Issue 12 / Commons

December 20, 2020
A flag raised over a building, against a black and white abstract grid

Image by Celine Nguyen.

Under a Blood-red Flag

Nayantara Ranganathan

A new emoji furthers Hindu supremacism—and Silicon Valley is to blame.

In March 2019, the Unicode Consortium, which controls the publication of emojis worldwide, released an emoji of a Hindu temple. Until then, a Hindu temple had been conspicuously missing from the set of emojis representing religious places, which included a Christian church ⛪ and Shinto shrine ⛩️ (approved as part of Unicode 5.2, in 2009) and a kaaba 🕋, mosque 🕌, and synagogue 🕍 (Unicode 8.0, 2015). The most popular emojis are the ones that convey emotion, such as the crying-while-laughing face 😂, but many emojis are also powerful ways to represent cultures and identities (a woman in a headscarf 🧕🏽, same-sex couples 👬, different skin tones 👋🏻👋🏼👋🏽👋🏾👋🏿). On the face of it, then, the publication of an emoji evoking the religion of 1.2 billion people seemed like an important act of inclusion. 

But the form that the temple emoji took, and the timing of its release, carried distressing political connotations. Its publication coincided with a period of intensifying demands for a Hindu temple to be built on a contested site in the northern Indian city of Ayodhya. The construction of this temple is one of the most fraught political projects in contemporary India, and a symbol of violent attempts by Hindu supremacists to create a Hindu-first nation at odds with the ideal of a secular Indian democracy that emerged after Indian independence, in 1947.

In 1992, Hindu fundamentalists from all over India traveled to Ayodhya to demolish a sixteenth-century mosque called the Babri Masjid. In the following months, at least two thousand people, mainly Muslims, were killed in violence between Hindus and Muslims across India. Much of this violence was led or inspired by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu nationalist organization that boasts millions of members throughout the country. The RSS has a two-pronged mission: to narrow the extraordinarily broad set of beliefs and practices known as Hinduism into a single political form of the religion, and to make India—which is roughly 80 percent Hindu, 15 percent Muslim, and 5 percent Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, and others—a formally Hindu state.

If the destruction of the Babri Masjid was one of the RSS’s greatest symbolic victories, its greatest political victory came in 2014, when Narendra Modi, a longtime officer of the group, was elected India’s prime minister. Since then, the country has taken a brazenly fundamentalist turn, with mob killings of Muslims being implicitly and explicitly encouraged by members of Modi’s political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is effectively the political wing of the RSS. 

The mission to build a Hindu temple in Ayodhya has also advanced. In 2017, an extremist member of the BJP took power in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, where the contested religious site is located. He promised that under his leadership, no force could stop the construction of the temple. Then, in November 2019, the long-awaited verdict in a twenty-seven-year-old court case was decided by India’s highly politicized supreme court: the construction of the Hindu temple, known as the Ram Mandir, could go ahead.

This was the charged political climate into which the Hindu temple emoji was released by the Unicode Consortium earlier that year. Remarkably, the emoji bears two of the main emblems of Hindu political-religious fundamentalism: the color saffron, and a distinctive red flag that looks exactly like the banner of the RSS. The emoji’s design is also similar to the plans for the Hindu temple that is to be built in Ayodhya, which have been in development since the early 1990s. 

The Hindu temple emoji can now adorn almost any message on any social media site in the world, whether or not users understand its significance. Many people, in India and abroad, put the emoji in their screen names to signal their allegiance to a Hindu-first nation; some also use it when making calls for violence against Muslims. But even when the emoji is used in less explicitly political contexts, its effect is to uphold and normalize the RSS’s political version of Hinduism, its violent attacks on Muslims, and its Hindu-supremacist vision of India. 

Because it has a fairly superficial theory of what emojis are and remains focused on a narrow set of criteria for approving new emojis, the Unicode Consortium failed to understand the cultural and political significance of the Hindu temple emoji. The story of the emoji’s development reveals that the process for approving new emojis—arguably the most popular lingua franca in history—privileges the economic concerns of large tech companies, and ultimately replicates the ways that these companies see, and fail to see, the world.

Hello, Interoperator?

When you type a message into your smartphone or scroll through the articles on your Facebook feed, you are interacting with the work of the Unicode Consortium. The consortium is responsible for encoding all the characters you see on your screen—letters and numbers in various scripts, hanzi and kanji, dingbats—into binary, so that they can be read on pretty much any machine, with any operating system, anywhere in the world. The purpose is to ensure that a line of code written in Bangalore, or a tweet fired off from San Francisco, arrives at its destinations essentially unchanged. Want a functioning Bengali website that can be accessed just as easily in East London as in Dhaka, or a Chinese-manufactured tablet that can render fonts designed in Accra? You need Unicode for that.

