Encouraged by the government’s stance, right-wing commentators are quick to portray India’s Hindu majority as under constant threat and discrimination.
“The commentators are doing their job, which is to stoke communal problems in the country under any pretext, no matter how silly,” says Hartosh Singh Bal, executive editor at The Caravana politics and culture magazine. “Not only is the government pushing the narrative, but these commentators are also creating their own environment around them … They feed off such controversies because it keeps them relevant and gives them a certain prominence.”
“The discourse in India is unhinged,” says Aakar Patel, a journalist and former head of Amnesty International’s India bureau, adding that there is no logic around what gets sucked into the culture war.
So far, there have been no official calls to ban ChatGPT, and the government hasn’t weighed in on the controversy, but companies that get caught up in these political firestorms face fallout, which is making some potential users nervous.
“A majority of my buyers are Hindu. I don’t know their love or hate for science, but I won’t risk offending them with a controversial software,” says Zaid, a Delhi-based entrepreneur who asked to be identified by his first name only to avoid a backlash from customers. He added that he “absolutely won’t put anything like ChatGPT for his online business.”
In 2020, a jewelery company called Tanishq became the focus of an online protest campaign after releasing an ad depicting a mixed-faith family. Radical Hindu groups called for a boycott, and the company pulled the ad. In 2021, clothing and lifestyle company Fabindia promoted a range of garments for the Hindu festival Diwali using an Urdu phrase (a language primarily associated with Muslims in India and Pakistan). Within hours, #boycottFabindia was trending on Twitter. The brand caved, removed the ad, and renamed the clothing line.
In May 2021, Unacademy, one of India’s largest edtech platforms, was forced to apologize after a question on one of its exam papers sparked a backlash from Hindu nationalist groups. Six months later, a video of a student performing a skit based on the Hindu epic Ramayana at a company-sponsored event went viral, and right-wing groups accused the platform of insulting the religion. #AntiHinduUnacademy trended on Twitter.
In 2016, ecommerce company Myntra was attacked for trivializing Hindu culture after a meme that combined a scene from the epic Mahabharata with the company’s brand circulated on social media. Both the meme and the controversy were revived in 2021. The company maintained it had nothing to do with the image, but #BoycottMyntra and #UninstallMyntra trended nonetheless.
Tech industry figures said they hope that the controversy won’t keep people in India from experimenting with generative AI, which they say has huge potential across multiple sectors.
“You can’t blame AI for this,” Raviisutanjani Kumar, an executive at edtech startup Testbook, told WIRED. Testbrook is already using generative AI in its business.
However, some in the tech sector say the controversy over ChatGPT has given them pause. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a manager at edtech platform PhysicsWallah, which has a market valuation of over a billion dollars, said the company is likely to steer clear of ChatGPT, at least until the storm blows over. “We would ideally stay away,” they said. “But if the business potential is high, we would wait out for the controversy to die and then deploy it.”
A senior manager at TradeIndia who also requested anonymity was more pragmatic, stating that they are already using ChatGPT extensively to write website content for business clients. “Look, at the end of the day, it’s about costs,” they said. “If ChatGPT can help save money on writer salaries and yields desired results, controversies won’t matter.”
Gupta says tech companies that want to operate in India will have to be ready for future controversies. These grievances are being spun for political gain and to win over powerful conservative and religious constituencies, he says, and the government has shown little sign that it is willing to dial back its rhetoric for the sake of the business environment.
“Companies must also have a process in place to deal with online boycotts or any type of allegations that arise,” Gupta says. “But [they] will have to do a lot of firefighting because these types of incidents will continue to occur.”