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A Muslim-Hindu Kiss Puts Netflix India in the Crosshairs

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.

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Credit…Indranil Mukherjee/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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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Intel and Nvidia Chips Power a Chinese Surveillance System

URUMQI, China — At the end of a desolate road rimmed by prisons, deep within a complex bristling with cameras, American technology is powering one of the most invasive parts of China’s surveillance state.

The computers inside the complex, known as the Urumqi Cloud Computing Center, are among the world’s most powerful. They can watch more surveillance footage in a day than one person could in a year. They look for faces and patterns of human behavior. They track cars. They monitor phones.

The Chinese government uses these computers to watch untold numbers of people in Xinjiang, a western region of China where Beijing has unleashed a campaign of surveillance and suppression in the name of combating terrorism.

Chips made by Intel and Nvidia, the American semiconductor companies, have powered the complex since it opened in 2016. By 2019, at a time when reports said that Beijing was using advanced technology to imprison and track Xinjiang’s mostly Muslim minorities, new U.S.-made chips helped the complex join the list of the world’s fastest supercomputers. Both Intel and Nvidia say they were unaware of what they called misuse of their technology.

Powerful American technology and its potential misuse cut to the heart of the decisions the Biden administration must face as it tackles the country’s increasingly bitter relationship with China. The Trump administration last year banned the sale of advanced semiconductors and other technology to Chinese companies implicated in national security or humans rights issues. A crucial early question for Mr. Biden will be whether to firm up, loosen or rethink those restrictions.

Some figures in the technology industry argue that the ban went too far, cutting off valuable sales of American product with plenty of harmless uses and spurring China to create its own advanced semiconductors. Indeed, China is spending billions of dollars to develop high-end chips.

By contrast, critics of the use of American technology in repressive systems say that buyers exploit workarounds and that the industry and officials should track sales and usage more closely.

Companies often point out that they have little say over where their products end up. The chips in the Urumqi complex, for example, were sold by Intel and Nvidia to Sugon, the Chinese company backing the center. Sugon is an important supplier to Chinese military and security forces, but it also makes computers for ordinary companies.

That argument is not good enough anymore, said Jason Matheny, the founding director of Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology and a former U.S. intelligence official.

“Government and industry need to be more thoughtful now that technologies are advancing to a point where you could be doing real-time surveillance using a single supercomputer on millions of people potentially,” he said.

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Credit…Paul Mozur/The New York Times

There is no evidence the sale of Nvidia or Intel chip, which predate the Trump order, broke any laws. Intel said it no longer sells semiconductors for supercomputers to Sugon. Still, both continue to sell chips to the Chinese firm.

The Urumqi complex’s existence and use of U.S. chips are no secret, and there was no shortage of clues that Beijing was using it for surveillance in Xinjiang. Since 2015, when the complex began development, state media and Sugon had boasted of its ties to the police.

In five-year old marketing materials distributed in China, Nvidia promoted the Urumqi complex’s capabilities and boasted that the “high capacity video surveillance application” there had won customer satisfaction.

Nvidia said that the materials referred to older versions of its products and that video surveillance then was a normal part of the discussion around “smart cities,” an effort in China to use technology to solve urban issues like pollution, traffic and crime. A spokesman for Nvidia said the company had no reason to believe its products would be used “for any improper purpose.”

The spokesman added that Sugon “hasn’t been a significant Nvidia customer” since last year’s ban. He also said that Nvidia had not provided technical assistance for Sugon since then.

A spokesman for Intel, which still sells Sugon lower-end chips, said it would restrict or stop business with any customer that it found had used its products to violate human rights.

Publicity over Intel’s China business appears to have had an impact within the company. One business unit last year drafted ethics guidelines for its technology’s A.I. applications, according to three people familiar with the matter who asked not to be named because Intel had not made the guidelines public.

Sugon said in a statement that the complex was originally aimed at tracking license plates and managing other smart city tasks, but its systems proved ineffective and were switched to other uses. But as recently as September, official Chinese government media described the complex as a center for processing video and images for managing cities.

