Zoho Corp. headquarters in Chennai, India. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Tech company CEO faces backlash over participation in Hindu nationalist event

(RNS) — Facing online backlash, the California-based CEO of an enterprise software company has doubled down on his plans to attend an event hosted by a controversial Hindu nationalist group in India.

Zoho Corp. CEO Sridhar Vembu is listed as the “chief guest” for a Feb. 2 event in Chennai, India, by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an influential right-wing paramilitary organization. 

“I don't decide my views based on Twitter attacks,” Vembu, who was born in India, posted on Twitter in response to the growing backlash. “If you dislike which events I attend, please do what your conscience dictates and I will do what mine dictates. We earn our daily bread due to our work and we will continue to do quality work. I won't be responding to attacks.”

Vembu's company offers a popular cloud-based suite of enterprise software, including tools for spreadsheet, word processing and customer relationship management.

The controversy over his decision to attend the event comes amid widespread protests over an Indian citizenship bill that has been celebrated by the RSS but which critics say singles out Muslims for exclusion.

Vembu is scheduled to share the stage with Anirudha Deshpande, the chief of All India Public Outreach at RSS. The RSS, a volunteer group, is widely recognized as the ideological forefather of several Hindu nationalist, or Hindutva, organizations, as well as of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party. 

As the hashtag #BoycottZoho trended on Twitter in India, dozens of social media users, including Indian artist Irena Akbar, Indian technology journalist Abhishek Baxi and Australian entrepreneur Aamir Qutub, posted about switching away from the service as a result of Vembu’s participation in the event.

South Asian human rights advocacy group Equality Labs also urged customers to boycott Zoho unless the company issues a public apology.

“If he did not want to have politics enter into the questioning of his brand he should not have shared a platform with fascists,” Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a Los Angeles-based Dalit activist and executive director of Equality Labs, told Religion News Service.

“India's tech scene is notorious for caste, gender and religious bias,” she said. “This has resulted in many IT professionals who think they can openly consort with fascists without professional consequences to themselves and their companies.”

The RSS has vocally backed the country’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, calling the legislation to fast-track Indian citizenship to non-Muslim religious minorities from neighboring countries a “courageous step.”

Critics say the amendment contradicts the country’s secular constitution, as the CAA bases citizenship on an applicant’s religion, and argue that it further marginalizes India's 200 million Muslims, especially in conjunction with proposals for a National Register of Citizens.

U.S. Muslim and Indian groups, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Indian American Muslim Council, have called for the Trump administration to ask the Indian government to revoke the CAA and NRC and to sanction Indian officials over alleged human rights violations. The U.S. Commission on International Religion Freedom has also recommended sanctions over the legislation, saying it may be “creating a religious test for Indian citizenship.”

Since the CAA was signed into law last month, massive protests have broken out across India, causing mob attacks, mass arrests and police-led violence against protesters.

Over two dozen people have been killed in the protests, including two minors reportedly shot by police in the state of Assam, where a citizenship registry has already been enacted and has left out 2 million residents, most of whom are Muslim.

“In this light, Vembu's politics are crucial to know if the platform can be trusted with secure data in a time when the Indian government is asking for companies to collaborate in their relentless targeting of Indian minorities for genocide,” Soundararajan argued. 

Soundararajan pointed to a Muslim deradicalization program launched by the Modi administration ahead of the CAA’s passage that would place law enforcement inside social media groups run by protesters and would work with social media companies to use artificial intelligence to monitor and remove posts.

“The weaponization of big data, social media listening and surveillance has already happened under this administration,” she said. Like other critics of Vembu, she questioned whether the sensitive personal data Zoho’s software stores could be used against Indian Muslims and other minorities.

Zoho did not respond to a request for comment.

An Indian senior official from the global business company Accenture Solutions was also originally listed as a guest on the event invitation. But after online backlash, Accenture's Chennai head of operations Rama Ramachandran denied that he had agreed to attend the RSS event and organizers removed his name from the event listing.

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Indian state of Assam has a Muslim-majority population. RNS regrets the error.