By encoding many of the world’s scripts—Latin, Arabic, Greek, Tamil—in this way, the Unicode Consortium plays a crucial role in determining who can use the internet, which languages will survive digitization, and who can reap the gains of the digital age. It also helps to determine who can enter the global digital marketplace as consumers, advertising targets, and data sources for extractive surveillance capitalism. In other words, universal standards for interoperability are not just about bringing people online and connecting them—they’re also about driving profits through an ever-expanding digital ecosystem.

These goals reflect the structure of the consortium. The consortium is a Silicon Valley–based nonprofit, and many of the people who do its work—assessing new alphabets for inclusion, doing the codification—are volunteers. But the power to decide what gets encoded by the consortium ultimately rests with the top tier of its paying membership, a group of about eight of the world’s largest tech companies (including Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft) along with a small handful of governments and a university, which buy into the consortium for roughly $10,000 to $20,000 per year, and get voting power as a result. (By paying as little as $35, other individuals and institutions can be members of the consortium, but they don’t get voting privileges.) 

Since 2007, as part of its overarching aim to expand the use of digital technologies, the consortium has taken on the standardization of emojis. Emojis not only help encourage user engagement with consumer technologies, but also provide a valuable seam of minable data—for example, in the millions of emoji reactions to Facebook posts that occur every day. As of Unicode 13.1, released in September 2020, there are 3,521 emojis, as well as more than 143,000 characters in dozens of different scripts. By encoding new emojis, the consortium is deciding which characters can exist in this new visual language. This gives Unicode a powerful form of sovereignty over digital life, and adds a further political dimension to the consortium’s work, since it decides what sorts of representation—interracial couples, say—get universalized as emojis, and which do not. 

The consortium itself is not always clear on or honest about the significance of its work. It tends to see emojis as “playful, colourful representations,” as one Unicode document puts it. It also likes to present the process of creating new emojis as a fairly open one. It’s true that, by submitting a formal proposal, including a provisional design, anyone can suggest a new emoji to the organization, out of which about sixty to seventy new emojis are approved every year. However, the proposals are evaluated behind closed doors by the consortium’s Emoji Subcommittee, and then voted on by the highest tier of corporate, state, and institutional members. Although there are criteria that new emojis supposedly must fulfill, the extent to which an emoji does meet those criteria is a matter of broad interpretation. What’s more, the criteria are designed to ensure that an emoji is as widely used as possible, so that tech companies can derive the maximum monetary value from it. A narrow focus on these standards can obscure the larger cultural and political significance a new emoji might bear.

To maintain its unique role in encoding the world’s language scripts, the consortium presents itself as neutral and above politics. It tries to avoid political conflicts by admonishing designers not to “justify the addition of emoji because they further a ‘cause,’ no matter how worthwhile.” All the same, “a proposal may be advanced despite a ‘cause’ argument—if other factors are compelling,” states the document detailing how to submit emoji proposals, which was written in 2009 by an Apple employee. As the scholars Luke Stark and Kate Crawford observed in a 2015 paper, “proposed solution[s] for improving emoji diversity in fact [signal] a further evolution in the business models of affective digital communications.” In other words, the political and cultural representation furnished by emojis—brown skin tones, a trans rights flag 🏳️‍⚧—may be deeply meaningful to users, but for the Unicode Consortium and its members, allowing such representation is primarily a means to get more people to use more digital technology more often.

Bright Orange to Blood Red

The Unicode notation for the Hindu temple emoji is U+1F6D5. In the Twitter rendering of the emoji, the graphic has a stepped structure, tapering upward in tones of saffron to a tall spire, with a prominent two-fanged flag at the top.

Twitter emoji of a Hindu temple, with an orange flag at the top.
Hindu temple emoji. Source: Iconify (CC BY 4.0).

Its architectural form is an ambiguous mix of the two most canonized styles of Indian temple architecture, the north Indian Nagara and south Indian Dravidian. In this way, it seems to combine two major streams of ancient temple architecture, each with many offshoots and tributaries, into a single statement. It also shares many features of the temple that is to be built on the contested site in Ayodhya, according to a design that has recently been circulated on social media by the Modi government’s Shri Ram Janmbhoomi Teerth Kshetra, a trust constituted to lead the construction and management of the temple.

The emoji was originally designed by Girish Dalvi, a professor at the Industrial Design Centre of the Indian Institute of Technology, and Mayank Chaturvedi, who at the time was working for an agency of the Maharashtra state government that is dedicated to promoting Marathi language and culture, including through Unicode representation. A first version of the proposal was sent back by the Emoji Subcommittee for clarifications about whether the proposed image would mean “Hindu temple” to anyone who saw it, and whether it would be the best symbol to account for regional differences in what temples look like. In response, Dalvi and Chaturvedi argued that their design used a “common architectural grammar” among Hindu temples, and that the saffron color provided “semantic reinforcement” because the “saffron colour is often associated with Hinduism.” They also claimed that, like their design, “most Hindu temples have a flag at the apex.”

