Every September, Vogue India starts prepping its readers for the festive season, suggesting fashions and accessories for the autumnal succession of Hindu holidays and festivals – Durga Puja, Dussehra, Karva Chauth, Diwali… It publishes pictures of Bollywood celebrities, dissecting their temple-going looks and advises the readers on how to imitate those. It tells you what the actress Priyanka Chopra wore for her home puja (‘pairing her sari with sindoor and mangalsutra’– accessories traditionally worn by married Hindu women),1 it selects the best festive kurtas for Ganesh Chaturthi, and it might offer you a gift guide for Dussehra. And yet, reading Vogue India, you would not know when the 200 million of India’s Muslims celebrate Eid or observe Ramadan. In fact, if you read Vogue India for long enough, it might start to seem that India truly is a Hindu nation, as the country’s Prime Minister and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party would want the world to believe.
Vogue India, with its four million online readers and audience of seven million on social media, mostly catering to educated upper- and upper middle-class women, seems to abide to the very same attitudes that have been promoted by the Bharatiya Janata Party and right-wing groups. Overtly, it champions inclusivity and diversity, celebrates women’s empowerment, and decries discrimination. Dedicated to highlighting strong and independent women it predominantly features Hindu customs and upper-class Hindu women, signifying that Hindu upper-caste, upper-class femininity is – in contemporary Indian society – the desirable norm. Conspicuously absent from the magazine are Muslim women, Muslim Indian culture and Muslim fashion. The two mentions of ‘modest fashion’ (a contemporary catch-all term that has evolved to encompass Muslim fashion trends) that come up on the website, refer to spaces outside of India2 (typically Great Britain or Saudi Arabia), suggesting that the topic is of no interest to an Indian reader.
Even the magazine’s way of tackling sustainability topics evokes upper-caste Hindu perspectives. Vogue discusses sustainability frequently, and its whole January 2020 issue was dedicated to home-grown sustainable design. Yet, in discussing sustainability, the title cites ancient and ‘quintessentially Indian’ Ayurveda practices, and lauds veganism, while ignoring non-Hindu, non-Brahmanic, low-caste viewpoints. While universally associated with conscious consumption, in contemporary India, veganism and vegetarianism have been weaponised to further marginalise minority communities that work with cow leather, or eat meat, or have been fighting for access to fishing for generations (the way low-caste Dalit communities have). In equating Indian-ness with upper-caste Hindu traditions and culture, the magazine reiterates the right-wing rhetoric that seeks to portray India as a Hindu nation.
Since the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), headed by Prime Minister Modi, came to power in 2014, it has been deliberately portraying India as a Hindu country and nation, where privilege and authority belongs with Hindus. Discrimination against minorities – notably Muslims – has been on the rise, with increasingly insidious tactics employed by BJP and smaller right-wing, state-supported organisations (such as the paramilitary Hindu RSS).3 Anti-Muslim vigilance has been encouraged by the government, and hateful messages have been spreading on social media – aptly dubbed by the LSE researcher Shakuntala Banaji ‘networks of hate,’ and partly subsidised by the government.4
The politics of hate spread with less and less resistance within the country: the voices of opposition are being suppressed, activists jailed, and criticisms stifled.5 The current events in Assam, where Muslims are being evicted from their villages to free space for the allegedly indigenous Hindu population is seen by many as a blueprint for what Modi’s vision for India is – an intolerant, all-Hindu nation.
The roots of contemporary anti-Muslim sentiments and communal violence are hidden in the colonial times. The divisive British policies shaped what historian Barbara Metcalf calls ‘communities of difference.’6 The colonial censuses measured religious communities and castes against each other, creating new categories of majority and minority, and establishing new brands of difference among the segments of India’s society. Metcalf argues that the colonial tendency towards measuring, counting and describing people made religion far more important than it was in the pre-colonial times and during the Mughal period. At the same time, the volatile favouritism of the colonial administration ensured that India’s communities remained pitted against each other, competing for the support and patronage of the British Raj.
The Orientalist worldview defined the Other as driven by superstition and religious belief. Thus, religious identity proved essential in shaping colonial discourses around law, gender and family in India, while religious scriptures informed the tactics of the British in the subcontinent throughout the nineteenth century. Ancient Brahmanic texts and high-caste Brahman informants became the main sources of knowledge about India for the British, not only forming a distorted view on religion, but also giving prevalence to high-caste, Brahmanic readings of Hinduism. The socio-political discourse in India grew to revolve around religion, which defined the history of early nationalist movements that were formed around the axes of religion, ultimately leading to the idea of separate states for Muslims and Hindus.
