The Indian government is apparently unaware of the backlash that brands face for using Urdu in their ad campaigns.
During the Dec. 16 Lok Sabha session, the government was asked if it was aware of threats faced by firms who advertise products in Urdu—a language primarily associated with Muslims—and whether it was taking any action. “No such incidents of miscreants threatening the firms who advertise their products in Urdu language have come to the notice of the Ministry of Minority Affairs,” minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said in response.
Maybe Naqvi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is currently in power, did not receive an official complaint, but their outright dismissal was a surprise to many. Especially when the evidence is overwhelming, as anyone with access to newspapers and the internet in India will tell you.
In October 2021, Fabindia, a 61-year-old fashion retail brand, was forced to pull its Diwali campaign using the Urdu language, Jashn-e-Riwaaz (celebration of tradition), after the some claimed it was “damaging the Hindu festival” of lights. As soon as the commercial went live, #boycottFabindia began to trend on Twitter. FabIndia eventually denied that it was the Diwali collection at all.
Fabindia isn’t an anomalous example. Several other companies have suffered at the hands of right-wing rhetoric, and the laundry list extends well beyond language:
- October 2021: After protests, consumer goods firm Dabur was forced to apologize and pull down its ad showing two women, a same-sex couple, practicing the Hindu marital custom of karva chauth, in which a wife undergoes a fast to give her husband a long life.
- September 2021: Bengaluru-based food brand iD Fresh was hit by rumors circulated on WhatsApp that it “mixes cow bones and calf rennet” in its batter, and that the company, founded by a Muslim, Musthafa PC, “only hires Muslims.” iD Fresh said all its products are vegetarian, denounced these claims, and even took legal action.
- January 2021: Hindu right-wing groups decried Amazon Prime Video’s political thriller web series Tandav for supposedly “hurting religious sentiments.” Several police complaints later, creator Ali Abbas Zaffar had to issue an apology, and cut two scenes.
- October 2020: Jewellery brand Tanishq faced immense backlash for an ad showing a Muslim family organising a baby shower for their pregnant Hindu daughter-in-law. After #boycottTanishq trended, and protestors threatened to vandalise local Tanishq stores, it removed the ad.
- July 2019: Right-wingers wanted to #BoycottZomato after someone on Twitter complained about losing money for cancelling an order delivered by a Muslim, to which he decided to object. UberEats, which came out in support of Zomato, was also hit by boycott calls.
- March 2019: There was a massive outcry around an ad campaign by consumer goods giant Hindustan Unilever, which showed elderly people being abandoned at the Hindu pilgrimage festival Kumbh Mela. (Which does happen.) Protestors said it defamed Hindus.
For years, artists painting Urdu text have faced threats from Hindu nationalists, and Urdu as a language has slowly been edged out of schools and the parliament, among other arenas. This year, several groups disrupted Muslims offering namaz (praying) in public places in the northern Indian city of Gurugram. Elsewhere, they’ve been warning Muslims against working in Hindu shops.
The response by Naqvi—who has time and again defended the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act and revocation of Article 370 in Kashmir by the Modi government—shows the government would rather turn a blind eye to this burgeoning problem.
Ironically, BJP itself does not shy away from using Urdu in its slogans, as lyricist Javed Akhtar pointed out.