India’s leading fashion designer was forced to withdraw advertisements for his latest line of wedding jewellery after he was threatened with legal action by a politician from the ruling party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Mangalsutra jewellery collection launched by Indian fashion label Sabyasachi, owned by designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee, featured portraits of models, some in lingerie, adorned with bridal jewellery while posing with romantic partners, some portraying same-sex couples.
Mangalsutras are considered sacred ornaments in Hindu tradition and are worn by wives as symbolic representations of their marital status. Far-right Hindu quarters found the campaign offensive because of the models’ revealing apparel, the intimate nature of their poses, and the suggestion of same-sex romance.
“I am personally warning designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee, giving him a 24-hour ultimatum. If this objectionable and obscene advertisement is not withdrawn, then a case will be registered against him and legal action will be taken. The police force will be sent for action,” Modi’s minister Narottam Mishra told local press on Sunday.
In response to the outcry, Sabyasachi removed their ads and released a statement of apology on Instagram that stated: “The campaign was intended as a celebration and we are deeply saddened that it has instead offended a section of our society.”
The removal of the Mangalsutra campaign is the third in a series of informal ad censorships led by the ruling Hindu nationalistic party, which has been tightening its grip on the country’s biggest companies.
In October, Mishra issued a warning against India’s largest natural healthcare and Ayurvedic company Dabur when it released a commercial that featured a lesbian couple celebrating the Hindu festival of Karva Chauth. The company also caved to the minister’s threats and pulled the commercial to avoid legal repercussions. Commenting on the company’s withdrawal of the ad, supreme court judge DY Chandrachud said that it had to be removed due to “public intolerance.”
In the same month, clothing company FabIndia received major flak from ruling party politicians for using the partially Urdu phrase “Jashn-e-Riwaaz,” which translates to “Celebration of Tradition,” to promote its upcoming collection ahead of the Hindu festival of Diwali. The phrase drew condemnation for allegedly hurting the sentiments of the Hindu community.
While Urdu originated in 12th century India and is currently one of its 22 official languages, it uses a Persian-Arabic script and is considered a “Muslim language” by many Indians. Even though it’s spoken by India’s Muslims, who make up 14 percent of the country’s population, it’s increasingly controversial for Hindu hardliners who focus on it also being the national language of India’s bitter rival, Pakistan. Since Modi has come to power, numerous towns, cities and streets have lost their Urdu names for new Hindi names.
In 2020, the jewellery company Tanishq faced threats, protests and calls for a boycott by Hindu nationalist groups after it featured a Hindu-Muslim couple in its television advertisement. The brand was accused of trying to promote “love jihad,” the far-right conspiracy theory that Muslim men are out to marry Hindu women to convert them to Islam.
Media experts believe that the growing red tape around brand advertisements can ultimately lead to an atmosphere of stifled creative expression.
“There is bound to be some amount of self-censorship as a result of what we call the ‘chilling effect’. Brands and agencies are bound to think up as many situations and counterpoints themselves at the scripting stage and may want to avoid any kind of online backlash. That would inhibit ideas and creativity eventually,” communications strategy consultant Karthik Srinivasan told VICE World News.
According to Rohit Chopra, professor of communications at Santa Clara University in California, increasing pressure on corporations can also have a domino effect by seeping into consumer purchasing behaviors and attitudes.
“It leads to a peculiar form of regressive consumer behavior where being a ‘good Hindu’ is now coded as supporting Hindutva-compliant corporations,” Chopra told VICE World News.
“So we will see a ‘be Hindu, buy Hindu’ logic more prominently expressed in purchasing behavior, where Hindu is increasingly defined in narrow terms as militant, nationalistic, divested of any association with other faiths, especially Islam and Christianity. And, in turn, brands will cater more to this expectation and reinforce it,” Chopra added.
In light of the latest controversy, the hashtags #Sabyasachi_Insults_HinduCulture and #BoycottSabyasachi trended on Twitter.
The Modi government subscribes to the ideology of Hindutva that views India as an exclusively Hindu nation despite its multi-religious communities and history. Since Modi’s rise to power in 2014, India has experienced a steep rise in hate crimes and legislative discrimination against the country’s minorities, especially toward its 200 million Muslims
“This kind of bullying and muscle flexing by the Hindu right serves several political purposes. It is meant to reiterate that the true guardians of Hinduism are the Hindu right-wing groups that intimidate corporations and others on grounds of ‘hurting Hindu sentiments,’” said Chopra.
“It sends a message to the corporate world, advertising world, media and Bollywood that they have to fall in line with endorsing the ideology of the BJP and the Hindu right.”
Follow Rimal Farrukh on Twitter.