After the Partition in 1947, accompanied by bloodshed and communal violence, the then-ruling party of India, the National Congress, swore allegiance to secularism. Remarkably, post-Partition, India never had a party that would represent Indian Muslims, as they looked to Congress for representation. By the 1980s, however, the Congress was losing credibility not least due to a series of corruption scandals its high-ranking members and the ruling Gandhi family were involved in. Smaller right-wing parties were coming to prominence, riding the rhetoric about endangered Hinduism and oppressed Hindus. Their approach cut through the divisions of class and caste among Hindus, pushing the issues of economic inequality aside and seeking to consolidate the majority Hindu population in opposition to the Other, mainly the Muslim.
The proliferation of right-wing attitudes culminated in the early 1990s, when right-wing Hindu activists destroyed a mosque in the city of Ayodhya. Their argument was that it had been treacherously built in a place of a Hindu temple marking the birthplace of Ram. The blockbuster Ramayana series, based on the ancient epic and depicting the victorious life of Hindu deity Rama, had just finished on the national TV, hitting record-breaking ratings and creating an ample cultural moment for the right-wing groups to forcefully promote their agenda. The mosque in Ayodhya was taken apart brick by brick, and communal clashes in the whole of the country ensued, most of their victims being Muslims.
After the ‘success’ of the Ayodhya case, architectural sites became battlefields for right-wing groups who search for ways to undermine the cultural significance of the Muslim presence in India. Even an iconic place like Taj Mahal is not exempt from the Hindu nationalists’ attempts to re-write history. In 2017, an MP from the ruling BJP asked the government to re-classify it as a Hindu temple and acknowledge that a Hindu ruler built it,7 contrary to the fact that it was conceived by Mughal ruler Shah Jahan as a monument to Nur Jahan, his late wife.
Culture has always been a strong currency in right-wing politics. Bollywood, TV shows, and cinema in particular echo the Hindu nationalist ideology, reproducing the discourses invented and employed by the right-wing. Thus, writes Sanjeev Kumar, the representation of Muslim characters in contemporary Indian movies echoes the stereotypes about Muslim masculinity and Muslim femininity as portrayed by Hindu nationalists.8 In a rhetoric that, at times, seems to echo the colonial Orientalist discourse, Muslim men emerge as irrational, aggressive Others, brutes and rapists, while Muslim women appear as either helpless and oppressed or as mysterious seductresses, whose unrestrained sexuality sets them apart from the archetype of the honourable Hindu woman.9
In Bollywood movies, costumes and fashion serve as a language to elevate Hindu femininity and condemn a ‘perverse’ Muslim femininity. Saba Hussain and Nazia Hussein argue that Bollywood is re-casting the sari,10 historically worn by women across communities, as a Hindu garment, dressing its Muslim heroines either in overtly provocative clothes or styling them with the veil to suggest their oppressed status.
Despite the many and, at times, successful attempts of right-wing groups to re-write the history of India, its culture, its art, and traditional fashion testify to centuries of peaceful cooperation and cultural exchange between India’s religious communities. The Indo-Saracenic architecture, currently re-branded as the architecture of ‘Islamic invaders,’ presents, in fact, a mixture of styles, and was as much inspired by classic mosques as it is by Hindu temples. The kalamkari prints, the most on-hand example of Indian traditional crafts, developed through a mixture of various traditions and with ardent support from Mughal rulers; the very word kalam (or qalam; ‘pen’) coming from the Persian language). India’s textile and fashion industries have thrived on a variety of crafts, traditionally practiced within different religious and ethnic communities. For centuries, embroideries have been largely produced by Muslim artisans, clothes have been sewn by tailors from both Hindu and Muslim darzi communities (the word darzi literally means ‘tailor’), and fabrics have been woven by Muslim weavers.11
India’s textile and fashion industry, and Indian luxury-fashion designers in particular, hugely rely on the efforts of Muslim craftsmen for the production of the costliest and most exquisite pieces. Therefore, it is surprising that amidst the government-endorsed suppression of minorities, Indian fashion designers have been largely silent. For Elle India’s November 2020 issue, dedicated to inclusivity and sustainability, the magazine interviewed twenty-two fashion designers, asking them what kind of future they envisioned for Indian fashion. Among repetitive references to the need for conscious design, revival of traditions and programmatic statements on sustainable production, one contribution from designer Sabyasachi stood out, expressing hope that India will be ‘more tolerant, celebratory of what makes us different, and what binds us together.’ More outspoken than Sabyasachi is designer Kallol Datta, best-known for his modern renditions of the hijab, some of them currently on view at the Victoria and Albert museum in London. In his 2019 piece for Mumbai-based lifestyle and fashion magazine Verve, Datta asked ‘Where have all the angry designers gone?,’ urging India’s fashion industry to act: We’ve done irreversible damage by not catering to a segment of the population in this country when we’re making clothes. We’ve chosen to tell them that they don’t matter, they obviously do not have any interest in fashion and that we’re still interested in their money if they choose to ‘clandestinely’ come to our studios to place private orders. 12
