The Chinese are credited for having invented – among many other things – movable type printing, tea cultivation, mechanical clocks, bristle toothbrushes and umbrellas. Plus several other items that are quite debatable in their utility, depending on your perspective of course, such as gunpowder and silk. Why, the oldest known residue of alcohol was discovered in a 9000-year old artefact from Henan province. So if one is really serious about boycotting anything of Chinese origin, the list is exhaustive. Why stop at momos and mobile phones? The same would be true for almost any other region or culture. The weft and warp of human history has many interwoven threads. To try to pry one apart would require an unravelling of the whole.
Boycotting silk because of its cruelty to silkworms, or because of the exploitation of weavers (this, I personally do as much as I can)? Boycotting tea because of the horrible legacy of colonial tea estates across Asia (this, I can’t give up completely yet – I’m truly sorry)? More power to you who make these meaningful choices. But boycotting noodles made of raw materials from India, manufactured at an Indian factory where Indian people are employed, with the product itself filling the tummies of (yep) Indians? Praising a ban on an app that offered many Indians platforms for their creativity, brought joy to millions more, and gave employment to everyone who worked at any level at their local offices? I’m not clapping for you.
Boycotting is a principled action that may or may not have an impact on the target, but which certainly has a positive bearing on fortifying one’s ideals and sense of personal accountability. The list of things we could thoughtfully boycott include single-use plastics and other materials that affect the environment, brands that use labour unethically, celebrities who promote discrimination or have been abusive, and events sponsored by unscrupulous organisations. For a boycott to be meaningful, it has to not only be about abstaining from something but also include long-term behaviours or short-term actions that support something else. Those who conscientiously boycott goods from another country may want to boost India’s economy by purchasing exclusively from local producers, for example. Matching what would have been spent, had one not set a personal embargo, with an equal donation to a progressive organisation or cause is another way to thoughtfully do this.
There are plenty of Indian products that deserve our mass boycotts, while we’re on the subject. What about – just for a start – the brand formerly known as Fair & Lovely, which has revamped its name rather than taking itself off the market and apologising to the generations of people it emotionally scarred and the entire races it has insulted? Why brood vaguely on a whole other country when there are companies, institutions and systems right here that require our attention? Besides which, boycotts are only one type of solution. To dismantle with an intent to rebuild – far different from destroying without a plan or as an assertion of force – requires multi-pronged approaches. Does our rejection further the cause we truly support? Do we even know what that cause is, and what it requires?
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 4th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.