Noting that the intimidation campaign carried out by a BJP MP to force retail business FabIndia to revoke an innocuous advertisement on communal grounds is the latest indicator of the attack on religious plurality in the domain of business, S.N. SAHU looks back at the colonial practice of ‘Hindu-Muslim tea’ to explain how its modern replication violates constitutional provisions, as well as the values of religious harmony advocated by Gandhi and Vivekananda.
In the festive season around this time of the year, several businesses release ads to promote their products and augment their sales.
The retail chain store FabIndia recently welcomed the festival of love and light through an ad that thoughtfully stated “Jashn-E-Riwaaz by FabIndia is a collection that beautifully pays homage to Indian culture.” It has a picture of some ladies and a man predominantly clad with attire of red colour and other light shades. At the bottom, it is written “This festive season, revisit your traditional roots with Jashn-E-Riwaaz by FabIndia.”
BJP MP’s outrageous tweet
Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament Tejasvi Surya responded to the ad by posting a tweet earlier this week that stated:
“Deepavali is not Jash-e-Riwaaz.
This deliberate attempt of abrahamisation of Hindu festivals, depicting models without traditional Hindu attires, must be called out.
And brands like [Fab India] must face economic costs for such deliberate misadventures.”
The ad was soon withdrawn by FabIndia following this intimidating tweet, which violates the Constitution and the ideal of fraternity enshrined in it.
How the tweet violates constitutional ideals
Surya, being an MP, is bound by the oath he has taken to “bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India as by law established …” Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution provides that all citizens have the “right to practice any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business.”
An MP openly saying that a business must face economic consequences for an ad, which is absolutely in accordance with law, constitutes a threat to the fundamental right to engage in trade and commerce. It is also a crude way of arm twisting those pursuing business to conform to certain uniform standards imposed on people based on majoritarianism.
Law in a pluralist society
The Supreme Court, in its judgment in Dr M. Ismail Frauqui & Ors. vs. Union Of India & Ors. (1994) invoked some extracts from a paper on “Law in a Pluralist Society” by Justice M.N. Venkatachaliah, and quoted his words:
“The purpose of law in plural societies is not the progressive assimilation of the minorities in the majoritarian milieu. This would not solve the problem; but would vainly seek to dissolve it. What then is its purpose? Again in the words of Lord Scarman (Minority Rights in a Plural Society, P.63):
The purpose of law in plural societies is not to extinguish the groups which make the society but to devise political, social and legal means of preventing them from falling apart and so destroying the plural society of which they are members.”
Violation of Fundamental Duty
Surya observed in his tweet, “This deliberate attempt of abrahamisation of Hindu festivals, depicting models without traditional Hindu attires, must be called out.”
In saying so he is attacking the religious pluralism which is an integral feature of our composite culture, and guaranteed by the Constitution. In fact, he is violating the Fundamental Duty provided in Article 51A(f) which clearly states that it shall be the duty of every citizen of India “to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture”.
Swami Vivekananda also used Abrahamic religion to define India
If the MP objects to “abrahamisation of Hindu festivals” then he would have to object to Swami Vivekananda’s advocacy that India needed a Vedantic brain and Islamic body.
The use of an Abrahamic religion like Islam by Vivekananda, one of the greatest monks of India, to present a composite identity of our country would be unacceptable to Surya, who seems to be attempting to create conditions to deepen the “majoritarian milieu” and hatefully use it, in the context of the Diwali festival, to target the fundamental right of citizens to engage in trade and commerce.
Also read: The Muzaffarnagar Kisan Mahapanchayat rekindles hopes for the reclamation of the Constitution
Gandhi on lessening hatred for celebrating Diwali
It was Mahatma Gandhi who in a letter to his daughter-in-law Sushila Gandhi on October 4, 1938 wrote, “Wherever we look, we see hatred and bitterness. If, therefore, anybody wants to celebrate Diwali, he should try to lessen the hatred and bitterness and, having purified himself, plunge into the swaraj yajna.”
It is rather sad to see the replay of “hatred and bitterness” of those tragic times of 1938 in today’s India because of the campaign of law makers like Surya, who has a record of fuelling communal discord on earlier occasions before apologising.
For instance, in May 2021, he accused Bengaluru’s civic body of colluding with private nursing homes and hospitals to block beds and reserve them for exorbitant fees, and pointed fingers at the large number of Muslims who he alleged were posted there to do so. Later he tendered an apology for saying so.
Also read: Gandhi predicted communal discord would poison education, distort history
Law as an integrating force
It is worthwhile to refer to the aforementioned paper on “Law in a Pluralist Society” by Justice Venkatachaliah. In it, he sagely wrote:
“In a pluralist, secular polity law is perhaps the greatest integrating force. A cultivated respect for law and its institutions and symbols; a pride in the country’s heritage and achievements; faith that people live under the protection of an adequate legal system are indispensable for sustaining unity in pluralist diversity”.