Advances in technology have given the authorities around the world substantial power to watch and sort people. In China, leaders have pushed technology to an even greater extreme. Artificial intelligence and genetic testing are used to screen people to see whether they are Uighurs, one of Xinjiang’s minority groups. Chinese companies and the authorities claim their systems can detect religious extremism or opposition to the Communist Party.

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Credit…Christie Hemm Klok for The New York Times

The Urumqi Cloud Computing Center — also sometimes called the Xinjiang Supercomputing Center — broke onto the list of the world’s fastest computers in 2018, ranking No. 221. In November 2019, new chips helped push its computer to No. 135.

Two data centers run by Chinese security forces sit next door, a way to potentially cut down on lag time, according to experts. Also nearby are six prisons and re-education centers.

When a New York Times reporter tried to visit the center in 2019, he was followed by plainclothes police officers. A guard turned him away.

The official Chinese media and Sugon’s previous statements depict the complex as a surveillance center, among other uses. In August 2017, local officials said that the center would support a Chinese police surveillance project called Sharp Eyes and that it could search 100 million photos in a second. By 2018, according to company disclosures, its computers could connect to 10,000 video feeds and analyze 1,000 simultaneously, using artificial intelligence.

“With the help of cloud computing, big data, deep learning and other technologies, the intelligent video analysis engine can integrate police data and applications from video footage, Wi-Fi hot spots, checkpoint information, and facial recognition analysis to support the operations of different departments” within the Chinese police, Sugon said in a 2018 article posted to an official social media account.

On the occasion of a visit by local Communist Party leaders to the complex that year, it wrote on its website that the computers had “upgraded the thinking from after-the-fact tracking to before-the-fact predictive policing.”

In Xinjiang, predictive policing often serves as shorthand for pre-emptive arrests aimed at behavior deemed disloyal or threatening to the party. That could include a show of Muslim piety, links to family living overseas or owning two phones or not owning a phone, according to Uighur testimony and official Chinese policy documents.

Technology helps sort vast amounts of data that humans cannot process, said Jack Poulson, a former Google engineer and founder of the advocacy group Tech Inquiry.

“When you have something approaching a surveillance state, your primary limitation is on your ability to identify events of interest within your feeds,” he said. “The way you scale up your surveillance is through machine learning and large scale A.I.”

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Credit…Greg Baker/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Urumqi complex went into development before reports of abuses in Xinjiang were widespread. By 2019, governments around the world were protesting China’s conduct in Xinjiang. That year, the Sugon computer appeared on the international supercomputing rankings, using Intel Xeon Gold 5118 processors and Nvidia Tesla V100 advanced artificial intelligence chips.

It is not clear how or whether Sugon will obtain chips powerful enough keep the Urumqi complex on that list. But lesser technology typically used to run harmless tasks can also be used for surveillance and suppression. Customers can also use resellers in other countries or chips made by American companies overseas.

Last year, the police in two Xinjiang counties, Yanqi and Qitai, purchased surveillance systems that ran on lower-level Intel chips, according to government procurement documents. The Kizilsu Kyrgyz Autonomous Prefecture public security bureau in April purchased a computing platform that used servers running less-powerful Intel chips, according to the documents, though the agency had been placed on a Trump administration blacklist last year for its involvement in surveillance.

China’s dependence on American chips has, for now, helped the world push back, said Maya Wang, a China researcher with Human Rights Watch.

“I’m afraid in a few years time, Chinese companies and government will find their own way to develop chips and these capabilities,” Ms. Wang said. “Then there will be no way to get a handle on trying to stop these abuses.”

Paul Mozur reported from Urumqi, China, and Don Clark from San Francisco.

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The President vs. the American Media

The president has some bones to pick with the American media: about our “bias,” our obsession with racism, our views on terrorism, our reluctance to express solidarity, even for a moment, with his embattled republic.

So President Emmanuel Macron of France called me on Thursday afternoon from his gilded office in the Élysée Palace to drive home a complaint. He argued that the Anglo-American press, as it’s often referred to in his country, has blamed France instead of those who committed a spate of murderous terrorist attacks that began with the beheading on Oct. 16 of a teacher, Samuel Paty, who, in a lesson on free speech, had shown his class cartoons from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo mocking the Prophet Muhammad.

