By Benjamin Cooper
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Hundreds of people attended rallies in Australia's major cities on Sunday to protest an advertisement the Indian community described as "highly insulting" in its depiction of the Hindu deity Lord Ganesha.
The India Forum Australia (IFA) arranged the protests in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth in response to a Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) advertisement, aired earlier this month.
The ad featured various religious figures including the Hindu god, considered vegetarian by followers, sitting down to a meal of lamb.
IFA president Nihal Agar said on Sunday the MLA had not listened to the Indian community's earlier concerns when the ad initially screened.
"To say something is legal is one thing, but it's something else to touch the heart and that is how MLA has failed our community," he said.
"This is not the multicultural Australia that we truly love."
Earlier this month, India's High Commission in Canberra lodged a complaint with the Australian government asking for the ad's removal.
The Advertising Standards Bureau dismissed complaints, saying Lord Ganesha was depicted positively and that the advertisement’s intent was to be inclusive.
Assistant Minister for Social Services and Multicultural Affairs, Zed Seselja, told Reuters on Sunday that he had met Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and leaders of Australia’s Hindu community because of the "genuine hurt" that had been caused.
Seselja said organizations needed to consider the impact on people of faith when they exercised their freedom of speech but cautioned against censorship.
An MLA spokesman said in a statement after the ad first aired that the organization had undertaken "extensive research and consultation" while making the advertisement.
The industry association has a history of controversial campaigns, geared at generating discussion and promoting meat consumption. Another advertisement this year featuring indigenous Australians welcoming boat arrivals to a barbecue on a beach was described as insensitive while a previous campaign was criticized for promoting violence against vegans.
(Reporting by Benjamin Cooper; Editing by Sam Holmes)