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With a Kiss, Netflix Gets Tangled in India’s Religious Tensions

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NEW DELHI — On television, Lata and Kabir are clandestine lovers thwarted by faith and history. She is Hindu and he a Muslim in India in the early 1950s, in the wake of bloody sectarian clashes that echo through the country to this day. At one point, in a secluded spot with a Hindu temple as the backdrop, the two young college students share a furtive but passionate kiss.

In the real world, that onscreen kiss has embroiled Netflix, the American streaming service, in the increasingly bitter and religiously charged world of Indian politics.

Members of the Hindu nationalist party that controls India’s central government have asked the authorities to investigate Netflix, calling the scene in the television series “A Suitable Boy” offensive to their beliefs. They have also called on Indians to boycott the streaming service.

Netflix is not likely to face serious legal trouble, experts say. But the campaign puts pressure on the streaming service at a time when the government is increasing censorship of what Indians watch online.

The campaign also comes as members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party are pressing anti-Muslim initiatives, including one in the state of Madhya Pradesh that would increase penalties against anyone found guilty of using marriage to force someone to change religion. The party has won over a wide swath of Hindu voters with its nationalist pitch, but it has also divided the country and presided over an increase in religious tensions and sometimes violence, particularly against Muslims.

The campaign “could perversely incite Netflix and other content producers to think twice before commissioning work that depicts interfaith relations in a positive light in the future,” said Gilles Verniers, a professor of political science at Ashoka University.

Thomas Cherian, a spokesman for Netflix, said the company had no comment on the police complaint. Netflix, which launched in India only in 2016, has a small but growing audience in the country.

“A Suitable Boy” is based on a 1993 novel by Vikram Seth and revolves around a young Hindu woman struggling with her mother’s edict that she must soon be wed. The six-part series, originally produced by the BBC, takes place in the years after the partition of India, when millions of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs scrambled to get on the correct side of the border after what is now Pakistan was carved out of the country to be a mostly Muslim nation. An untold number of people perished in the resulting violence.

The series was directed by Mira Nair, who was born in India and has had a long career as a filmmaker in India and Hollywood, directing movies including “Monsoon Wedding,” “Mississippi Masala” and “Vanity Fair.”

Narottam Mishra, a member of the B.J.P. and home minister in Madhya Pradesh state, said on Monday that a party youth leader had filed the complaint about “A Suitable Boy” because of scenes that depict the protagonists kissing at a Hindu temple.

“To me there is nothing suitable in that. In our temple, if you are filming a kissing scene, Rama music is on in the background, I do not consider it good,” Mr. Mishra said at a news conference on Monday, referring to Hindu devotional music. “For that there are other places.”

Rakesh Kumar Singh, the police chief in the district where the complaint was filed, said an investigation was underway.

The complaint named Monika Shergill, vice president for content for Netflix India, and Ambika Khurana, the company’s director of public policy in India.

If convicted, Ms. Shergill and Ms. Khurana would face a jail term of up to three years, a fine, or both.

In India, intentionally hurting religious sentiments is a criminal offense, and this isn’t the first time Bollywood actors, comedians or others in the entertainment industry have been charged.

But courts, including India’s Supreme Court, have generally taken a narrow view of the law, saying that content deemed offensive by some isn’t necessarily intentionally malicious, and that invoking the section on religious sentiment too liberally threatens freedom of speech.

In this case, legal experts said it was unlikely that a police investigation would advance very far.

However, the possibility of a chilling effect on Netflix is real, as rhetoric against interreligious romance in India heats up and as the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi takes greater control over digital content.

Gaurav Tiwari, the B.J.P. youth leader who filed the complaint, had issued a call to action on Twitter even before that, urging his followers to delete Netflix from their phones. He also accused the video-streaming service of promoting “love jihad,” a term used by Hindu nationalists who accuse minority Muslims of luring Hindu women to marry them and forcing them to convert to Islam to change India’s demographic balance.

The complaint was filed in Madhya Pradesh, the state where lawmakers are planning to consider a bill early next year that would make forced religious conversion by marriage a nonbailable offense subject to a five-year sentence. Mr. Mishra has said the bill is meant to check the rising incidence of forced conversions in the state.

State legislatures in Uttar Pradesh, whose top official is a Hindu monk, and two other B.J.P.-controlled states are likely to take up similar bills. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a Hindu nationalist organization affiliated with the B.J.P., is lobbying state governments across India for laws regulating interfaith marriages.

Conservative norms in India ensure that interreligious unions remain relatively rare, though past Indian governments have encouraged secular views on the matter. India’s Special Marriage Act, passed in 1954, was intended to bolster the secular ideals in the country’s Constitution by overturning a British colonial-era law that required the bride or groom to renounce his or her faith.

Amid the rising tide of Hindu nationalism, interfaith relationships have come under sharp criticism from anti-Muslim forces.

Last month, a unit of India’s Tata conglomerate withdrew a jewelry advertisement featuring a Hindu-Muslim family celebrating a baby shower, following threats to one of its stores and wide criticism on social media.

Beyond issues of religion, Netflix and other streaming services were already getting increased scrutiny from the Indian government.

Earlier this month, the Indian government announced rules to regulate content on video streaming platforms, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney’s Hotstar. The Indian government already plays a similar role in movies and broadcast television, but many users of streaming services enjoy the scant restrictions on programming they watch online.

Free speech advocates worry that Indian viewers could be subjected to the censorship of language, sex, violence and even cigarette smoking they already experience in Bollywood and Hollywood films shown in Indian movie theaters.

Bollywood and show business have sometimes made for easy targets for India’s politicians and activists. But they also can serve as a handy rallying center for whipping up public sentiment. While “A Suitable Boy” isn’t likely to get pulled from India’s smartphones and computer screens, it could remain a political talking point for some time.

The Netflix series “constitutes for these conservative organizations both a threat as well as an opportunity to mobilize their base around a symbolic target, and spread false notions that vilify Muslims at large,” said Mr. Verniers, of Ashoka University.

Hari Kumar contributed reporting.


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