Rightwing Trolls Outrage at Fabindia’s Urdu Phrase in Diwali Collection
It’s October 2021, and here’s where the country is at. The clothing store Fabindia named its Diwali collection “Jashn-e-Riwaaz,” an Urdu phrase, to celebrate the “Indian festival of love and light.” The rightwing ecosystem wouldn’t have it; they (including a politician from the ruling party) reacted by virtually calling for a boycott of the brand, purportedly for attacking Hindu sentiments. The gist of their complaint: associating a Hindu festival with an Urdu word (which they link to Muslims) is blasphemous; not everything is acceptable under the garb of secularism. Fabindia on Monday retracted the post.
The deluge of criticism feels familiar. Last year, around the same time, jewelry brand Tanishq rattled some sentiments for showing a Hindu daughter-in-law of a Muslim family (otherwise known as the “love jihad” bogey, which has triggered communal hatred and legislations alike). Like clockwork, ‘BoycottTanishq’ trended as a hashtag, rightwing trolls descended, and the brand recalled the ad.
“…in India of a few years ago, except for those who can afford to purchase jewelry for all such occasions, nobody would have bothered to give the ad a second look,” N.C. Asthana rightly noted in The Wire. The national, communal context that these ads find space in makes them at the center of venomous hate.
The pattern of trolling does not lend the claims any legitimacy. Many have pointed out the holes at the drummed-up outrage over Urdu. For one, Urdu has a stronghold over India, being the additional official language of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal. Two, the entire grammar and diction of Urdu are very similar to modern Hindi.
As a historian pointed out, “Urdu and Hindi are basically cousins.” Even “Hindu” is an Urdu word. The notion that Hindi and Urdu as two distinct languages remains an “artificial construct” of the East India Company.
This construct “while preserving the grammar & diction of Urdu, cleansed it of ‘foreign and rustic’ words and substituted them with Sanskrit synonyms,” Santosh Kumar Khare wrote in EPW.
In the simplest terms, Urdu is an Indian language, and using a phrase to describe an Indian festival does not amount to blasphemy; it is not derogatory to any individual, organization, or religion. Author Ranjit Hoskote also pointed out the importance of appreciating the linkages between the two languages: “It’s the tangled sources of words and ideas that remind us of the confluences and hybridized that have produced us.”
This also means the concern of “Abrahamization” of Hindus (the illusion where Hindus are denied their knowledge and vilified) also holds no weight. But facts have little place when the message is unequivocal: any association between Hindus and Muslims must be painted as a conspiracy.
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The trappings of the criticism are evident. Despite Fabindia taking the post down, the good news is that the irony will remain etched on the internet. It’s what’s called the Streisand Effect (named after American singer Barbara Streisand). “…the effect is an organic, unintended consequence of trying to suppress a piece of information on the internet — censorship efforts can backfire, leading to more people seeking out the information than they would have, had the would-be censor not tried to have it removed,” The Swaddle previously explained.
What these boycotts also present is a sordid mechanism of intimidation. Recently the wedding brand Manyavar had Alia Bhatt starring in an ad critical of the “kanyadaan” tradition (where the bride’s family “gives” the bride to the groom); BoycottManyavar trended soon. The threats — ideological or physical — send a message of intolerance and set a dangerous precedent. People can take offense at an innocuous depiction, color it with hatred, and claim victory. The illusion is they were right, any association is terrible, and exercising one’s religious intolerance can amount to results. “It’s not what you say. It’s how you say it,” as the aphorism goes.
This incident also lays bare another juxtaposition. According to a recent Pew survey, Indians across religious groups see religious diversity as an essential part of being “Indian.” The same group is aversive to mixed-faith marriages; similarly, this time’s argument was not to infuse secularism while promoting a Hindu festival.
Even though I’m tempted to call this a storm in a teacup, it’s a teacup no longer. The frequency and rationale of these attacks normalize hate against a religious minority, repeatedly disrupting communal harmony. If religious hatred is the norm, any attempt at building a syncretic nation will become an exception.