“When France was attacked five years ago, every nation in the world supported us,” President Macron said, recalling Nov. 13, 2015, when 130 people were killed in coordinated attacks at a concert hall, outside a soccer stadium and in cafes in and around Paris.

“So when I see, in that context, several newspapers which I believe are from countries that share our values — journalists who write in a country that is the heir to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution — when I see them legitimizing this violence, and saying that the heart of the problem is that France is racist and Islamophobic, then I say the founding principles have been lost.”

Legitimizing violence — that’s as serious a charge as you can make against the media, and the sort of thing we’ve been more used to hearing, and shrugging off, from the American president. And Americans, understandably distracted by the hallucinatory final days of the Trump presidency, may have missed the intensifying conflict between the French elite and the English-language media.

More than 250 people have died in terror attacks in France since 2015, the most in any Western country. Mr. Macron, a centrist modernizer who has been a bulwark against Europe’s Trumpian right-wing populism, said the English-language — and particularly, American — media were imposing their own values on a different society.

In particular, he argued that the foreign media failed to understand “laïcité,” which translates as “secularism” — an active separation of church and state dating back to the early 20th century, when the state wrested control of the school system from the Catholic Church. The subject has become an increasing focus this year, with the approach of the 2022 election in which Mr. Macron appears likely to face the far-right leader Marine Le Pen. Mr. Macron didn’t initially campaign on changing the country’s approach to its Muslim minority, but in a major speech in early October denouncing “Islamist separatism,” he promised action against everything from the foreign training of imams to “imposing menus that accommodate religious restrictions in cafeterias.” He also called for remaking the religion itself into “an Islam of the Enlightenment.” His tough-talking interior minister, meanwhile, is using the inflammatory language of the far right.

When Mr. Paty was murdered, Mr. Macron responded with a crackdown on Muslims accused of extremism, carrying out dozens of raids and vowing to shut down aid groups. He also made a vocal recommitment to secularism. Muslim leaders around the world criticized Mr. Macron’s and his aides’ aggressive response, which they said focused on peaceful Muslim groups. The president of Turkey called for boycotts of French products, as varied as cheese and cosmetics. The next month saw a new wave of attacks, including three murders in a Nice church and an explosion at a French ceremony in Saudi Arabia.

Some French grievances with the U.S. media are familiar from the U.S. culture wars — complaints about short-lived headlines and glib tweets by journalists. But their larger claim is that, after the attacks, English and American outlets immediately focused on failures in France’s policy toward Muslims rather than on the global terror threat. Mr. Macron was particularly enraged by a Financial Times opinion article on Nov. 3, “Macron’s war on Islamic separatism only divides France further,” which argued that he was alienating a Muslim majority that also hates terrorism. The article said he was attacking “Islamic separatism” when, in fact, he had used the word “Islamist.” Mr. Macron’s critics say he conflates religious observance and extremism, and the high-profile misquote — of his attempt to distinguish between the religion of Islam and the ideology of Islamism — infuriated him.

“I hate being pictured with words which are not mine,” Mr. Macron told me, and after a wave of complaints from readers and an angry call from Mr. Macron’s office, The Financial Times took the article off the internet — something a spokeswoman, Kristina Eriksson, said she couldn’t recall the publication ever having done before. The next day, the newspaper published a letter from Mr. Macron attacking the deleted article.

In late October, Politico Europe also deleted an op-ed article, “The dangerous French religion of secularism,” that it had solicited from a French sociologist. The piece set off a firestorm from critics who said the writer was blaming the victims of terrorism. But the hasty deletion prompted the author to complain of “outright censorship.” Politico Europe’s editor in chief, Stephen Brown, said that the article’s timing after the attack was inappropriate, but that he had apologized to the author for taking it down without explanation. He didn’t cite any specific errors. It was also the first time, he said, that Politico had ever taken down an opinion article.

But French complaints go beyond those opinion articles and to careful journalism that questions government policy. A skeptical Washington Post analysis from its Paris correspondent, James McAuley, “Instead of fighting systemic racism, France wants to ‘reform Islam,’” drew heated objections for its raised eyebrow at the idea that “instead of addressing the alienation of French Muslims,” the French government “aims to influence the practice of a 1,400-year-old faith.” The New York Times drew a contrast between Mr. Macron’s ideological response and the Austrian chancellor’s more “conciliatory” address after a terror attack, and noted that the isolated young men carrying out attacks don’t neatly fit into the government’s focus on extremist networks. In the Times opinion pages, an op-ed asked bluntly, “Is France Fueling Muslim Terrorism by Trying to Prevent It?”

