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World & Nation

India to Amazon: We’re not your doormat

India Amazon
An Amazon billboard overlooks a roadway in Bangalore, India. After India’s foreign minister complained, the online retailer stopped selling doormats depicting the Indian flag through its Canadian website.
(Aijaz Rahi / Associated Press)

No diplomat wants his or her country to be stepped on. India’s foreign minister took that sentiment to another level.

Sushma Swaraj lashed out at Amazon’s Canadian website after learning from a Twitter user that the online retailer was selling doormats in the design of the Indian flag.

In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Swaraj demanded Amazon apologize and pull the products off the site, or face a visa ban against its foreign employees in India.

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The feisty minister, who has an outsize social media presence, got results. Within hours, Amazon had withdrawn the doormats from its site. The company apologized Thursday, saying the product was from a third-party seller and would no longer be sold on any of its other websites.

“At no time did we intend or mean to offend Indian sentiments,” Amit Agarwal, country manager for Amazon India, wrote in a letter to Swaraj.

India has stiff laws against desecrating the flag that have occasionally gotten others into hot water as well.

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Chris Martin, frontman for the band Coldplay, provoked anger in November when he appeared to have the tricolor flag tucked into the back of his pants during a concert in Mumbai. One politician accused Martin of disrespecting the flag and “hurting the sentiments of Indians.”

An Indian cricket supporter waves the Indian flag at a rally in Kolkata on March 18, 2016.
An Indian cricket supporter waves the Indian flag at a rally in Kolkata on March 18, 2016.
(Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP/Getty Images )

Disrespecting the flag is punishable by up to three years in jail and a fine, under a 1971 law. And as in many cultures, placing one’s foot on something is particularly offensive in India, where Hindus customarily apologize if their feet touch another person.

It is a particularly jingoistic time in India, where the Supreme Court recently ruled that all moviegoers must stand for the national anthem before films. Several people have been arrested and some beaten by other patrons for not doing so.

Swaraj’s supporters took to Twitter to express their pleasure with her stand. Retired army Maj. Gaurav Arya said Swaraj had “upheld the honor of the national flag.”

Others called it an overreaction, noting that the website sells Canadian flag doormats too.

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It was a sensitive matter for Amazon, which is spending billions of dollars in a bid to become the dominant e-commerce portal in South Asia’s largest economy. Amazon India has gained ground against local rival Flipkart and now sells more than 80 million products on its website less than four years after its launch.

Among them, by the way, are British flag floormats retailing for upward of $60.

shashank.bengali@latimes.com

Follow @SBengali on Twitter for more news from South Asia

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