Jewellery store Tanishq withdrew advert showing Hindu daughter-in-law with her Muslim spouse after Hindu extremists accused it of supporting the baseless idea that Muslim men were intentionally courting Hindu women to convert them to Islam.
A spectre is haunting India’s far-right, the spectre of ‘love jihad’ - the decades old conspiracy theory in which men from the country’s Muslim minority try to Islamise the country by wooing women from the majority Hindu religion.
Subscribers to the theory, hold that any genuine feeling of romance between a Muslim man and Hindu woman is just not possible, and instead the Muslim is feigning love in order to trick the woman into converting to Islam.
By doing so, they believe that the so-called ‘love jihadists’ will slowly tilt the demographic balance of India in favour of Muslims until the state is no-longer recognisably Hindu.
There is no evidence for this conspiracy theory but the idea continues to weigh heavy in the minds of many Hindu ultra-nationalists.
In the latest manifestation of this paranoia, a barrage of hate messages and vows of a boycott targeted an Indian jeweller over an advertisement broadcast over the past week.
The ad showed an Indian Hindu daughter-in-law being doted over by her Muslim in-laws, who gift her jewellery made by the Tanishq brand.
Angry reactions were not limited to anonymous bot accounts but included prominent Indians, such as the actor Kangana Ranaut, who described the producers of the advert as ‘creative terrorists’.
According to Ranaut and other provocateurs, the Tanishq advert was an attempt to “inject” Indians with values that undermine Hindu civilisation.
The outcry succeeded in forcing Tanishq to withdraw the advert. In a statement put out on Twitter they cited “hurt sentiments” and the wellbeing of their employees.
Neither the withdrawal of the commercial nor the fact that the company is owned by TATA group, one of the biggest financial contributors to the ruling far-right BJP, assuaged the reaction.
On Wednesday, Indian media outlets reported that supporters of the far-right Hindutva movement had barged into a Tanishq store in the Gujarati town of Gandhidham demanding an apology from the store manager. Other employees have received threats.
On Twitter, the former Indian minister and liberal politician, Shashi Tharoor, wrote: “(Tanishq’s) capitulation points to the pervasive atmosphere of fear (and) intimidation that some have unleashed in the country.
“India has changed unrecognizably for the worse from the country I grew up in. Never thought I'd see the day when purveying communal hatred is the new normal!”
Increasing hate speech
Social media outlets, such as Facebook and Twitter, have allowed far-right activists to organise, recruit, and disseminate hate speech targeting India’s Muslim minority.
A search on Twitter for the term ‘love jihad’ almost exclusively promoted tweets supporting the conspiracy.
Facebook has been questioned by Indian MPs over anti-Muslim hate speech on the site being allowed to remain up.
One of the social network’s most senior executives in India is the BJP supporter, Ankhi Das.
The far-right activism online is reflected on the ground with increasing violence against Muslims.
Most significantly, 53 people were killed in communal rioting in the capital New Delhi in January, after protests against a controversial citizenship bill were targeted by Hindu extremists,
A majority of those killed were Muslims and many inside the country and outside described the events as a ‘pogrom’.
Mobs known as ‘cow vigilantes’ have also been involved in lynchings of Muslims accused of slaughtering the animal, which is considered sacred in the Hindu religion.
According to Human Rights Watch: “In several cases, political leaders of Hindu nationalist groups, including elected BJP officials, defended the assaults.”