not only the Anti-Muslim sentiments, but also the weaponizing of feminism as a cover for Hindu Nationalist views, when is it clear that believers aren’t concerned with women’s rights at all. A good example of this is the case regarding Hadiya. Born Hindu, she converted to Islam after marrying a Muslim man. Her father filed a missing case report and alleged that she had been forcefully converted, despite her repeatedly stating she had done so of her own volition. The Indian Supreme Court annulled her marriage in 2016, and after a court case of almost 3 years, her marriage was restored. It was not only right-wing groups on the fringes of society that denied a woman of her rights, but also the highest court of India.

Coming back to the topic of the Tanishq advertisement, after the ad was withdrawn, my parents and I had a conversation about it at the dinner table. Even during the conversation, the dominant thought I had was how ridiculous it was that we needed to have a discussion about it at all; after all  the ad  simply promoted one of India’s most basic values: secularism.

Shashi Tharoor, Indian politician, diplomat, and former Under-Secretary General, put this notion into words quite well. “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?” he tweeted. Constitutionally,  since the country’s independence from the British in 1947, and historically, even before that, the country has always stood for secularism and the ability to coexist without conflict. Tanishq’s jewelry collection, called ‘Ekatvam’, meaning ‘unity’ in Hindi, was meant to celebrate the country’s diverse backgrounds and push for harmony and integration between all groups in India. Instead, it only succeeded in breaking them apart.

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