And then, of course, there are the tweets. The Associated Press deleted a tweet that asked why France “incites” anger in the Muslim world, saying it was a poor word choice for an article explaining anger at France in the Muslim world. The New York Times was roasted on Twitter and in the pages of Le Monde for a headline — which appeared briefly amid the chaos of the beheading — “French Police Shoot and Kill Man After a Fatal Knife Attack on the Street.” The Times headline quickly changed as French police confirmed details, but the screenshot remained.

“It’s as though we were in the smoking ruins of ground zero and they said we had it coming,” Mr. Macron’s spokeswoman, Anne-Sophie Bradelle, complained to Le Monde.

As any observer of American politics knows, it can be hard to untangle theatrical outrage and Twitter screaming matches from real differences in values. Mr. Macron argues that there are big questions at the heart of the matter.

“There is a sort of misunderstanding about what the European model is, and the French model in particular,” he said. “American society used to be segregationist before it moved to a multiculturalist model, which is essentially about coexistence of different ethnicities and religions next to one another.”

“Our model is universalist, not multiculturalist,” he said, outlining France’s longstanding insistence that its citizens not be categorized by identity. “In our society, I don’t care whether someone is Black, yellow or white, whether they are Catholic or Muslim, a person is first and foremost a citizen.”

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Credit…Pool photo by Charles Platiau

Some of the coverage Mr. Macron complains about reflects a genuine difference of values. The French roll their eyes at America’s demonstrative Christianity. And Mr. Macron’s talk of head scarves and menus, along with the interior minister’s complaints about Halal food in supermarkets, clashes with the American emphasis on religious tolerance and the free expression protected by the First Amendment.

Such abstract ideological distinctions can seem distant from the everyday lives of France’s large ethnic minorities, who complain of police abuse, residential segregation and discrimination in the workplace. Mr. Macron’s October speech also acknowledged, unusually for a French leader, the role that the French government’s “ghettoization” of Muslims in the suburbs of Paris and other cities played in creating generations of alienated young Muslims. And some of the coverage that has most offended the French has simply reflected the views of Black and Muslim French people who don’t see the world the way French elites want them to.

Picking fights with American media is also an old sport in France, and it can be hard to know when talk of cultural differences is real and when it is intended to wave away uncomfortable realities. And reactionary French commentators have gone further than Mr. Macron in attacking the U.S. media, drawing energy from the American culture wars. A flame-throwing article in the French magazine Marianne blasted U.S. coverage and then appeared in English in Tablet with an added American flourish denouncing “simplistic woke morality plays.”

But the ideological gaps between French and American points of view can be deceptive. The French commentariat has also harped on the #metoo movement as an example of runaway American ideology. Pascal Bruckner, the well-known public intellectual, called the sexual abuse case against Roman Polanski “neo-feminist McCarthyism.” But perhaps the most prominent American journalism in France this year came from The Times’s Norimitsu Onishi, who played a central role in forcing France to grapple with the well-known pedophilia of a famous writer, Gabriel Matzneff. A recent profile in a French news site described Mr. Onishi and others as “kicking the anthill just by naming things” that had previously gone unspoken. Mr. Matzneff is now facing charges.

And Mr. Macron has his own political context: a desperate fight against a resurgent coronavirus, a weak economy and a political threat from the right. He is also disentangling himself from an early, unsuccessful attempt to build a relationship with President Trump. He had spoken to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. the day before our conversation.

I asked him whether his vocal complaints about the American media weren’t themselves a little Trumpian — advancing his agenda through high-profile attacks on the press.

Mr. Macron said he simply wanted himself and his country to be clearly understood. “My message here is: If you have any question on France, call me,” he said. (He has, in fact, never granted The Times’s Paris bureau an interview, which would be a nice start.)

And he recoiled at the comparison to Mr. Trump.

“I read your newspapers, I’m one of your readers,” he said.

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