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India pulls mat from under Amazon’s feet

India pulls mat from under Amazon’s feet

By Ronojoy Mazumdar

Threats issued by Sushma Swaraj have forced the e-retailer giant Amazon to withdraw the products in question and issue an apology.

Amazon has been forced to halt sales of a doormat which carried the design of the Indian flag. These doormats were being sold by two third party vendors on the multinational’s Canada site. When this came to the attention of the External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, she responded right away. Using just the 140 characters available on Twitter, she threatened to rescind visas for Amazon employees in India, and, to refuse any future visas. She also requested the Indian High Commissioner in Ottawa to take the matter up with Amazon Canada at the highest levels. This left the firm with little choice but to withdraw the product and issue an apology.

The tweet made by Sushma Swaraj.

The tweet made by Sushma Swaraj. | Photo courtesy: Localpress

Flag doormats aren’t uncommon

One’s first impression of the idea of a flag as a doormat, as an Indian, is likely to be incredulous. Who would dream up such a thing, especially as a viable product, for sale? It seems nonsensical. However, if we take a step back, it becomes clear that this response is highly culture-specific. A quick search on Amazon reveals all kinds of countries’ flags on sale, including the US, the Netherlands, and the UK. Nor is the variety of flag-based doormats limited to so-called Western democracies. You can buy a Japanese flag doormat, or even closer to home, a doormat bearing the design of the national flag of Pakistan.

Doormats of other countrys' flags are also available, however, only Indians have dispalyed a furore.

Doormats of other countrys’ flags are also available, however, only Indians have dispalyed a furore. | Photo courtesy: Scroll

India’s ‘Flag Code’ and ‘Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act’ strictly regulate the ways in which the flag can and cannot be used.

But, given the culture of India, the thought of wiping one’s shoes on the national flag can cause great discontent. Moreover, India’s ‘Flag Code’, as well as its ‘Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act’, strictly regulate the ways in which the flag can be used. It also specifies what cannot be done to it. Violations of these laws can lead to a sentence of a year of imprisonment. Objection to the Indian flag as a doormat would, therefore, have overwhelming cultural and legal backing in India. But what we have to keep in mind is that Amazon India never offered these items for sale. It was the Canadian branch of the firm which did, for sale in Canada.

Indian law in Canada

Of course, Indian law has no jurisdiction in Canada. This is why the External Affairs Minister resorted to arm-twisting Amazon into pulling the merchandise from its website. As a result, the offending doormats have been pulled from the site and Indians in Canada can breathe a sigh of relief. The Indian government also pats itself on the back for a job well done.

Screenshot of the listing for Indian-flag themed doormats on Amazon's Canadian site after it was taken down.

Screenshot of the listing for Indian-flag themed doormats on Amazon’s Canadian site after it was taken down. | Photo courtesy: Twitter

On one level, the government should be commended for its responsiveness. And, as it appears that the doormat-flags really did hurt the sentiments of a number of Indians in Canada, it looks like the External Affairs Ministry has looked out for the interests of Indians abroad.

Yet this episode merits at least a moment of reflection. It’s time to think about what it says about us as Indians. We appear to be a highly sensitive and insecure citizenry who seize whatever chance we can to take offence. When this is exhibited in the External Affairs Minister blackmailing a multi-national corporation, it should be a cause for concern. Amazon caved, but what if they hadn’t? Would the Indian government really go through with its threat? Foreign investors have, for decades, been wary of regulatory risk when considering India. They may need to start factoring in hyper-nationalist related risk as well.

As Indians, however casual or fervent our nationalism may be, we should consider whether it is being channeled in ways that really benefit our fellow countrymen, or, whether it does more harm than good.

Ronojoy Mazumdar is a tax associate with EY Global in Bangalore.
Featured image source: The Quint
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