“The Web-series has deliberately added such parts mocking the Hindu sentiments only to provoke Hindu community by way of negative publicity and tarnish the image of HINDU deities on international level.”
This is an excerpt from an indignant complaint letter to the Union Information & Broadcasting Ministry on 17 January, demanding a ban on Amazon Prime’s web series ‘Tandav’. However, this sentence as well as the rest of the letter appears verbatim in over 30-odd complaints sent to the ministry.
Among the 100-odd complaints in the 111-page file accessed by the Internet Freedom Foundation through an RTI application, multiple such templates have emerged.
The Quint, having perused the complaints found three separate complaint templates, each of which appears verbatim in dozens of letters.
OTT streaming platform Amazon Prime Video on 2 March, issued an apology over “certain scenes” from its show ‘Tandav’ which found itself at the centre of public outrage and controversy for allegedly hurting religious sentiments.
While the controversy has been widely reported and debated, and led to FIRs and legal proceedings, the contents of the official complaints received by the Union I&B ministry were not made public so far.
Combing through the content, vocabulary and tone of the letters, a number of distinct patterns emerge, reminiscent of the manner in which dozens of celebrities had tweeted identical messages in response to singer Rihanna’s tweet on the farmer protests.
With the government notifying the new IT Rules which require OTT platforms to set up a grievance redressal mechanism to deal with such public complaints, the letters also ilustrate the coordinated manner in which large scale complaints against shows can be brought in.
One of the widely used templates even states, “This will not end until a draconian law is passed for offending the religious sentiments. Kindly work on implementing one as soon as possible.”
The Quint decodes and deconstructs the complaint letters and the patterns that appear consistently through the letters.
Complaint Letters Pour in Within 24 Hours of Release
Within 24 hours of the show’s release on 15 January, letters started pouring into the ministry, requesting it to “ban the show” and initiate “strict action”.
Incidentally, nearly all the complaints were sent over three days between 16 to 19 January, thereby acting as the first wave of official objections to Amazon’s political drama.
Almost every letter calls upon Union Minister Prakash Javadekar and also Prime Minister Narednra Modi to ban the show outright. The complaints raise the same set of objections, refering to the same episodes and moments within the show.
A striking aspect of the Tandav complaints file is the number of times the identical letters feature. Moreover, though identical, the letters come from various parts of the country – Jammu & Kashmir to Tamil Nadu.
The Quint has identified three such templates, all with similar structures, complaints and language.
The most common one, a 250-word letter, urges Javadekar to “take necessary action against the movie promoters for hurting the sentiments of Hindus at large, kindly Ban the webseries and stop it from getting aired immediately for preserving peace in country [sic].”
While two dozen letters have reproduced the text in full, a dozen more have shared excerpts verbatim. Some have gone on to reproduce chunks of the text in the subject line of their e-mails to the ministry.
Another template, used over a dozen times, claims “Just to make money and gain popularity along with free publicity, producers like "Ali Abbas Zafar" don't mind instigating communal disharmony in the society.”
A third template, that appears three times from different parts of India, takes aim at Amazon for producing ‘Tandav’.
“When Amazon cares so much about timely delivery and quality of products offered and NOT on the Prime video content as it has been seen web series post anti Hindu, anti Sikh religious sentiments since there is no censorship on web content...”
The letter concludes by stating “Hope this will be brought in your discussion with media and Amazon prime management team [sic].”
Linking With Actual Events
While the primary focus of the complaints is regarding the allegedly objectionable depiction of Hindu deities and Hinduism, among the 100-odd complaints, a majority also link the show to recent socio-political events in the country.
Several letters reference Jawaharlal Nehru University, the communal clashes in North East Delhi in 2020, criticism of the judiciary, violence against women and minorities as well as the ongoing farmer protests. Several letters allege that Tandav has incorporated these events in a manner that “is not innocent” and hurts sentiments of people.
JNU finds mentions several times in the 111-page complaints file. One of the complaints states, “In brief, whitewashing the crimes of JNU students and anti Hindu riots in Delhi. They did the same in Patal Lok and several other series.”
Another claims, “the creators of this series have made conscious efforts to rebuild a narrative around JNU and azadi slogans raised there...”
One of the complainants took serious exception to the show for allegedly depicting issues of land grabbing and crony capitalism. Such depictions, the complainant felt, promotes the current farmers agitations against farm Bills.
According to the complaint, the show promotes this “narrative at a time when a disinformation campaign is on by Left unions and that in the name of contract farming, the government is trying to hand over land to crony capitalists.”
The most widely used template also contains a paragraph alleging, “They have also targeted the entire Lawyers fraternity, Magistrates of Indian courts by shaming justice of India [sic].”
IT Rules & Grievance Redressal Mechanism for OTTs
Announcing drastic changes in the new rules for social media companies and a code of ethics for OTT streaming platforms as well as digital news media, Union Ministers Ravi Shankar Prasad and Prakash Javadekar, on 25 February said they “are empowering the ordinary users of social media”.
The 30-page document, titled ‘Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021’, places a host of strict obligations on online platforms and provides for a three-tier mechanism for regulation of all online media, which confers blocking powers to an inter-ministerial committee.
According to Apar Gupta, Executive director, Internet Freedom Foundation, “given the ‘Tandav’ complaints have been cited in press reports as the immediate trigger for the IT Rules being extend to OTT platforms a closer look at these complaints is necessary.”
“Specifically the mechanisms within the OTT specific rules will now provide an institutional system of censorship than runs the risk of legitimising a hecklers veto,” Gupta told The Quint.
Among the main highlights of the new rules is the requirement of OTT platforms and digital media outlets to create a 3-tier grievance redressal mechanism. The third and top level of this structure will consist of representatives of various ministries and government departments.
This grievance redressal system, created without legislative backing, places government bureaucrats at the top of this oversight mechanism with powers to censure platforms for their content. These powers range from ordering platforms to issue an apology to blocking of content altogether.
Ire Against I&B Ministry, Govt
However, a scan of the file also revealed that not all complaint letters were templates, directing their discontentment solely against Amazon, and the creators and actors of ‘Tandav’. Several letters also expressed disappointment and at times anger against the Union I&B Ministry
One of the letters even goes on to state, “shame on you, sir”, refering to the I&B Minister. “Its happening again and again, why are you not taking action against them,” the letter says, adding, “Only Modi ji is not enough to save our country and culture.”
Another letter states, “Everyone is very disappointed by your inefficiency of censoring such content which spreads poison in our society.”
However, perhaps the most direct is a letter which says, “Please remember, ap bi Hindu hai, mahadev ke bhakt hai” (Please remember, you are also a Hindu and a devotee of Mahadev”. It goes on to further state, “kuch toh karna padega warna tho ish country ko ek aisa leader chahiye jo hindu culture ko protect kar saka [sic]” (something must be done, otherwise this country needs a leader who can protect Hindu culture).