It is rather sad that the majesty of law as the greatest integrating force is now being undermined by democratically elected representatives whose actions run counter to the very Constitution that has established an electoral democracy in India.
It is all the more sad that Fabindia withdrew the ad after Surya’s menacing tweet threatening economic consequences.
Withdrawal of Tanishq ad by Tatas was against their own legacy
Last year, Tanishq, a jewellery brand of the Tata Group, issued an ad on the theme “Ekatvam”, depicting communal harmony and unity. It portrayed care and affection for a Hindu daughter-in-law by a Muslim family.
It was sadly withdrawn in the face of intimidation it faced from right wing forces opposed to Hindu-Muslim unity and interfaith marriages on the basis of the ‘love jihad’ conspiracy theory, even though there is nothing unlawful about a matrimonial alliance among Hindus and Muslims.
Also read: The Politics of Love Jihad and its Constitutional Validity
The withdrawal of that ad was contrary to the legacy of J.R.D. Tata, who abolished canteens in the Tata Company established exclusively to cater separately to upper caste Hindus, Muslims and Dalits.
In a speech delivered in Oxford in 1956 on the theme “Industrialising a Rural Society” Tata had admitted that there used to be a phase in the history of the Tata Company when high caste Hindu employees never accepted food and even a bottle of water from their fellow Muslim, Christian and Dalit employees. Therefore, in deferring to the wishes of those employees the company had to operate separate canteens for them.
Later when the management of the company took the bold decision, of course with much trepidation, to do away with such separate and exclusive canteens, there was hardly any resistance from employees.
Tata, in that lecture, attributed attitudinal changes to the impact of industrialisation of rural society, and pleaded for more industrialisation in India for progressive social change which would enable people to eschew their biases flowing from their caste and religious affiliations.
Ironically, the Tatas, who closed down separate canteens based on caste and religious biases of their employees, negated that legacy in twenty-first-century India by withdrawing an ad affirming harmony and unity and celebrating diversity.
‘Hindu tea’ and ‘Muslim tea’ in colonial India, and its replication today
In peeping into history we learn that when the Tatas opened separate and exclusive canteens based on caste and religion, there used to be the practice of selling ‘Hindu tea’ and ‘Muslim tea’, and ‘Hindu water’ and ‘Muslim water’ in the railway stations of pre- independent India.
It would be hard to believe that there was such a phase in India’s history when items were being sold by attaching religious tags at railway stations.
Mahatma Gandhi, who stressed on communal harmony and passionately pursued the cause of Hindu Muslim unity, disapproved of such practices and specifically wrote in 1941 in his text “Constructive Programme” that Hindu-Muslim unity had to be not just political unity but “an unbreakable heart unity”, and every Indian should feel his identity with every one of the millions of the inhabitants of Hindustan, cutting across religious affiliations. He then hoped that “[i]n such a happy state of things there would be no disgraceful cry at the stations such as “Hindu water” and “Muslim water” or “Hindu tea” and “Muslim tea”.
In fact, Gandhi was surprised to find that even in British jails Hindu tea and Muslim tea was being served to inmates depending on the religion to which they belonged. When he went to a jail to meet soldiers of the Indian National Army (INA), held captive by British authorities, they told him with anguish that they were being served Hindu tea and Muslim tea, in complete negation of their ethos of fighting for India’s independence, not as Hindus or Muslims but as Indians under their Supreme Commander Netaji Subhash Bose.
Gandhi asked them how they handled the problem; they happily replied that they mixed both the Hindu and Muslim teas and shared the mixed tea with all the soldiers. Gandhi had a hearty laugh and wrote that the example of INA soldiers upholding unity among Hindus and Muslims should be replicated.
With deep pain one notes that the colonial era marked by the culture of selling food and water by giving religious tags is being replicated in twenty-first-century India.
Also read: US Commission on International Religious Freedom puts India under the category of ‘Country of Particular Concern’ for “engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing and egregious religious freedom violations”.
In 2019, a Hindu man in Madhya Pradesh ordered food using the Zomato app; when he found that the man assigned to deliver the food belonged to the Islamic faith, he refused to accept it and cancelled the order. Zomato had famously taken a bold stand, and proclaimed that food has no religion.
If Zomato could take such a bold stand, then why did the mighty Tatas withdraw such a lovely ad on “unbreakable heart unity” which, in their own words, aimed at promoting their business in such trying times by affirming Ekatvam, the unity and oneness of people of our diverse and plural country?
If the Tatas felt threatened, then what about the fate of the poor Muslims who are hindered from and violently beaten up for selling vegetables, fruits and bangles just because of their religious identities.
One hopes that Fabindia shows courage and rescinds its decision to withdraw the ad, and puts it bravely in the public domain to uphold the constitutional vision of India which all are duty-bound to abide by.
(S.N. Sahu was Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India K.R. Narayanan. The views expressed are personal.)