Opinion Op Ed 15 Jan 2017 Of Twitter fatwas &a ...
Aakar Patel is a senior journalist and columnist

Of Twitter fatwas & emotional nationalism

Published Jan 15, 2017, 1:36 am IST
Updated Jan 15, 2017, 7:27 am IST
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj (Photo: PTI)
 External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj (Photo: PTI)

India’s foreign minister has apparently recovered national pride after making the world’s largest online retailer bend. What happened was as follows. On January 11, an Indian tweeted her a shot of Amazon Canada’s online store, which sold personalised doormats, some of which were in the colours of the Indian flag. Sushma Swaraj’s correspondent wrote: “Madam. Amazon Canada must be censured and warned not to sell India flag doormats. Please take action.”

Madam took action through three tweets. The first, fired off at 5.43 am read: “Indian High Commission in Canada: This is unacceptable. Please take this up with Amazon at the highest level.” The second one, after she had digested the momentous event, was at 6.41 am and it read: “Amazon must tender unconditional apology. They must withdraw all products insulting our national flag immediately.”

Two minutes later, she sent a threat through her last tweet: “If this is not done forthwith, we will not grant Indian Visa to any Amazon official. We will also rescind the Visas issued earlier.”

The doormat maker was of course not familiar with Indian culture. Western doormats have things like “Welcome” written on them, and it is fine to step on them because there is no cultural offence. The doormats are offered in the colours of any nation’s flag and most people buy their own to show their pride. In India, or rather South Asia, the feet are supposed to be unclean (perhaps because we are unable to keep our surroundings clean) and therefore doormats are seen in a different light.

Amazon Canada acted immediately and withdrew the link, which was from a third party supplier. The Amazon website is only a marketplace, where people sell their product. The majority of Twitter comments were in favour of Ms Swaraj’s actions, because national pride runs strong in India. Some people felt Ms Swaraj had overreacted. Firstly saying that India’s self-respect and national pride was not so fragile as to be damaged by such things. And secondly, particularly because Amazon has invested billions of dollars in India, it should have been treated with more respect.

I disagree. It does not matter who the individual or entity is. The Government of India must deal with all equally. My problems with her actions are different. First,

Ms Swaraj’s threats confirm what many suspect to be true of India. That it is not a nation that functions on the basis of rules and laws, but arbitrary and knee-jerk decision making. If Amazon’s officials had secured their visas through proper paperwork, under what rule or law was Ms Swaraj threatening to cancel them? If she felt a crime had been committed, as a law-abiding citizen she should have registered a first information report or a complaint. Instead she fired off a Twitter fatwa, acting like a despot.

The second thing is that, as has been noted, Amazon is a global marketplace. If one looks hard enough, there will be something causing offence to someone or the other’s god or guru or prophet. And I can guarantee that this has not changed with the removal of the doormat product. Indeed, reports the next day said there were shoes being sold with the Indian flag (also offensive in our part of the world). What will Ms Swaraj do the next time something like this pops up?

The third thing is that this sort of angry public nationalism comes very easily to our leaders. This time, last year, we were again discussing nationalism.

It was in February 2016 that the Jawaharlal Nehru University slogan shouting issue erupted. It was the dominant story for two weeks in the media, because apparently these slogans had caused great damage to India. The Lok Sabha took up three days to debate it. The education minister was so moved that she threatened to cut off her head. The home minister said Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Hafiz Saeed were behind the slogan shouting. The Prime Minister himself entered the debate and tweeted about it, saying “Satyamev Jayate”, meaning truth always prevails. The National Investigation Agency was apparently going to probe the thing. The offending young men were arrested and one of them beaten up while in custody.

After all of this drama, what was the ultimate result? The BJP government has not filed the chargesheet. Raat gayi, baat gayi. This fraudulent, dhongi, nationalism, this showy, nautanki, emotional but insubstantial nationalism, is the same type that Ms Swaraj has again shown.

It is a waste of national time and energy and ministers, particularly those who carry heavy responsibilities, should not participate in the circus.



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