Indian Business Doesn’t Speak Up Against Injustice. Here’s Proof.
The next time an Indian CEO or their company stands up against hate, injustice, or discrimination, remember to cheer them on.
Food doesn’t have a religion. Remember this famous line from 2019, forever etched in the history of how Indian companies deal with hateful customers—and how you had to rub your eyes twice to ensure you hadn’t read it wrongly?
When a customer cancelled his order in because it was being delivered by a Muslim, food aggregator Zomato tweeted the above, causing the country’s leading business newspaper to describe it in a headline as a “savage reply”. Founder Deepinder Goyal followed it up with the even stronger, “we aren’t sorry to lose any business that comes in the way of our values”.
We are proud of the idea of India - and the diversity of our esteemed customers and partners. We arenât sorry to lose any business that comes in the way of our values. ð®ð³ https://t.co/cgSIW2ow9B— Deepinder Goyal (@deepigoyal) July 31, 2019
There was also that time a Twitter user announced proudly in 2018 that he had cancelled a taxi ride because his driver was Muslim. “I don’t want to give my money to Jihadi People,” he said.
Once again, the platform Ola responded by saying that they were a non-discriminatory workplace. “The company is a secular platform and it does not discriminate its driver partners or customers based on their caste, religion, gender or creed,” Ola said in a statement.
Ola, like our country, is a secular platform, and we don't discriminate our driver partners or customers basis their caste, religion, gender or creed. We urge all our customers and driver partners to treat each other with respect at all times.— Ola (@Olacabs) April 22, 2018
The authors of a new research paper describe the above two incidents as a clear example of corporate activism, which seeks actual policy or social change. They emphasise that corporate activism stands apart from corporate social responsibility activities, internal diversity and inclusion policies, lobbying, or even cashing in on the cause of the day.
But how often does corporate India use its networks and power to speak up publicly against injustice and effect change? Do the country’s most privileged raise their voice publicly?
It’s a question to which we may already know the answer, but now—as we grapple with the silence of the majority in the face of everyday hate crimes against Muslim citizens and economic boycotts of Muslim small businesses—these researchers have a timely answer.
In their as yet unpublished paper titled Comparing corporate Twitter engagement on citizenship and immigration debated in India and the United States, authors Shehla Rashid Shora, Arshia Arya and Joyojeet Pal at Microsoft Research India compared the Twitter engagement of the 50 richest people in India and the U.S. on debates related to citizenship and immigration.
Both countries were debating contentious citizenship laws around the same time—India was protesting the Narendra Modi government’s unfair Citizenship Amendment Act (alongside the National Register for Citizens) and in the U.S. there were deeply polarising debates around Donald Trump’s decision to dismantle DACA, that protected children of undocumented immigrants from deportation. Both decisions were challenged in the respective Supreme Courts. While the top court in the U.S. blocked this unconstitutional move in 2020, the Indian challenge to the CAA is still pending.
Demonstrators gather to protest against the Citizen Amendment Act, at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, on Jan. 29, 2020. (Photographer: T.Narayan/Bloomberg)
Why Shah Rukh Khan Is Under Siege
But how did the richest folks from these two countries tweet about these twin issues? How do they compare?
It’s not the first time this trio of researchers has compared the privileged in both countries. In a previous study, they found that though Indian CEOs engaged with keywords such as “peace”, “justice”, and “strong institutions” they never really spoke up against specific instances of hate crime.
“While the Indian side is good at paying lip service on abstract themes such as gender, sustainability and justice in a generalised way, the American side is very outspoken on specific instances of hate crimes,” Shora, one of the authors said while presenting this paper at the University of Michigan recently.
Corporate heavyweights are not the only ones who lean towards this strategy. The reason well-known Indians prefer not to engage seems quite clear. In their paper Sporting the Government: Twitter as a window into sportspersons’ engagement with causes in India and USA, authors Dibyendu Mishra, Ronojoy Sen, and Joyojeet Pal found that among the 200 most followed sportspersons in India and the U.S., the costs of speaking up against the state and the government in power have different socio-economic costs in the U.S. and India.
ð£ï¸ @imVkohli: Attacking someone over religion is the most pathetic thing human being can do— ESPNcricinfo (@ESPNcricinfo) October 30, 2021
The #India captain stands fully in support with Mohammed Shami after the bowler was targeted on social media after the loss to #Pakistan #T20WorldCup pic.twitter.com/Yxxj5jpIFV
For the new study, Shora, Arya, and Pal focused on the richest individuals as listed in the annual Forbes lists and zoomed in on Twitter accounts associated with them, from allied companies to family members (both immediate and those who held leadership positions in the business).
Next, they examined the content of 100 or so Twitter handles of each side during 2017-2021, using filters to isolate keywords commonly used with CAA and DACA in lakhs of tweets.
On the Indian side, the researchers identified 4 lakh tweets by 106 Twitter handles. They narrowed this to 636 tweets, and then further filtered these manually to 20 tweets related to CAA from five Twitter handles. Using the same process for the U.S. side, they identified 950 tweets by 27 Twitter handles.
Shora summarised their conclusion: “While HNI networks in the U.S. actively lobbied for inclusive immigration policies leveraging their social media presence to change the status quo, Indian businesses preferred a calculated silence interrupted only by active or tacit support for the status quo.”
Of the 20 tweets, the only explicit one was by an Indian steel magnate. He hash-tagged his opinion with #ISupportCAA.
In a young country - new laws have to be understood before being opposed! This law will protect the country from illegal immigrants and will place Indians first, irrespective of their caste and religion. #ISupportCAA— Sajjan Jindal (@sajjanjindal) December 17, 2019
“There was no tweet against CAA, and therefore no opposition to the Indian government on the issue,” Shora said.
So the next time an Indian CEO or their company stands up against hate, injustice, or religious/caste discrimination, remember to note the date and cheer them on. And maybe someday we’ll have a messiah who can say publicly and without blinking, that business has no religion.
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.