Tanishq ad row: Trolls dictating the narrative

By Neelu Vyas. Dated: 10/23/2020 12:29:40 PM

Way back in 2012 the Singaporean artist and author Jess C Scott wrote "people are sheep and media is the shepherd. This idiomatic expression couldn’t have been more relevant in context with the blitzkrieg of the Internet troll army in India, the monstrous proportions it has gained to destroy everything which India stood for. The emblematic, symbolic and in many ways constitutional and national epitome of India all these years was the popular thread which spun unity in diversity. The troll army has put its final nail of annihilation with the big corporate giant Tata's Tanishq withdrawing its interfaith household love advertisement buckling under the pressure of ‘Love Jihad’ slogan of the right wingers. Yes, troll army is the new shepherd of the society and fundamentalists more appropriately defined as bigots are the sheep who graze the fields of logic, sanity and reason. So, is there a connotation between the Tanishq ad and sheep-shepherd relationship. Let’s analyse it point by point.
Internet troll Army is the new guardian of the Hindutva kingdom and what's most unfortunate is the political patronage and suppórt they get from the ruling dispensation to spread hatred, acrimony and violence. The ad row for now looks like the silencing of the liberal voice, but for more reasons emboldens the fundamentalists and nationalists to a large extent.
Has the Tanishq ad really hurt the emotions? Well here goes the story. It potrays a South Indian Hindu girl married to a Muslim boy and the mother-in-law of the girl celebrating the baby shower a ritual sacred for the Hindus in India but not followed by the Muslim brethren. The ad has beautiful music, an ostentatious ambience, with a secular feel of a liberal progressive Muslim family of a modern India which symbolises acceptance and plurality. The advertisement is telecast and put on youtube as well as under Tanishq's Ekatvam series which celebrates the beauty of oneness but this beauty is made to look like a beast because the 43 seconds commercial on interfaith love triggered a furious backlash on social media with some accusing the jewellery brand of promoting ‘Love jihad’. Others launched a savage assault on Tanishq and Tata, with some accusing them of promoting only "Muslim" jewellery on their website and others calling the brand "pseudo secular".
"I strongly opposed this type of love jihad please Hindu jago," one user tweeted. Titan stock fell sharply amid the trolling on the day of the Boycott Tanishq hashtag ending 2.1 percent down on the Bombay Stock Exchange and 2.5 percent down on the National Stock Exchange. "This is our power... @TanishqJewelry," one user wrote in reference. Others quickly picked up on that claim, and that no "Hindu" jewellery was found on Tanishq's website.
Tata and Tanishq got bullied, they couldn’t withstand the army of trollers and the company eventually withdrew the film, citing hurt sentiments and the well-being of its staff. It said in a statement that it was "deeply saddened with the inadvertent stirring of emotions". The film, it added, had stimulated divergent and severe reactions, contrary to its very objective.
The idea behind Ekatvam campaign was to celebrate the coming together of people from different walks of life, local communities and amiliesduring these challenging times and celebrate the confluence but the criminals of socialmedia ensured that this confluence was something never to be seen, felt and cherished.
Advertisements reach the very depths of our consciousness; and if allowed to enter unimpeded and unquestioned their concepts can become a part of our being making the ethos culturally rich. Tanishq ad was the perfect recipe for nurturing this sentiment. But the advertisement met a premature death as the controversy has left a deep gash on the minds of the advertisers who feel that corporates were never bullied like this.
Executive Vice president of the popular Advertising company L&K Satchi & Satchi, Atin Wahal, says "people don't buy products but the belief that the brands project, people buy the brands intent and Tanishq ad reflects core fabric of the nation, I just wish Tanishq should have stood by it officially rather pulling it off as this would deter other Brands to reflect what is true”
There are few brands which had the gumption to weave a strong social message into their advertisements and Tanishq’s Ekatvam series surely stood out as a clutter breaker but its withdrawal has impacted the social messaging in the advertising world as the ad companies
feel that trollers might intimidate them and their creative expression would go to the altar.
Founder, Consumer & Strategy consultancy WolfzHowl, Kalyan Challapalli says,
“social ads cannot be limited to national pride, or taking care of the weak or the old, helping animals and planet. but any inter racial or interreligious harmony ads are bound to raise the eyebrow, trolls have the right to express their opinion but online intimidation should be made into a criminal offence.”
So why has a brand like Tata capitulated before the troll power? Are there any learning lessons for the corporates as well. Communications consultant, political campaign advisor, journalist Dilip Cherian has a different take altogether. He cites, "the lack of data” as the main reason why Tata pulled out the advertisement. “Companies need to know if social media opposition is a reflection of genuine consumer reaction or just a politically sponsored rage. Data would have helped give Tanishq a more rational basis to withdraw the ad than just the fear factor, tomorrow will belong to those companies who know how to use data more rapidly and regularly," he points out.
During times of economy going into a tailspin, pandemic having created a black hole, when corporates are mulling over ways and means of limping back to financial recovery, this ad controversy has also shown how economy can be marauded at the hands of the vested trollers, Chief Economist, PHD Chambers of Commerce SP Sharma says, "Internet revolution should be for the sustainable growth trajectory of the country, not to let down individuals or enterprises which will have repercussions both economic and societal.”
