Indian conservative groups have condemned “liberal” advertisements run by multinational companies. “Offended” Hindu nationalists are calling for a boycott on a range of enterprises, including fast-food chains, tea-trading firms, online media-service providers and e-commerce companies.

As a form of protest, online trolls are writing negative reviews of the products and services of the offending firms, as well as posting videos of consumer goods being discarded.

Snapdeal, an e-retail firm, came under fire in 2015 after its then brand ambassador, Indian actor Amir Khan, spoke about rising intolerance across India. Offended by the statement, many users called him a “traitor,” gave Snapdeal a one-star rating and demanded a boycott of the app. The company has since decided not to renew Khan’s contract.

An increase in such incidents has made the impact online trolls can have on businesses and individuals hard to ignore.

A 2018 advertisement by Hindustan Unilever’s (HUL) Brooke Bond Red Label – a popular tea brand – resurfaced in August and was the latest victim as #BoycottRedLabel trended on Twitter.

The commercial shows a customer looking to take home a statue of Hindu god Ganesha. While showing the customer around his shop, the statue-maker talks about Hindu traditions, but as time for namaaz, or afternoon prayer, approaches, he wears a skull cap revealing him to be a Muslim.

Visibly uncomfortable, the customer starts to leave. Noticing this, the Muslim man says “Bhaijaan, yeh bhi toh ibadat hai”, or brother, this is also worship.”

Aimed at showcasing secularism and harmony, people on the internet took the advertisement as an attack on the Hindu religion and condemned the company for it’s ‘anti-Hindu’ stand.

Many alleged that Hindus, who enjoy the majority status in India, were being shown as intolerant and were, in fact, the victims of selective targeting.

While emotions against HUL’s campaign ran high, the claims of ‘hurt-Hindus’ do not add up statistically. According to the hate-crime watchdog, crimes against Muslims have increased in the last five years. Muslims, who comprise only 14% of India’s population, were the victims in 62% of cases (158 of 254).

In June, a video of a Muslim man tied up, bleeding and begging for mercy went viral on social media. He was forced to say the Hindu chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ (Glory to Lord Ram) and was lynched in the eastern state of Jharkhand. A few days later, a Muslim cab driver was beaten up by a group of men near Mumbai. When he begged for mercy, the mob asked him to chant Jai Shri Ram.

As many as 254 religious identity-based hate crimes were reported in India between January 1, 2009, and October 29, 2018. Of these, about 90% of the attacks were reported after May 2014, when the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party came to power. Of the 172 cases, 86% cases involved Hindu perpetrators.

Boycott not new

Hindu nationalist trolls often attempt to polarize an advertisement and give it a communal spin. In March 2019, an advertisement for HUL’s detergent brand Surf Excel also saw demands for a boycott on social media.

The ad, based on the Hindu festival Holi, showed a girl trying to protect her Muslim friend from getting colors on him before he can offer namaz. The right-wing trolls labelled the ad as an attempt to promote love jihad- a conspiracy theory that alleges Muslim men target Hindu girls to marry so they can convert them.

The commercial irked many right-wing supporters, who posted videos of the detergent powder being dumped and demanded a boycott.

Taking offense to an ad which shows tolerance and reflects the discrimination faced by minorities in India has become more common. Incidents of communal violence rose by 28 % between 2014 and 2017. The year 2017 recorded the highest death toll at 11 and the highest number of incidents of hate violence – 37 – since 2010, according to IndiaSpend.

Accusing Netflix of “deep-rooted Hinduphobia,” far-right regional political party and BJP ally Shiv Sena also accused fictional shows like Leila and Sacred Games for making an incorrect generalization of Hindus. Post this, #BanNetflixInIndia, was trending on Twitter.

The Modi-led government is now attempting to regulate online streaming platforms and control content, renewing a debate on censorship and freedom of expression.

The Supreme Court sought the government’s views on a petition that called for the regulation of content on video streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime. The petition sought the formulation of guidelines to regulate content to block what it described as sexually explicit, vulgar and violent content.

Netflix, Hotstar, Reliance Jio and other streaming services may also soon adopt a voluntary censorship code that would stop them from showing content banned by Indian courts. But Amazon, Facebook and Google are unlikely to sign up for the code, fearing this move will set a “dangerous” precedent of regulating the internet and interfere with creative freedom.

Food has a religion?

Online trolls also took offense against international food chain McDonald’s after declaring their meat in India was Halal. Hindu trolls declared their ‘hate’ for the restaurants and threatened a boycott. Halal food adheres to Islamic law, as defined in the Quran.

In July Zomato, an Indian food delivery app, also made news after a Hindu man refused to receive an order from a Muslim delivery boy.

The customer tweeted to Zomato: ”Just canceled an order on @ZomatoIN they allocated a non Hindu rider for my food they said they can’t change rider and can’t refund on cancellation I said you can’t force me to take a delivery I don’t want don’t refund just cancel.” But the company stood its ground, and said: “Food doesn’t have a religion. It is a religion.”

While Zomato received praise for standing up to a customer’s bigotry, it also suffered a backlash from people on social media. Overnight, more than 5,866 one-star ratings hit their app with #BoycottZomato trending on Twitter.

Secularism, a basic tenet of the Indian constitution, appears to have drawn the ire of radical Hindu nationalists. With social media becoming an important tool for politics, the hashtag has the power to affect sentiments and mindsets. While leading brands attempt to stick to a liberal theme, it remains to be seen how long they can withstand the attacks while catering to a moderate audience.