The Call for a Boycott: Is It Really Freedom of Expression


What's the controversial Tanishq ad and why is #BoycottTanishq trending on  social media?

by Rajesh Kumar Sinha    20 November 2020

Some disturbing trends have recently been witnessed in Indian media, especially social media. There have been instances of simple commercials with innocuous, humorous messages that should have been taken as a simple advertisement but using various social media platforms, individuals and sometimes well-known public figures have jumped into the fray and tried to give them a twist and colour that the concerned ad agency and scriptwriters never intended them to be.

A few weeks ago, a commercial by a well-known and respected Indian MNC brand Tanishque, known for its impressive, innovative quality products had to face a social media onslaught. A simple, innocent commercial showing inter-community marriage was twisted to turn into a perceived love jihad. The ad agency was forced to withdraw the commercial later on.

Another advertisement of popular chips and snack brand Bingo has seen netizens buzzing the social media with calls for boycotting the brand and the actor Ranveer Singh for allegedly making fun of late actor Sushant Singh Rajput.

Swara Bhaskar, a small-time actor whose perceived popularity is more due to her anti-Modi rhetoric rather than any sort of acting prowess. She was so far seen criticising, mocking, condemning almost one and everything associated with Modi or the Indian government. She jumped the gun recently with an explicit call to Zomato, a popular food delivery platform to stop putting up advertisements on Arnab Goswami’s Republic TV, allegedly a pro-Modi channel for propagating supposedly hate content.

Kangana Ranaut, one of the fine Hindi lead actors recently been more in news for her legal and social media fight with the Maharashtra government, was seen criticising D Roopa, one top female police cop from Karnataka. Roopa, the IGP from Karnataka Police merely suggested in a social media post that bursting firecrackers are not exactly part of our tradition and culture and we should avoid doing it during Diwali.

Kunal Kamra, a well-known comedian has been in news for some time. Initially for criticising governments’ acts of omission and commission and then for creating an in-flight ruckus with Arnab Goswami, supposedly for his pro-Modi antics on television. However, his recent comments on Twitter not merely criticising the Supreme Court but castigating aspersions on its integrity by putting up its image, drowned in saffron, suggesting that the highest court is hands-in-glove with the BJP, the ruling party in India, led to calling for contempt proceedings against him.

These five instances are a mere symptomatic tendency catching up all around, especially among netizens. And this trend is very much evident in India too, ostensibly due to a significant internet following in the country. However, this brings us to the larger issue. If the Right To Freedom of Speech and Expression, enshrined in the Indian Constitution and provided to citizens as given, is really being misused to the detriment of social, civil norms and rule of law of the land.

In the case of the Tanishque ad, the advertisement beautifully reflected the inherent Indian values of social harmony and cohesion. There was no need to bring a communal angle to it. The Bingo commercial, on the other hand, might have been made with the late Sushant Singh in mind but nowhere it seemed derogatory to the fine actor that he was.

Kangana’s calling in question the serving IPS officer’s personal views should have been limited to personal opinion. Instead, questioning her professional credentials, looked in extremely bad taste when in reality the concerned officer is being regarded very highly professionally.

Swara Bhaskar’s boycott call against Republic TV sounded incredulous. It looked more like an attempt to remain in limelight and throw dirty lines in public against a TV channel owner, perceived close to the BJP government which she openly dislikes. It quite clearly looked to be an attempt to use media to settle personal scores.

Kamra’s case again looked more personal than rational. There have been many instances of judicial pronouncements going in favour of the government of the day or its policies. Equally true has been judgments going against it. Since a particular judgment from the Supreme Court granted bail to one TV anchor cum-owner of a TV channel, perceived close to the powers to be, casting doubts on the integrity of its judges and the institution of Supreme Court as a whole look more a personal resentment rather a well-calibrated critical argument.

Kamra also has had his run-in previously with Arnab Goswami in the infamous in-flight scuffle. His derogatory comments against the concerned judge who had taken a principled stand for personal liberty even in earlier of his five judgments, differing with fellow judges on occasions, is evidence of his penchant for sticking to the rulebook.

All advertisements/commercials are in the ultimate analysis made with the intent of promoting commercial sales or reach of a particular product/service to the target audience. It is obvious that some of such commercials might appeal to one section more than others. Equally, it is expected that many might dislike a particular commercial based on its script, aesthetics, music, or even theme. Showing our liking or otherwise for a particular advertisement, is certainly fine. But calling for a boycott of it or the actor doing the commercial, cannot be justified on any ground.

Each one of us is entitled to have an opinion and even differ from others, if and when we feel so. However, trying to browbeat others or bring the company into submission by using one’s status (Swara Bhaskar telling Zomato to stop giving ads to a TV channel) is indicative of a trend of using one’s status as a public figure to compel others to fall in line. Similarly, commercial organisations are it Tanishque, ITC (Bingo), or Zomato, need to take a principled stand and resolutely defend such commercials, if they remain confident that their actions are in conformity with the law of the land.

The Indian Constitution guaranteed freedom of expression has been described as given with reasonable restrictions. And such reasonable restrictions, though open to interpretation and subject to the final adjudication of the judiciary, broadly comprises legal, moral, civil norms. If sensitivity is to be taken as a broad parameter, then one and every statement of a serving official, analyst, legislator or journalist could be used for an unholy post-mortem. That will serve no purpose of either the given constitutional right or promotion of free spirit and democratic values.