From Taj to Tanishq — The idea of a nation is being undone

Mumbai’s iconic Taj Hotel, where one of the fiercest fights during the 26/11 terrorist attack took place. Photograph by Yatheesh Nair

On 26th Nov 2008, when armed terrorists came by sea and attacked Mumbai on the western coast of India, they were attacking at the heart of ideas that built the world’s largest secular democracy.

The victims of the attack were not from one religion or not even from one nation. It included Hindus, Christians, Muslims & Jews. The terrorists and their handlers targeted a country that welcomed all. When they attacked India, the birthplace of some of the most prominent religions in the world such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism and so on, they were attacking the very values that made the secular nation unique.

As the terrorists kept the Taj Hotel at Mumbai under siege for those 3 days in one of the fiercest fights that took place during the multi-pronged attack, a striking story emerged about the employees at this hotel of TATA Group, one of the oldest and largest Indian multinational conglomerates. The employees refused to move out and risked their lives until the last of the customers from that fateful night was rescued. The valour displayed matched that of any trained soldier fighting on a battlefield. A third of the 31 lives lost at Taj in the attack were of the Taj employees. The world took note of this amazing story. It was turned into case studies, including one at Harvard University. A billion Indians felt immensely proud of TATA and its ethos.

That was 2008. We are in 2020.

Recently, a TATA Group Jewellery Brand, Tanishq, was bullied into pulling down an ad that talked about two families of an interfaith marriage celebrating a family event. It as a story about compassion and unity, the same values that were on display at the Taj 12 years ago. But today any talk of unity between two communities manufacture troll outrages that are then given a free run. The leading right-wing influencers amongst them did the nit-picking as if the ad was not a fictional tale but some biographical story. The fact remains that no variations of the ad would have satiated the outrage if the ad film still ended up talking about the unity of two communities.

Tanishq employees were selectively targeted online based on their religion. Brand stores were threatened. When threats became death threats, TATAs withdrew the ad that any sane society would have celebrated. But one of India’s biggest and most respected Brand has almost apologised for talking about ‘Unity’ in India.

The staff at Taj needed no training to show what the secular nation meant for them, but today neither the civil society nor the authorities could defend them. No terrorists came by sea. What foreign terrorists never managed to do, a section of the “civil society” did.

Today the attacks on fellow citizens are homegrown. Those who threatened & abused TATAs were not taken to task, nor their handlers identified; the Army or the Police did not go after them. It is questionable if anything can be expected from the Government functionaries, some of whose only interest in the Indian Constitution seems to be its unstated intent to dismember it. Recently a Governor of a federal state mocked its Chief Minister asking if he has turned ‘Secular’- a Constitutional value that they both are expected to protect!

The attackers need not wield AK-47s anymore when the same objectives can be achieved with much less. There is no weapon as powerful as one human pitted violently against another with the Constitutional State taking sides. Unimaginable distrust and destruction will follow.

Unsurprisingly, the outrage industry managed to force the TATA brand to take down another ad within a month. The ad was about avoiding crackers during the festival of Diwali, primarily due to concerns about the Covid-infected patient’s respiratory health, but also due to general care for air and environment. Again, the boycott call on the brand was despite the fact that there were official bans on crackers imposed by many federal states and agencies this year.

These attackers are the new mob. You won’t find them on the streets. But they are hired for continuing tasks and hide behind internet profiles, fake and real. Then there are influencers, handpicked surely for their articulation but also for their caste, looks, skin colour, accent, aggression, tone, etc. While the first is mostly a mindless lot who do their daily ‘hit jobs’ even without much in it for them, the second ones are not. They are frequently felicitated, clicked with the powerful, followed by the mighty, leading voices in the echo chambers and flaunt their closeness to power circles. They are the flag-bearers of the post-truth industry. Their values are different, modesty is not one of their virtue, their historical role models are unique & their proven lack of objectivity and critical thinking, conscious or otherwise, can put many to shame.

The mob’s voices are then amplified ably by the known faces in the WhatsApp groups, family conversations, friend circles, office corridors, and social posts. They needn’t be hired since they are the inspired ones.

The Tanishq case is unique because of the shift in approach from the recent trend of defending criminalities to attacking the core human values. The shift is significant but not unexpected. Prominent civil society members in India have been warning for years now about the direction in which the nation is heading. The Intellectuals, Artists, Writers, Researchers, Scientists, even Nobel Laureates kept warning as did the limited-in-reach independent media. All they got was ridicule, and they still do.

But the Corporates kept funding the hate directly and indirectly. They ended up pumping crores into advertisements in TV channels that spread hate & lies for a living to the millions of conspiracy-seeking Indians. The donations to the opaque electoral funds to political parties largely went the majoritarian right-wing way. In effect, corporates self-funded the hate that is bullying them now. The TATAs would know it, as the biggest donor in the declared donations.

A Muslim man in a pensive mood in the Golconda fort, in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad. Photograph by Yatheesh Nair.

Nevertheless, it is important to stand by and fight for the values that the Tanishq ad was trying to portray. It is the same values that founded this country and what majority of Indians live by. Unity cannot be bullied in a land of incredible diversities that is India. Diversities of not just religion but of dialect, food, costume, skin colour, region & rituals, that makes India one of the most religiously and ethnically diverse nation. It is time to flaunt the diversities more than ever, lest they be called flaws.

Martin Niemoller famously said that you would be alone when they finally come for you if you never stood up for others. But some of us think they would never come for ‘us’, right? Well, it depends.

It depends on how many boxes do we tick ‘favourably’ amongst these - Religion, Caste, Gender, Skin colour, Social Class, Region, Ethnicity, Profession and last but not the least — our ability and willingness to question injustice.

Silence is not neutral anymore; ‘I am not that into politics’ is not fancy; ‘But every politician is same’ is just generalised whataboutery. These approaches largely end up as approval of tyrannical methods. Humans are capable of way better. We were born to be compassionate.

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Corporate guy exploring creative fields. Photography, Writing, Directing, Cartooning, Innovation. Keen on Politics for positive change.

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Yatheesh Nair

Yatheesh Nair

Corporate guy exploring creative fields. Photography, Writing, Directing, Cartooning, Innovation. Keen on Politics for positive change.

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