Two years later, Datta believes nothing has changed in the industry:
We’re happy to employ Muslim craftspeople and artisans, pander to Arab states to retail our clothes, borrow heavily from Islamic art and architecture but remain quiet and therefore complicit in mainstream anti-Muslim bigotry. We’ve never included critical thinking in clothes-making especially in the fashion industry. Which is why we’ve never been taken seriously. We’re seen as an expendable facet to Bollywood. And that’s where designers need to be more brave. Not make the Indian film industry the only currency they operate with. Building a spine will take a very long time. So, while satirists, graphic designers, journalists and others have viscerally engaged with their immediate environment in the past few years and taken a stand, designers still have to find their voice.13
Lately, fashion designers’ and brands’ attempts to speak up have been regrettably futile. Last year, jewellery brand Tanishq, owned by the powerful Tata corporation, had to pull an ad featuring a Hindu-Muslim family, after an outcry on social media. In the ad, a pregnant Hindu woman asks her Muslim mother-in-law whether Muslim families arrange baby showers, in an answer to which the mother-in-law leads her into a surprise baby shower. Conceived as a message of love and unity, the campaign was accused by some social media users of promoting ‘love jihad,’ in reference to the conspiracy theory according to which Muslim men marry Hindu women in order to forcefully convert them to Islam. This conspiracy theory, based on the right-wing assertion that Hindu culture is in danger, has made interfaith marriages across the country difficult and even dangerous.
Similarly, a recent Fabindia festive campaign has been pulled after a social media outcry. The reason? The brand used the Urdu words jashn-e-riwaaz (Urdu is the language associated with India’s Muslim population) to describe the Hindu festival Diwali – Twitter users ruled that the ad was offensive for Hindus. Notably, the Hindu festivals Diwali and Holi historically have been celebrated across religious communities.
The possibility of communal unity has not been entirely eliminated in India. There is still a glimmer of hope for those who, like designer Sabyasachi, yearn for the tolerant and inclusive future of India and Indian fashion. Not all dissenting voices have been silenced, and not every fashion magazine has turned into a platform for right-wing rhetoric. India’s Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Verve have been vocal against the government’s discriminatory policies and anti-Muslim legislation of the past few years. Recently, in a graceful gesture of defiance, Elle India ran a profile of journalist Rana Ayuub, one of most outspoken critics of Prime Minister Modi and right-wing parties. There also exist smaller, progressive-thinking platforms like Feminism In India that look at fashion and femininity outside of the upper-caste Hindu realm.
Despite these (modest) reasons for hope, more pressing than ever remain the questions about what is next for India and its culture, and what side of history the fashion industry will be on: supporting the divisive and limiting right-wing politics, complicit in the elimination of the Muslim culture and people, or embracing openness and democracy. And, maybe, it is time for international brands to learn more about the country that it has been viewing as a convenient production site. Over the years, we have seen brands across the globe introduce conscious practices into their work, and we have seen how effective they can be when truly meant and well-executed. Perhaps not just the local Indian fashion industry should commit to real inclusivity, but the international fashion community, too, should start speaking up.
Ira Solomatina is an independent researcher, lecturer and writer whose interest lies in the intersection of globalisation, gender and fashion.
S. Banaji & R. Bhat, Social Media and Hate, Routledge, 2021. ↩
T. R, Metcalf, Ideologies of the Raj. Cambridge University Press, 1997. ↩
S. Kumar, Constructing the nation’s enemy: Hindutva, popular culture and the Muslim ‘other’ in Bollywood cinema. Third World Quarterly, 34(3), p. 458–469, 2013. https://doi.org/10.1080/01436597.2013.785340 ↩
One example of wide-spread anti-Muslim narratives in India is the conspiracy theory of ‘love jihad.’ It states that Muslim men marry Hindu women in order to convert them to Islam and thus accelerate the number of Muslims living in India. For further examples refer to E. Leidig, From Love Jihad to Grooming Gangs: Tracing Flows of the Hypersexual Muslim Male through Far-Right Female Influencers. Religions, 12, 1083, 2021. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12121083 ↩
N. Hussein & S. Hussein, Interrogating practices of gender, religion and nationalism in the representation of Muslim women in Bollywood: Contexts of change, sites of continuity. Exchanges: The Interdisciplinary Research Journal, 2, p. 284–304, 2015. https://doi.org/10.31273/eirj.v2i2.117 ↩
V. Raman, The Warp and the Weft: Community and Gender Identity Among the Weavers of Banaras, Routledge India, 2010. ↩
Kallol Datta’s quote from an email exchange with the author. ↩