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‘Dictating what is Indian’: backlash over Urdu phrase in fashion advert | India

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Released just as festival season is kicking off across India, it looked like your average advert for festive attire. Models posed, resplendent in red and gold, showing off the newest collection by Fabindia that was said to “pay homage to Indian culture”.

Yet, in just a matter of hours, the poster had sent convulsions through India. A boycott was called against Fabindia, a staple brand in the country, and by the end of the day the advert had been taken down after it was deemed offensive to Hinduism by members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) and right-wing Hindu groups.

The vehement objections to the Fabindia advert were a direct response to the name of the collection, “Jashn-e-Riwaaz”, a phrase that means “celebration of tradition” in Urdu.

According to BJP figures, rightwing commentators and Hindu groups who waded in, the use of Urdu in an advert for a clothes collection associated with Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, was “culturally inappropriate” and offensive to Hinduism.

Urdu is a language which has its origins in India. It is recognised in the constitution as one of the country’s official languages and is what some of India’s most celebrated poems and love songs are written in. Yet in recent years its use has become increasingly politicised in the public sphere, often decried as the “Muslim” language of India’s rival, the neighbouring Islamic country of Pakistan.

Bharatiya Janata party activists and supporters celebrate before the groundbreaking ceremony of the Hindu Ram Temple in New Delhi
Supporters of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party. One prominent BJP MP called for a boycott of Fabindia after it featured Urdu in an advert associated with a Hindu festival. Photograph: Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images

Tejasvi Surya, a BJP MP, tweeted: “Deepavali is not Jash-e-Riwaaz. This deliberate attempt of abrahamisation of Hindu festivals, depicting models without traditional Hindu attires, must be called out”. His call for an economic boycott of Fabindia quickly gained traction online.

The objections and trolling escalated further over outrage that the women in the Fabindia advert were not wearing a bindi, the coloured decorative dot often worn by Hindu women on their foreheads, and a subsequent hashtag #NoBindiNoBusiness began to trend on Twitter.

Rohit Chopra, a professor of communication at Santa Clara university who studies Indian media, described the objections to the used of “Jashn-e-Riwaaz” in the Fabindia advert as “completely bizarre”.

“It’s part of this BJP imperative to somehow purify Hinduism, to have this model of Hinduism which is completely divested, and bleached clean of any Islamic or Muslim influences,” said Chopra. “But it’s bogus. Language does not map on to religion; just as Hindi is not the exclusive property of Hinduism, Urdu is not the property of Islam.”

Fabindia later clarified that the collection was not its Diwali collection, which would be released later, but still chose to take the advert down. “We at Fabindia have always stood for the celebration of India with its myriad traditions in all hues. Our Diwali collection called ‘Jhilmil is Diwali’ is yet to be launched,” said the company spokesperson.

‘Teaching Muslims a lesson’

It was not the only advert this week to face such accusations of religious offence against India’s Hindu majority. On Friday, an advert by a tyre company featuring one of Bollywood’s biggest actors, Aamir Khan, was accused by BJP MP Ananthkumar Hegde of creating “an unrest among the Hindus”. The advert featured Khan, who is a Muslim, advising people not to burn polluting firecrackers during Diwali.

According to Hedge’s complaint letter, aside from insensitivity to Hinduism, the real problem the advert should have tackled was the “nuisance” caused by blocking of the roads during Muslim Friday prayers and “other important festive days by Muslims” and the “great inconvenience” caused by mosques broadcasting the call the prayer.

Indian Bollywood actor Aamir Khan
Aamir Khan, a prominent Muslim Bollywood actor who has condemned religious intolerance in India and who has also been accused of upsetting Hindus. Photograph: Sujit Jaiswal/AFP/Getty Images

For Chopra, there were parallels between the “sectarian targeting” of an advert starring Khan, a prominent Muslim actor who in the past has condemned the rising religious intolerance in India, to the ongoing saga involving the son of another major Muslim Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan, who was recently arrested on drugs charges and denied bail, in a case where the credibility of the case has been questioned and that many have condemned as politically motivated.

“This is all about teaching Muslims, especially prominent Muslims, a lesson: that even the biggest names in Bollywood are not protected from the Modi government,” said Chopra.

The incidents are not isolated. Since the BJP, a Hindu nationalist party, came to power in 2014 led by prime minister Narendra Modi, such accusations of insensitivity to Hinduism have been levelled more and more at films, television series and now advertising, as popular culture and media are viewed increasingly through a prism of religion in India.

Last year, an advert for a jewellery company, Tanishq, that depicted a Hindu woman married into a Muslim family had to be removed after it led to its shops being attacked, thecompany being viciously trolled online and calls for it to be boycotted.

Similarly in 2018, Close Up toothpaste pulled their #FreeToLove ad featuring Hindu Muslim couples after it was subjected to a vicious online hate campaign.

Chopra pointed out that this was a relatively new development, and while Indian advertising predominantly featured upper caste Hindu families, it also has a history of being “very secular and inclusive” and had often depicted Hindu-Muslim unity.

Notable examples include the popular 1989 television advert for the Bajaj scooter, which showed people from all Indian religions happily riding down roads on their two-wheelers, multiple ads for Red Label tea showing Hindus and Muslims drinking chai together, a 2016 advert by Surf washing power released for Ramadan, and a 2017 United Colours of Benetton ad that played on stereotypes of communal violence to show a picture of Muslim-Hindu harmony on the cricket pitch.

While Chopra said objections to such adverts were nothing new, “they used to come from fringe extreme individuals and organisations who were dismissed almost instantly”.

“Now, it’s prominent BJP voices who are legitimising these extreme views,” said Chopra. “Dictating what is ‘Indian’, what is ‘Hindu’ and what is ‘Muslim’, and making them mainstream.”

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