A single six-word-long-tweet by the international pop singer Rihanna, who is followed by 101.6 million on Twitter, drew huge attention to the ongoing Indian farmers protests. It kick-started a mini-war on the social media platform and became the point of much debate and discussion during the last week.
“Why aren’t we talking about this?!” Rihanna asked, hashtaging #FarmersProtests along with a CNN report on the blocking of internet access in the areas where the farmers are protesting.
Rihanna’s political tweet was followed by a tweet from the celebrity climate change activist Greta Thunberg who, also, tagged the same article. She, additionally, uploaded a protester’s “toolkit” showing the standard operating procedure of how to protest effectively and how to spread it.
Rihanna and Greta’s tweets — supporting the farmers movement — were enough to provoke the Indian government, which is edgy about its image on social media.
The social media brouhaha actually came handy for the central government which was looking for an opportunity to show that it does not stand isolated over the new farm bills that have brought farmers from Haryana, Punjab and Western Uttar Pradesh on the streets.
Millions of social media followers backed the government’s stance on twitterspace while countless others supported the tweets of the Western icons.
In India the issues pertaining to Dalits, tribals, women and the farmers are politically sensitive. The successful farmers protests on the Delhi borders is largely seen as an embarrassment for the government. It’s a law and order challenge, too.
The government has conceded many demands of the protesters but lacks the tactics to handle it. What is more, the farmer’s organisational power has sustained the largely peaceful movement with an aberration that happened on 26 January at the Red Fort.
Besides giving bad optics to the government’s standing, the farmers protests is such that neither the government nor the ruling party is able to come out in open to gather counter-support.
In some ways the farmers protests have divided the farmers too. There are many farmers who want to end the status quo of the farm policy. But, the government didn’t encourage counter-protests in support of the farm laws in any other parts of India. Truth be told no government in India can afford the “anti-farmer” image.
The tweets by the Western celebrities were irrelevant in the Indian context because they are not known enough to influence the event directly.
The government soon swung into action. No less than the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) intervened by issuing a statement taking notes of the tweets by the international youth icons.
“It is unfortunate to see vested interest groups trying to enforce their agenda on these protests, and derail them,” the statement said.
The government’s remarks which had sharp political targets, concluded, “The temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible.”
The statement was surprising and highly unwanted for the secular-liberals who are against the farm bills. They questioned the government also because Rihanna or Thunberg aren’t too well known in large parts of India. Critics thought it was the overreaction of the Indian government.
The controversy turned serious when cases were registered against unknown people who created the toolkit uploaded by Greta. She wasn’t named in the FIR but the government clearly drew the line.
Why did the Modi government decide to take the celebs head-on?
In an exclusive but off the record conversation, a high-ranking MEA team member, privy to the internal debate over the issue of Western celebrities tweets told Gulf News, “MEA’s decision to respond was based on two things. One, use of toolkit proved that it (support to the farmers by celebrities on Twitter) was an organised attempt, not a spontaneous or an emotional response of the individuals. It was evident that the services of the social media influencers was taken. Two, the toolkit called for the demonstration against the Indian embassies all over. This is unacceptable as we have seen recently the aggression outside our embassies in London and Canada. The MEA is directly affected by this organised attempt, therefore the statement."
In one of the toolkits that was tweeted there was a mention of running an international campaign against India’s soft power: yoga and Indian tea. Since 2014, government has spent huge resources in making yoga international. Indian tea trade sustains the North Eastern states. These mentions provoked the government to issue the counter narrative.
Without wasting any time the government got some of India’s best names to tweet in favour of the government’s stand and also endorsed the hashtag #IndiaTogether and #IndiaAgainstpropaganda launched by the government.
If the government was questioning the “organised” attempt behind many tweets, it also did the same by “organising” the tweets of no less than two Bharat Ratnas Lata Mangeshkar and Sachin Tendulkar among others. Several distinguished artistes and the sportspersons retweeted government launched hashtags.
There was uproar over the government’s counter-steps too. But, the Indian government dominated the twitter timeline.
Five days after the twitter-storm of Rihanna and Greta the Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chaudhary, while speaking in the Lok Sabha February 8, asked the government, “What’s the crime of the 18 year old girl (Greta)?” While praising Greta he advised the government to tolerate the criticism coming from abroad.
Few hours before Chaudhary’s speech, his party men in Maharahstra demanded an investigation against what went on behind the tweets of India’s best known icons Lata Mangeshkar and Sachin Tendulkar.
Congress party demanded to know if these two legends had tweeted in support of the government under any pressure, and who made them “succumb’ under pressure?
And, instantly in an on camera meeting, the Congress’s ally NCP’s Home minister Anil Deshmukh accepted the request of the Congress.
The BJP leaders were smirking at the political line taken by the Congress which unintendedly ended up praising the Western celebs and demanding a police inquiry against the Indian icons’ tweets.
It is clear that we are yet to see the final act over this uproar and just how the protests pan out. Watch this space.