From the political and social prism after a concerted
and abusive social media campaign, the vandals issued threats and attacked the Tanishq showrooms. Apparently, there had been a danger of physical assault and damage to property whether it was the commercial pressure or the spectre of Diwali boycott which forced Tata group to cave in is a matter to be pondered but what is of prime concern is the manner in which censorship and restriction of freedom of expression is justified. Former Information & Broadcasting Minister & Lok Sabha MP Manish Tiwari says, "it’s a sad reflection of the times that we live in, that a company as eminent as Tanishq had to withdraw an advertisement that reflected both our rich pluralism and the founding values of India."
In India, nobody seems to think that the government has any obligation to preserve freedom of expression. Normally, if a government itself censors a book or film then it's deemed as censorship but if someone else is stifling the expression, the perception is that the government doesn't have the responsibility. The fanaticism borders to the extreme when protestors threaten law and order and the ruling government is mostly happy to help the obstructionists rather than pulling them up. In effect, the right to free speech in India is governed by anyone who can throw a stone. Or at the very least, by those who can threaten violence. Former Chief Justice Allahabad High Court Vimlesh Shukla, says “freedom of speech and expression is on paper but in reality even though it does not violate any law, the custodians of morality without any authority of law impinge upon the rights of freedom of expression and most unfortunately government is a passive spectator to all these activities. Tanishq advertisement is the latest casualty.”
Despite calling ourselves a liberal democracy, we cave in so easily when free expression is threatened. Eventually, the answer has to be the government. And by that, I mean all governments from all parties. Most often observed political pattern in case of freedom of expression is that the ruling government tries to put curbs if it seemingly looks politically cornered whereas the opposition raises the pitch by crying foul to get into the political space. So what’s the answer to the freedom of expression. Well it's is a political tool now horse powered by the muscularity of the Internet troll army which is amorphous, unaccountable, unregulated but distanced from the state machinery apparatus but inadvertently becomes the first line of attack.
The girl featured in the Tanishq ad is from Tamil Nadu, Muslim boy's family is from Kerala. Bollywood screenwriter duo Siddharta-Garima who took forward Prime Minister Narendra Modi's clarion call of Swatcha Bharat through the movie ‘Toilet Ek Prem Katha’, also weaving aggressive love stories through popular periodic films like Sanja Leela Bhansali's Ram Leela and amongst the most recent ones like Kabir Singh, feel stifled as creators, the duo says.
"It's unfortunate that such opportunities are panned and banned like this. High time the creators take a stronger stand for freedom of speech."
Call it a strange political coincidence but both these states are a few months away from assembly elections in the year 2021 and also the landscape where BJP and RSS are struggling to find a foothold. So doesn’t the issue trigger and salivate the saffron camp CPI General Secretary and former Rajya Sabha MP from Tamil Nadu D Raja says "BJP-RSS can rake up any issue to foment unrest, Ratan Tata came under the coercion of BJP ". Raja rues the fact that such things are quite likely during the era of corporate communal fascism.
Though newly inducted, BJP leader actor turned politician Khushboo Sundar says that the "people of Tamil Nadu are not even discussing this issue and it is unnecessarily being raked up”. If the government and the society in its entirety was committed to protect free speech, Tata would have stood tall against the buffeting waves of hatred but this was not to be because we are at the mercy of the bigots. The fanatics who throw stones and since they are politically well connected, their agenda of dividing the society and spreading venom by targeting a particular group, gets a political acceptance. Veteran CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury says his party has always upheld the
Fundamental Right of the Indian Constitution of right to expression. “Disagreements can always be discussed, and people shall decide what's right and what's wrong but that right cannot be
suppressed," he says.
So are the politicians happy about polarising a public opinion and riding on its waves? BJP Rajya Sabha MP and Chairman, Indian Council for Cultural Relations Vinay Sahasrabudhe says, "Tanishq advertisement shouldn’t be discussed from the communal angle, it's about realism.
Many thought what the ad depicted was unrealistic and that’s the reason for all the brouhaha.
Whenever advertisements try to show only one side of the coin and that too with political correctness, people suspect an agenda and in the days of social media somebody reveals the same.”
Sahasrabudhe’s quote could be the tail note to the people who say BJP has fuelled the controversy to propel the Hindutva agenda but the big question is: are we ready to push our children to inherit an India which is built on hate and toxic agendas. Can we not define boundaries and limits for the troll Army which seemingly gets the tacit and invisible support of the ruling government. Can freedom of expression go without the political interference …well these are wide gaping questions in the vaccum of no answers at the moment but what one cannot erase from the pages of the Indian Preamble are the pillars of inclusivity, tolerance, and secularism. So let’s hope and pray no more Tanishqs become a victim of this political, economic and social agenda woven by sheep-shepherd relationship of the troll army and the netizens.
(The author is Senior Television Anchor, Consulting Editor, Current Affairs Satyahindi.Com & Writer)



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