This rationale used Unicode’s criteria to justify the inclusion of the emoji’s most blatantly Hindu-supremacist symbols. In reality, there’s an extraordinary diversity to Hindu temple architecture. Many temples are whitewashed, while others are brilliantly polychromatic. In recent years, though, the color saffron—in hues from bright orange to blood red—has become increasingly associated with Hindu nationalism. There’s even a word, “saffronization,” for the Hindu right’s attempts to rewrite everything from daily news to the history of the country in a way that reinforces Hindu supremacism: rechristening cities and streets that had Islamic-sounding names, purging textbooks of accounts of Mughal rule and heritage, claiming that ancient Hindus had “airplanes, stem cell technology, and the internet,” and generally presenting a glorified version of the past in which Hindu civilization is always virtuous and always supreme. Online, saffron is used in a range of ways by members of the Hindu right to signal their allegiance to the idea of a Hindu-first nation, and to issue threats to non-Hindus—for example, by saturating images with saffron tones, or by using saffron as the background color for aggressive text memes.

The red swallow-tailed pennant that flies from the top of the temple emoji is also quintessentially Hindu-supremacist. It isn’t necessarily the case that most temples have flags, and the temples that do have flags rarely have a flag of this kind. The pennant in the emoji, however, looks exactly like the bhagwa dhwaj, the banner of the RSS. Although it doesn’t fly over many temples, it is sometimes used by Hindu fundamentalists to distinguish Hindu shops and other buildings from those owned by non-Hindus—information that could be put to vicious use during a pogrom, and which has come to inspire fear in non-Hindus in daily life.

The Unicode Consortium’s criteria for new emojis require that the designs should be at once unique and representative, so that, for example, the beer mug emoji 🍺 is instantly recognizable as a mug of beer while at the same time standing for beer in general. Part of what this means is that there will likely never be another Hindu temple emoji that could exist alongside, and contest the symbolism of, this one. The major social media platforms, software companies, and hardware manufacturers all adapt Unicode’s approved emoji designs to their own products. Some of their versions of the temple are more clearly Hindu-supremacist than others, but all share at least one feature in common with the emoji’s original design: many have pennants, and most are saffron. The upshot is that the Unicode Consortium’s decision has massive downstream effects: whenever anyone adds a temple emoji to their Facebook post, they’re reproducing a symbol of Hindu supremacism. (Members of the Unicode Consortium’s Emoji Subcommittee did not make themselves available for comment before this piece went to press.)

One of the emoji’s designers, Dalvi, told me that his design has been misinterpreted because of the political context into which it was released. “The timing could not have been more unfortunate,” Dalvi said. “As a designer, this is the pitfall. My design can be politicized and used towards ends that I cannot control.” But it’s impossible to deny the Hindu-supremacist symbolism of the emoji, especially given that countless other approaches were theoretically possible. The consortium wanted to make sure the emoji was clearly a “Hindu temple,” but they didn’t say how to accomplish this. If Dalvi didn’t intend for his emoji to be a badge of Hindu supremacism, his design choices show just how successful the RSS has been at promulgating its vision for India.

Permanent Supremacy

Use of the :hindu_temple: emoji (as its shortcode is known on Slack, GitHub, and other platforms) is still picking up, spurred on by software that suggests it whenever users type “temple,” “mandir,” or other words on their keyboards. The emoji has been adopted by some social media accounts dedicated to sharing temple photos and discussing temple tourism, but it has also quickly become a shorthand for expressing support for Hindu supremacy—or issuing direct threats—when included in social media usernames and messages. 

The emoji has something in common with other ways in which Hindu supremacists have deployed language online to further their cause. Like the emoji, certain phrases purport to be descriptive but actually promote dangerous narratives about who is an enemy and who is a supporter of Hinduism and India. These phrases include “Love Jihad,” which refers to a supposed phenomenon of Muslim men seducing Hindu girls, and “Urban Naxal,” which is used to describe a certain type of English-speaking, urban-dwelling leftist thought to be sympathetic to Maoist revolutionaries operating in parts of the Indian countryside. 

The central danger of the emoji is that it is as generative of people’s ideas about what counts as Hindu or Indian as it is reductive of Hinduism’s and India’s complexities. “We have to be very careful with the process, that what we ultimately encode is going to be something that has permanence and will stand the test of time,” Craig Cummings, a senior technical product manager at Amazon and the vice chair of the Unicode committee that oversees the approval of new emojis, says in Picture Character, a 2019 documentary about emojis. What the consortium has helped give permanence to in this case is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s vision for Hindu supremacism in India and worldwide. It is a small but potent example of the way that Silicon Valley has chosen to make money from hate.

Nayantara Ranganathan is a researcher and lawyer writing on issues of technology and society.

This piece appears in Logic's issue 12, "Commons". To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.