In what appears to be an act of self-censorship, Amazon India has removed an episode of the CBS show Madam Secretary from its streaming platform, Prime Video. Indian subscribers of Prime Video cannot access the first episode of the show’s fifth season (originally aired 7 October 2018), which is currently tagged with a “video unavailable” message. The other episodes, however, remain available.
Despite repeated attempts, Amazon India has not responded to Firstpost’s queries about this matter.
Madam Secretary is a White House drama along the lines of The West Wing (1999-2006). It follows the career of the fictional Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni), a key member of the Democratic administration led by President Conrad Dalton (Keith Carradine).
Here’s what season five episode one, ‘E Pluribus Unum’ (Latin for ‘out of many, one’, the traditional US government motto signifying unity in diversity) is about — it follows Secretary McCord’s attempts to get India and Pakistan to sign a historic nuclear disarmament treaty at the White House. This is probably not the reason why the episode has been removed, however. That reason appears to be the episode’s secondary plot point — its repeated real-world references to Hindu nationalism, Hindu extremists and the Indian government’s woefully inadequate response to (and possible complicity in) majoritarian violence against its own Muslim citizens. There’s also a reference to “India-occupied Kashmir” in the middle of a dialogue.
A still from Madam Secretary in Amazon Prime Video India.
At the very beginning of the episode, Secretary McCord received the following briefing from a staff member: “Humintindicates the Indian government has decided not to take any definitive actions to quell Hindu nationalists from violently attacking members of India’s Muslim minority. In fact, a variety of sources indicate the Indian government is siding with the Hindu nationalists, and has deemed any responses that could prevent further attacks as politically dangerous.”
(*Humint, or human intelligence, is a term for information gathered through word-of-mouth)
This, of course, takes its cues from the Modi government’s repeated attempts to downplay the frequency and seriousness of anti-Muslim violence across the country (last month, for example, Union Home Minister Amit Shah denied an increase in anti-Muslim lynchings). There have also been attempts to hide data pertaining to the same; the Hindustan Times ‘Hate Tracker’, which collated such instances, was removed from the newspaper’s website in October 2017, just weeks after its then-editor-in-chief Bobby Ghosh quit “due to personal reasons”.
A little later in the episode, the show doubles down on the calling out of Hindu nationalist violence, in a scene set in an academic conference, where Professor Henry McCord (who also happens to be married to Secretary McCord; played by Tim Daly) debates an Indian Hindu professor, Arnay Vijay (Harsh Nayyar), on this issue.
VIJAY: “Does the Hindu majority in India have the right to defend itself or not?”
MCCORD: “Of course it does. But what you’re characterising as the Hindu majority defending itself is actually textbook terrorism against minorities with the Indian government turning the other way. To me, that is the opposite of India defending itself. (…) A democracy cannot function without safeguarding the rights of minorities against the majority. (…) The ultimate question is whether India or the United States or any country claiming to be a democracy is willing to do the hard work of actually being one.”
Secretary McCord eventually manages to bring the Indian and Pakistani governments to the table. Minutes before they can sign the disarmament treaty, however, the White House is attacked by an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade), leaving dozens injured and at least one White House staffer dead. Ironically, the responsible party is neither a Hindu nationalist group (imagine Amazon India’s panic had this happened) nor a Pakistani one — it’s a homegrown, American white nationalist group that’s unhappy at the Dalton/McCord government’s immigration policies and their signing a free trade agreement with India.
This revelation saves the day as far as the Indo-Pak treaty is concerned. Meanwhile, Secretary McCord enlists the help of three former Secretaries of State — Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton, all of whom make cameo appearances as themselves — to formulate her response to the American people. All three of them condemn nationalism in strong terms, another thing that might have angered the Modi government which, after all, was elected in part due to a Hindu nationalist mandate. Powell says, “The nationalistic threat is really expanding, and more and more countries are being caught in this trap. It’s contagious. It splits us apart. It makes it more difficult to deal with the issue, and it becomes even more contagious.”
Secretary McCord finally delivers the episode’s concluding monologue, a mini-treatise on the horrors of nationalism. “What is an even greater threat than nuclear weapons? That which makes the use of them possible. Hate. Specifically, the blind hatred one group or nation can have for another. And that is why I am convinced that nationalism is the existential threat of our time. I want to be clear. Nationalism is not the same as patriotism. It’s a perversion of patriotism. Nationalism, the belief system held by those who attacked us, promotes the idea that inclusion and diversity represent weakness, that the only way to succeed is to give blind allegiance to the supremacy of one race over all others. (…) Patriotism, on the other hand, is about building each other up and embracing our diversity as the source of our nation’s strength. (…) Today, we call on all Americans and people everywhere to reject the scourge of nationalism.”
This powerful, conceptual rejection of nationalism would obviously have been a red flag for the Modi government.
Amazon India’s decision comes at a time of major concerns over the censorship of streaming platforms. Earlier this month, following reports that Netflix had removed an episode of Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj from Saudi Arabia (the episode criticised the royal family on several issues, most notably the October 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul), CEO Reed Hastings said something that ought to have been obvious (but for some reason, wasn’t). He said Netflix “isn’t in the truth to power business, we’re in the entertainment business”. In the recent past, there have been several calls by various Hindu nationalist groups and political parties in India to ban shows like Prime Video’s A Family Man and Netflix’s Leila, for what they perceive as “anti-Hindu, anti-India” content.
It remains to be seen whether Amazon India’s decision to censor Madam Secretary will set the tone for other OTT platforms to follow.
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Updated Date: Nov 19, 2019 20: 33: 24 IST