Hindu nationalism has been the dominant force in Indian politics over the past decade. The government of Narendra Modi, a right-wing populist leader, often conflates religion and politics and has used allegations of anti-Hindu bigotry to dismiss criticism of its administration and the prime minister.
In January, the government invoked emergency powers to ban the distribution of a BBC documentary titled India: The Modi Question, which investigated Modi’s role in 2002 riots in Gujarat—where he was chief minister. These riots resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims. Twitter and YouTube were ordered to remove clips from the documentary.
Encouraged by the government’s stance, right-wing commentators are quick to portray India’s Hindu majority as under constant threat and discrimination.
“The commentators are doing their job, which is to stoke communal problems in the country under any pretext, no matter how silly,” says Hartosh Singh Bal, executive editor at The Caravan, a politics and culture magazine. “Not only is the government pushing the narrative, but these commentators are also creating their own environment around them … They feed off such controversies because it keeps them relevant and gives them a certain prominence.”
“The discourse in India is unhinged,” says Aakar Patel, a journalist and former head of Amnesty International’s India bureau, adding that there is no logic around what gets sucked into the culture war.
So far, there have been no official calls to ban ChatGPT, and the government hasn’t weighed in on the controversy, but companies that get caught up in these political firestorms face fallout, which is making some potential users nervous.
“A majority of my buyers are Hindu. I don’t know their love or hate for science, but I won’t risk offending them with a controversial software,” says Zaid, a Delhi-based entrepreneur who asked to be identified by his first name only to avoid a backlash from customers. He added that he “absolutely won’t put anything like ChatGPT for his online business.”
In 2020, a jewelery company called Tanishq became the focus of an online protest campaign after releasing an ad depicting a mixed-faith family. Radical Hindu groups called for a boycott, and the company pulled the ad. In 2021, clothing and lifestyle company Fabindia promoted a range of garments for the Hindu festival Diwali using an Urdu phrase (a language primarily associated with Muslims in India and Pakistan). Within hours, #boycottFabindia was trending on Twitter. The brand caved, removed the ad, and renamed the clothing line.