Right after the election Mumbai Mirror put Narendra Modi on its cover. India’s prime minister elect was portrayed as a modern-day Brahma, “God of all he surveys” holding a cell phone and a laptop.
No one objected.
During the 2014 election campaign the Dwarka Peeth Shankaracharya complained about the “Har Har Modi” chants in Varanasi being tantamount to “vyakti puja”. Modi mildly asked his followers to refrain but Varanasi resounded with Har Har Modi chants anyway. Even Bappi Lahiri at a campaign rally in far away Serampore in West Bengal energetically led the crowd in Har Har Modi sloganeering from the stage.
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad did not seem to mind at all.
But a Mahendra Singh Dhoni as Vishnu on a magazine cover is apparently an entirely different matter.
The offence-taking industry has been up in arms about Dhoni ever since an April 2013 Business Today cover presented him as “The God of Big Deals” – a Vishnu-like figure, his various arms holding the different products he endorses for pots of money. They include potato chips, engine oil, cola and a sports sneaker.
It’s the shoe that ostensibly does not fit.
In May 2013, Jayakumar Hiremath, a RTI activist filed a case in Bangalore under Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code – intent to insult the religion of any class – for “hurting the sentiments of the Hindu community”.
In May 2014, Rajinder Singh Raja, national general secretary of the Shivesena Hindustan filed a case in Delhi saying Dhoni had insulted the Hindu religion and Lord Vishnu because he had “been portrayed as God Vishnu and instead of showing religious things, the magazine is showing products of various companies including a shoe in his hand.”
The latest is Y Shyam Sundar of the VHP who has got the district principal sessions judge of Anantapur to issue a “warrant of appearance” against Dhoni. Shyam Sunder had filed the petition in February but the summons issued by the court to Dhoni were returned three times. Hence the warrant of appearance. Dhoni, of course, is currently in England.
The fact is there is no indication Dhoni posed for this cover. Starlive24 calls it a “morphed image”. When asked why Dhoni should be held responsible for a morphed image of himself, Hiremath just called the photo “an advertisement sponsored by the cricketer”. One of his supporters said if Dhoni had not objected to it he was ipso facto “party to it".
It’s clear that these various offended parties just want a celebrity scalp for their fifteen minutes of fame. And that is why they have not just gone after Business Today but also after India’s cricket captain. The TRP ratings of a warrant against Dhoni are immeasurably higher.
But the issue is also that our bar for being offended gets ever lower. And we enter what Salil Tripathi, author of Offence: The Hindu Case calls the age of “competitive intolerance” where Hindus can point to a Muslim uproar about a depiction of the Prophet as a reason for demanding a ban on something that offends Hindus. And the offence domino effect rolls on.
However Section 295 is slippery territory. Is a Dhoni-god holding a sports sneaker the same as putting an image of a Hindu god on your flip-flop? What if Dhoni had endorsed a condom brand? Would Business Today have included that in the products brandished by their cover god?
These are tricky questions.
Part of the problem is that as a religion Hinduism is easy to commodify and exoticize. An elephant-headed Ganesh is often regarded as cute rather than holy. One person's object of worship is another person's advertising gimmick. And that’s why companies, especially in the West, routinely get into hot water. American Eagle put Lord Ganesh on its slippers. Burger King tried to get the Goddess Lakshmi to sell ham-and-cheese sandwiches. Sittin’ Pretty put Ganesh and Kali on its toilet seats. And American Hindus Against Defamation forced an online vendor called CafePress to stop selling thongs with images of Hindu gods. You do not have to be a very devout Hindu to be offended by that.
Yet groups like the VHP’s outrage is also selective and self-serving.
Indians routinely curry favour with their political masters by deifying them which should be equally objectionable. There were no end of comparisons of Indira Gandhi to the Devi Durga after the 1971 war with Pakistan. A filmmaker even proposed a bio-pic about her as Maa Durga which led a Sikh website to caricature her as a multi-armed deity wielding a sword, a bag of cash and crushing a Sikh man.
There is a Modi temple in Kausambhi district of Uttar Pradesh where the Modi chalisa is apparently read and a Goddess Sonia temple in Mahbubnagar district of Andhra Pradesh. Jayalalithaa’s devotees have put up huge posters of her as Mahalakshmi on a lotus. In 2011 after Mamata Banerjee ousted the Left Front from power some idol-makers of Patuapara were proud to make Mamata-Durgas – slayer of the Red Demon. “We have tried to fuse Durga with Mamata,” one worshipper told MoneyControl. “Even the weapons you see here are not regular weapons – there are scales means law and order, industry.”
In this election itself, Modi fans sent out tweets hailing their leader as the second coming of Hanuman-ji complete with comparative pictures of an ape and Modi to make their point. They were not being sarcastic either. The Congress on the other hand was not being complimentary when its leader Arjun Modhwadia called him a “monkey.” Modi turned that on its head when he told an NRI audience on the occasion of Sivaratri “I am Hanuman and six crore Gujaratis are my Ram whom I serve.” Mamata Banerjee took it one step further by calling him a Hanuman with his tail on fire.
This back-and-forth just goes to show that religious symbolism is so inextricably woven into our cultural discourse that we might as well stop talking if we are to avoid all religious references and depictions. Art and culture, and therefore advertising, will always engage with it. Sometimes it’s done to make a political point. Sometimes it’s done in the name of art. Sometimes it’s done to convey a social message as a campaign against domestic violence did recently controversially showing battered and bruised women dressed as Saraswati Durga and Lakshmi inadvertently also reducing them to victims, “stripped of their awesome divinity.”
Business Today obviously was not trying to make any religious point or even much of an artistic one.It was doing a business story, not religious commentary. Its subhead - In the game of endorsements, M S Dhoni is Supreme. How did he get there? - makes that clear. Nor was it using the image of a God to sell questionable products. The sneaker was just a brand Dhoni endorses on par with the potato chips. It was not there to provoke a community.
Section 295 is not going anywhere from our Penal Code. Instead of being a shield to protect communal harmony as is its aim, it has become a weapon to assert offence, file lawsuits and flex political muscle. The only solution is to set the bar for offence higher by firmly quashing frivolous claims in its name. It is not enough for the VHP or the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind or their lesser-known cousins on the fringe to be offended. It has to be “deliberate and malicious acts to intended to outrage religious feelings”.
But there is actually something obscene about the Business Today cover. It drives home the point that a sportsman and a role model like Mahendra Singh Dhoni makes astronomical sums of money endorsing completely unhealthy junk food like potato chips and colas. It would do all of us more good if our socially conscious activists got offended about that instead of fanning outrage over morphed photos on a magazine cover.
Updated Date: Jun 25, 2014 19:00 PM