Until now, Netflix was a tech company that did not have to address issues related to extremism on its platform. That changed this week with a police case filed against the company in India accusing the BBC television series, A Suitable Boy, of portraying scenes of so-called ‘love jihad’.
The complaint was brought to the authorities by the leader of the youth wing (Yuva Morcha) of the governing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The basis of the case is that the television series alleges to have hurt religious sentiments, a reaction sparked by a kissing scene between a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy in front of a Hindu temple.
Love jihad is a term used by Hindu nationalists in India to describe the seduction and conversion of Hindu women to Islam by Muslim men. Although there are some overlaps with how the European far-right depicts the hypersexual, violent Muslim male ‘rapefugee’, love jihad connotes a much more insidious figure that engages in manipulative behaviour. It is a conspiracy theory driven by the belief that Muslims are intent on engaging in covert demographic replacement of the Hindu-majority population. According to Hindu nationalists, Hindu women must be protected from Muslim men since they symbolise the daughters of Bharat Mata (Mother India): an assault on a Hindu woman is by extension an assault on India herself.
The case against Netflix reflects the wider public and legislative debate of supposed ongoing love jihad in the country. For years, Hindu nationalist organisations and political parties have mobilised on the fear of love jihad, which has even stoked communal riots across the country. In 2013, riots in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) resulted in 62 people dead and 50,000 Muslims displaced, preceded by months of a BJP love jihad campaign. BJP and other Hindu nationalist actors spread disinformation that certain mosques in the area were being funded by terrorist organisations and Islamic countries in order to convert Hindu women, with such conspiracies spread through fake videos on WhatsApp.
The past few weeks has witnessed several protests in New Delhi against love jihad following the murder of a young Hindu woman by a Muslim man last month. Hindu nationalist actors have galvanized on this murder rallying in the streets and calling for violence towards Muslims. The incendiary rhetoric is also present online, with a popular far-right YouTuber filming footage of the protests and calling for Hindus to pick up arms in retaliation for the dishonouring of Hindu women by Muslim men. Another far-right figure, who earlier this year opened fire on peaceful protestors against the Citizenship Amendment Act, recently posted a hate video on Facebook concerning love jihad. Facebook has not yet removed the video.
In terms of legislation, last year the BJP passed a controversial law making the practice of triple talaq—an interpretation of Islamic law whereby a husband utters the word talaq three times to his wife thereby granting instant divorce—illegal in the country. Adherents of the law expand on the concept of love jihad to include ‘marriage jihad’, which they view as protecting Muslim women from the sexual excesses of Muslim men. Indian Muslim women’s organisations are divided over the law, but there is widespread agreement that its implementation advances the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda more so than prioritising the protection of minorities.
Just yesterday, UP passed an ordinance that prohibits “unlawful religious conversions” and “inter-faith marriages with the sole intention of changing a girl’s religion.” Violators can face up to ten years of imprisonment. Although the law does not explicitly mention any specific religion, the implication is clear. As Chief Minister of UP, Yogi Adityanath, a firebrand Hindu nationalist once stated, “I will not stop till I turn UP and India into a Hindu rashtra [country].” UP will be the third state in the country to pass a law concerning love jihad—the two others are also governed by the BJP.
So, what does this all mean for Netflix?
Although often considered primarily as an entertainment innovator, the production company is also a leading technology platform, in particular for pioneering its recommendation algorithm. Despite the fact that actual representations of love jihad have been consistently present in the massive film industry known colloquially as Bollywood, in contrast, Netflix India is in a vulnerable position to lose customers. The platform has long been struggling with attracting a consumer base in India due to strong local competition. That is, until the COVID-19 pandemic, when Netflix experienced a surge of membership and viewers as in-home entertainment became the norm (although 62% of viewers say they will return to theatres after the pandemic).
More importantly, the nature of production and editorial decisions guiding Netflix content may be placed under greater scrutiny. Shortly after the complaint was levied, #BoycottNetflix was trending on Twitter in India. Netflix has largely escaped accusations of hate speech and destabilising democracy compared to its counterpart heavyweights in the tech industry. But this does not make Netflix immune from political influence, especially when the platform is desperate to expand in a market where it is lagging behind in expected growth.
Earlier this month, the BJP government announced new regulations for digital media, including online streaming platforms, which will now be regulated by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Previously, streaming services fell under the IT Ministry and were granted a great deal of freedom. Complying with the demands of a far-right government in power may well be the only path to business survival for Netflix.