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'Cancel Culture' In India Looks Like Old-Fashioned Bigotry

Hindu nationalist groups want to force the cancellation of Netflix shows that celebrate inter-religious romance with Muslims — it's both censorship and ethnic prejudice.

The on-screen kiss between a Hindu and a Muslim character in a Netflix tv show provoked the ire of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party
The on-screen kiss between a Hindu and a Muslim character in a Netflix tv show provoked the ire of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party
Debangana Chatterjee*

-Analysis-

NEW DELHI — On November 24, Richie Mehta's original Netflix series Delhi Crime, based on the 2012 Delhi gang-rape, landed an International Emmy Award in the best drama category. While this occasioned celebration among many in India, it also sparked an outcry for banning Netflix India — and a #BanNetflix campaign was launched.

What set the furor off, though was an episode of another Netflix show, A Suitable Boy, two days earlier: and the "inappropriate" on-screen kiss between a Hindu (Lata) and a Muslim (Kabir) character in the backdrop of a temple. Members of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) took no time to demand the all-out ban of Netflix India.

While the campaign may not have been particularly impact on Netflix India, legally and otherwise, the attempt at "canceling" the service is revealing. In fact, this has become a constant feature in India's public debate. Many recall the advertisement for jewelry retailer Tanishq showcasing a Hindu bride celebrating Diwali with her Muslim in-laws, which was met with a boycott campaign and even vandalism.

Of course in the West, ‘Cancel Culture" first arose in a much different context, notably around the #MeToo movement that sought to shame and shut down alleged perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence. The dynamic has expanded to publicly shame and silence a wide range of public figures whose ideas or words have clashed with the young generation's progressive ‘woke" culture.

The country is embroiled with controversies surrounding "love-jihad."

Unfortunately, unlike its Western counterpart (which itself raises eyebrows), India's cancel culture coupled with the dogma of Hindu nationalism has taken a malicious turn. Under this precarious political climate, anything that antagonizes the Hindutva ideology faces indelible wrath. Needless to say, the politics of Hindutva, at the behest of both the ruling-BJP party and its cultural counterpart RSS, is backed by an online army that has been carefully manufactured over the years.

Tthe current uproar against Netflix India seems perfectly orchestrated and well-suited to the needs of Hindutva politics. The timing is particularly noteworthy as it is erupting at a point when the country is embroiled with controversies surrounding ‘love-jihad". This is a concept dreamed up as a figment of Hindutva imagination, based on unverified claims and utter lies, that perceives an imminent threat of Hindu girls being lured into marrying Muslim boys, and eventually, getting converted. A recent draft ordinance was cleared in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh prohibiting "forceful interfaith conversions', also known as, love-jihad.

This goes hand-in-glove with the government's new-found interests in OTT (Over-the-Top platforms) regulations. Last year in October the government made its intentions clear on promulgating a set of ‘not to do" lists for the streaming platforms that include Netflix, Hotstar, Amazon Prime, as well as the digital news media.

How much liberty they will be allowed in the future remains vague.

On Nov. 11, in the absence of laws regulating these platforms, the government released a gazette notification to bring these platforms into the fold of the information and broadcasting ministry's jurisdiction.

While the government has not yet clarified exactly what awaits these platforms in the future, concerns over the looming censorship are worrisome. Particularly, for platforms like Netflix that have in the past contributed to the contents critical to many facets of the Indian society, how much liberty they will be allowed in the future remains vague.

What is disconcerting is not so much the controversy surrounding Netflix per se, but an overall paradigm of Hindutva politics activating this particularly Indian kind of "cancel culture."

As this brand of politics has engulfed the online space, we are know seeing how quickly it can get entangled in the key socio-political issues of contemporary India. The levels of online toxicity and the social impact seem more directly linked than ever.



*Debangana Chatterjee is a doctoral scholar at the Centre for International Politics Organisation and Disarmament (CIPOD), Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her research is trying to locate the existing Indian discourse surrounding the practices of female genital mutilation/cutting and hijab into the frame of international politics.

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