Jeff Bezos was in India this week, documenting a highly anticipated business trip with sunny Instagram posts from choice destinations like a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi. But the richest man in modern history has been silent on a top issue gripping the country: a controversial new citizenship law that has produced deadly unrest.
The law in question, the Citizenship Amendment Act, provides a pathway to Indian naturalization for refugees of all major South Asian religions—except practitioners of Islam. While most of India’s neighbors are majority Muslim, Islamic minority sects like Rohingya from Myanmar or the Ahmadi in Pakistan face harsh discrimination. It’s the first use of religion to determine eligibility for citizenship in modern Indian law, remarkable in a country that, despite a history of sectarian violence, has maintained a tradition of pluralism since the early days of its independence. The United Nations Human Rights Office has called the measure “fundamentally discriminatory,” and massive protests against it have roiled India since last month, killing 30 people in the country’s largest state.
Amazon and Bezos did not respond to multiple requests for comment on where the company’s CEO stands on the citizenship law.
Bezos is on a week-long tour of the country as his sprawling company hosts a conference and makes a strong push to capture the Indian ecommerce market. He was greeted by blowback from business owners leery of Amazon’s incursion into their turf and the potential for its alleged market manipulation to upend their lives. But even as he’s found time to post on social media with, for instance, a troupe of children flying kites, the citizenship law loomed large over his newest playground.
After all, it’s hard to imagine Bezos—whose company has been called a monopoly and worse by antitrust critics—backing down from competitors or criticism of its practices. But at least one of his peers at the helm of a tech giant recently spoke out on the citizenship law: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, a native of Hyderabad, India, criticized the measure Monday: “I think what is happening is sad… It’s just bad.”
Critics describe the law as an extension of an overt attempt by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to fashion a Hindu-centric nation. The head of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has called undocumented Muslim immigrants “termites” in the past and even threatened to throw them into the sea.
Meanwhile, a group of nearly 400 Indian tech workers, including several from Amazon, penned an open letter to their employers in December decrying the measure.
“The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)... is a deeply anti-Muslim scheme that will create greater statelessness and global disparity for Muslims,” they wrote. Some signed with their full names, others anonymously.
The pressure on Bezos isn’t likely to abate soon. Amazon’s investment in India is only increasing, and the CEO has made multiple personal visits like the current one in recent years to demonstrate the commitment to what he’s predicted will be an “Indian century.”
Bezos did offer this anodyne remark at Amazon’s Wednesday summit: “This country has something special, and it’s a democracy,” he said. “In this 21st century, the most important alliance is going to be the alliance between India and the United States, the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest democracy.”
If Amazon, which is worth more than $900 billion, sees India as a key area for its expansion, it faces stiff headwinds from Walmart’s Flipkart and the Indian government itself, which is investigating alleged anti-competitive practices by both companies. (They deny the allegations.) A small group of protesters from the very businesses Bezos has signaled he wants to digitize showed up to his talk in New Delhi, though 3,000 merchants were also inside the auditorium watching him speak, according to BuzzFeed News.
Of course, digitization of the sort championed by Big Tech scions like Bezos faces uncertainty if the internet is unavailable, period. That’s exactly what some Indian residents have experienced in recent months after the Modi government cut access in Kashmir, the disputed Himalayn region near the border of India and Pakistan. It’s only now starting to restore it after a court ruled the ban an unconstitutional abuse of power, and even then, only to hospitals and other “essential services.”