The Tata Group, the 152-year-old salt-to-steel conglomerate, is about as establishment as Indian business gets. But its watch and jewellery company, Titan, has an appetite for challenging India’s conservative social mores and championing progressive values.

In 2013 Tanishq, Titan’s luxury jewellery brand, won plaudits for an advertisement in which the bride at a lavish wedding celebration is revealed to have a young daughter, confronting taboos around remarriage and single motherhood. The ad was hailed as a milestone, and Tanishq praised by a prominent industrialist for “breaking stereotypes with grace and power”.

Times have changed. Today, Tanishq is once again in the spotlight. This time, though, the jeweller is under fire for an ad celebrating interfaith marriage — a bugbear for rightwing Hindus convinced that Muslims are using romance to erode India’s overwhelming Hindu majority.

The backlash highlights the treacherous terrain facing consumer companies in India amid deepening political polarisation and an intensifying battle over the nature of Indian society.

In the new ad, an affluent Muslim family lovingly prepares their home to host a surprise traditional Hindu godh bharai, or baby shower, for their expectant Hindu daughter-in-law. “Mum, this isn’t even a ceremony that is followed in your house,” the young mother-to-be says to her mother-in-law. The older woman replies lovingly that keeping daughters happy is a tradition in every house.

Tanishq said the ad was part of a campaign called ekatvam or oneness intended “to celebrate the coming together of people from all walks of life . . . in these challenging times”. But irate rightwing Hindus accused the brand of promoting “love jihad”, their term for what they believe is a conspiracy by Muslim men to marry Hindu women and alter India’s demographic balance.

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As social media rage mounted, Tanishq apologised and withdrew the ad, citing concern for the safety of its employees and store staff. But #BoycottTanishq trended on social media — and Titan shares dropped 2.6 per cent on the Bombay Stock Exchange. Rightwing Hindus weren’t the only ones fuming. The brand’s capitulation prompted dismay from liberals, who lamented that even the venerable Tata Group could not resist pressure from the assertive rightwing Hindu movement.

Themes of national integration, and unity in diversity, were once a traditional staple of Indian advertising — used to push everything from tea to mobile phone services. The government itself used to run public service announcements on similar themes. But with the ruling Bharatiya Janata party committed to giving Hindus and their beliefs pre-eminence, India’s public discourse has grown increasingly poisonous.

Hindustan Unilever got a taste of that last year with an ad for its detergent, Surf Excel, featuring two adorable little kids, a Hindu girl and Muslim boy, during the spring festival of colours, Holi. In the ad, the bike-riding girl provides cover for the boy to keep his pristine white clothes clean for mosque, as neighbours throw the traditional coloured dye and water balloons. That provoked unexpected outrage — and calls to boycott Surf Excel — from rightwing groups who called it “Hinduphobic”, said it denigrated the Hindu holiday, and even promoted “love jihad”.

Now companies aren’t just coming under fire for their own content, but also the television channels on which they advertise. India’s leading pro-government TV news channels have become fiercely combative and vitriolic, seen by many as deliberately stoking hatred of dissidents and minorities, and giving credence to conspiracy theories. That has led to a focus on those channels’ advertisers, who are being accused of sponsoring “the toxicity, the hatred, the bigotry our news channels spew out 24×7”, in the words of one retired bureaucrat.

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Some are taking a stand. Bajaj Auto, and the biscuit company, Parle Products, have decided to stop advertising on three channels they deem to foster hatred. Others, such as carmaker Renault, have been criticised by anti-hate campaigners. As political heat rises, ever more companies — Indian and international — are likely to find themselves in an uncomfortable sweat.

amy.kazmin@ft.com





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