I admit memories can be deceptive and as you grow older they could even become misleading, but the India I recall from my teens seems a very different country to the one I live in today. Of course, we were a poorer country, few people travelled abroad whilst most hankered for foreign goods. Simple telephones were a luxury, trunk calls a nightmare, journeys by plane a treat and there was only black and white television. On the other hand, Coca Cola cost 25 paise and five rupees was considered generous pocket money for a 13-year-old. But these are not the differences I have in mind.
There was something else about the old India that we took for granted in the 1960s which we are in danger of losing today. Long before Sunil Khilnani coined the evocative phrase “the idea of India”, we lived it every day at Doon School. We had no idea of our caste or what it implied. Religion, which is tearing us apart, seemed irrelevant. Rich or poor, intelligent or dim, fat or thin, fair or dark, short or tall, these attributes did not create divisions between us. They did not matter. We were one. Strange as it may sound, we were so similar it felt as if we were the same.
It’s this sentiment the now withdrawn Tanishq advertisement sought to celebrate. Created to promote its Ekavatam brand of jewellery — and remember that word means oneness — this is what the company itself says of the advertisement: “The idea behind the Ekavatam campaign is to celebrate the coming together of people from different walks of life, local communities and families during these challenging times and celebrate the beauty of oneness.” So it wasn’t simply selling golden baubles. It was promoting, actually revelling in, “the beauty of oneness”. That’s an elevated and captivating phrase for what politicians prosaically call “unity in diversity”.
This is the silken thread that binds together the many different people of India. We speak in a multitude, even a babel, of languages, prefer contrasting cuisines, dress differently, look dissimilar and pray to a perplexing pantheon of gods. Yet each of us calls himself Indian and is proud of it. This is because “the beauty of oneness” is an instinctive part of us. You could even say it’s our raison d’etre.
Yet this was the target the trolls were after when they attacked Tanishq’s Ekavatam campaign. The advertisement they excoriated celebrated the love of a Muslim mother-in-law for her Hindu daughter-in-law. It’s a love that transcends the foolish but often impregnable walls that rigid faith can erect between people. A love that gives meaning and fulfilment to the relationships that really matter in our lives.
The trolls, however, called it “love jihad”. Not only is this oxymoronic but it mocks and challenges the belief our different religions do not divide the Indian people. The fact some pray westwards facing Mecca whilst others do so blowing conch shells in temples does not preclude affection for each other. Some may wear a cross, others a tilak or topi, but these differing symbols of faith do not separate us or, even, define us. There is a lot more that we share in common. This is the idea of India and the trolls were trying to tear it apart.
Tanishq has allowed them to succeed. But I don’t blame the company alone. That would be too narrow. The Tata Group cannot escape responsibility. Let me explain why. How could they not have been aware of the deeper, stronger, richer message that the advertisement sought to convey? Indeed, how could they not have intended it? The advertisement was not created in a fit of forgetfulness nor was it accepted without considering the consequences that could follow. After all, it was so obviously doing more than just selling jewellery. It was a haunting picture of something the Tatas know we are in danger of losing — “the beauty of oneness”. It was a call to awaken India. A reminder of what makes us one country.
So when the Tatas withdrew this advertisement, they also turned their back on this message. I am pretty certain they know this and I believe they must be embarrassed by it. Consider carefully their explanation for what they have done. It’s not just weak and unconvincing, it’s actually contradictory. “We are deeply saddened with the inadvertent stirring of emotions”, it begins. So what do they do? Stand up and fight back, as their convictions would expect of them? No. They decided to “withdraw this film keeping in mind the hurt sentiments and well-being of our employees, partners and store staff”. But whose sentiments did that advertisement hurt? Only that of the trolls. And if there is any threat to the well-being of their employees, partners and store staff -- and, sadly, that could be so — it’s enhanced security that they need, not a cowardly retreat.
The Tata Group has let down India. There’s no denying that fact. However, corporations don’t think in these grandiloquent terms except when their chairmen are making speeches to attract public attention. What’s more surprising is that the Tatas have also let themselves down. This is a company that’s always been credited with a vision that encompasses more than growth and profit. It’s created an image of the Tata Group that we have all bought into. Now that picture has developed cracks.
I don’t know Ratan Tata well. However, on the few occasions we have met I sensed there was more to him than just an outstandingly successful businessman. My hunch is that he knows this too. I would say he values this extra quality. He’s probably silently proud of it. But, today, when he looks at himself in the mirror, will he be happy with the image that is reflected back? I know he will see the difference. But will it upset him? Or will he comfort himself with the excuse that this is a change which is necessary to succeed in Narendra Modi’s India?