Modi’s Mishandling of the Farmers’ Protest and a Tale of the Modi Celebrity Brigade

Source: Time Magazine


I N T E R N A T I O N A L – I N D I A


Tahia Afra Jannati


The Delhi Chalo movement, a crisis that has ravaged the pride of a nation and once again bared the ugly truth of a nationalist government and its shameless supporters, has been soaring since September 2020. The farmers, mostly from Punjab, are vociferously protesting against the three farm bills, which will ensure the removal of already inadequate government protection of farmers, deregulating India’s agricultural industry, and opening it up to free-market competition — leaving the farmers as prey to the predators of the big corporations.

Although it’s debatable whether the reform was necessary or not, the farmers argue that the new laws harm the livelihood of everyday farmers and only benefits private companies.

From rooftops to rallies

The “farmers protest” did not just happen overnight. Back in June when the bills were first introduced in Lok Sabha, the farmers started raising objections calling the laws “anti-farmers laws”. At first, farmers protested peacefully: They stood on their rooftops for hours, held peaceful demonstrations, and organised tractor-marches all over India. From September, however, the situation started to worsen when the laws were finally passed by the Parliament and Punjab’s farmer unions organised ‘Lalkar’ rallies. In November, a nationwide general strike took place and farmers started mobilising towards the capital. Finally, on 26 January, India’s Republic day, all hell broke loose when hundreds of thousands of protesters rallied to the Red Fort and hoisted farmer union flags and religious flags.

Modi’s violent crackdown approach

Since the fiasco of 26 January, peaceful demonstrations snowballed into violent protests and with that weapons of armed forces came out. The use of strong force from the Indian government and authoritarian strategy have been on full display as they handled the largest movement in Indian history. 

Farmers breaking their initial promise of peaceful protests have been using their tractors to pull apart erected barricades and barbed wires, while the government forces are firing tear gas and charging demonstrators with bamboo sticks to bring some order — planted spikes in concrete to prevent movements toward New Delhi, the capital that felt under siege. Protesters claim Modi is using the police force as his own army.  

Journalist detention has also been a popular tool with the PM. His government has resorted to arrests, trying to stifle dissenting voices which came as a shock to no one. Some journalists at the scene were arrested while others were dragged to court and had baseless charges filed against them. 

Internet access has been blocked multiple times in areas around the capital. Imposing internet shutdown has been a popular tactic with this government, which infamously posed a month-long internet blackout in India-controlled Kashmir during the Kashmir crisis, also restricted internet access during the crisis surrounding the controversial citizenship law, both in 2019.

According to government officials, internet suspension is practised to contain the spread of misleading information by the media. But the people know better, the government is imposing these sanctions only to restrict journalists’ access to them and halt the rightful process of spreading news of the country’s dire situation and violent handling by the armed forces. The government has also intermittently cut off electricity around New Delhi and at the protest sites and also blocked water supply to one of the camps before cutting off the internet as well. 

This right-wing authoritarianism and Modi’s ultra-nationalist tactics have brought India’s democratic standing into question.

Modi’s infamous celebrity brigade

After keeping mum over the government’s atrocities for more than two months, some Indian celebrities suddenly rushed to fulfill their roles as emergency response squad when a tweet by Rihanna, a global female icon (who merely shared a news by CNN about the internet blockade around New Delhi writing, “Why aren’t we talking about this?!”), apparently was enough to rattle the Indian government’s position and shake the very core of faith of the Bhakts so much so that India’s Ministry of External Affairs felt compelled to give a disproportionate response to the singer’s tweets criticising “celebrities and others” for their “neither accurate nor responsible” comments. The MEA was joined by Home Minister Amit Shah who accused the Barbadian singer of deterring India’s unity and trying to decide India’s fate.

But the real show had only just begun. After that, actress Kangana Ranaut, an avid supporter of Modi, a self-proclaimed Desh Bhakt and infamous holder of extremist views, called Rihanna a ‘pornstar’ and a ‘fool’. Then she went on to compare the farmers fighting for their rights to terrorists. Several other film stars and cricketers followed suit, tweeting in support of the Indian government. All of them chanted similar phrases resonating the statement given by MEA and using the same hashtags such as #IndiaAgainstPropaganda, #indiatogether. This only fuelled the agitation of the protesters and their supporters all around the world.

The hypocrisy of these celebrities, blindly echoing the words stated by the Indian government, was a topic of great ridicule all across social media; as they were called out for comparing a western singer to external force threatening India’s sovereignty and for their tone-deaf responses. However, the most agonising thing must be the pattern of behaviour, indulging in political activism only when it suits them and their persona. Their nationalist sentiments are creating more rift in an already divided nation.

Other celebrities, in support of the protesting farmers, lashed on their irresponsibility as they failed their fellow Indians in a never-witnessed-before crucial situation such as this. Twitter users claimed that Modi’s celebrity supporters were taking advantage of their privileged position, not minding the struggle for life the farmers are in. Others pointed out the brigade’s pattern of selective activism and how during the Black Lives Matter protest in the USA, their external position didn’t stop them from raising their voices against injustice. One may say these influential personalities have lost their individuality and chose shameless flattery over standing their own ground and differentiating between right and wrong.

Among some other international personalities who reacted to the ongoing movement in support of the protesting farmers, one of the most notable was Greta Thunberg, a climate activist. And many among the Indian-origin diaspora have also been quite vocal about their support of the ongoing protest, though almost entirely on social media. 

Twitter in dilemma

Twitter certainly has been in a complex position while it is shouldering the responsibility of protecting freedom of speech and is constantly coming under fire by the Indian Government for assisting in the spread of debatable tweets against the administration. Drawing the line between hate speech and necessary information surrounding the government’s handling of the protest has turned out to be a challenging balance act and Twitter seems to be walking on thin line here.

While near the beginning of February, the social networking site had suspended around a hundred accounts spreading information about the protests, it had later reinstated those accounts on the grounds of free speech. Protecting the jobs and safeguarding the lives of its Indian employees is the handle’s first priority. Time will tell if Twitter prefers risking its business on a territory that has long ago turned out to be one of its most profitable markets or chooses to compromise its morality. 

The minute propensities of the Modi-supporting influencers might just miss the point on this occasion, but at the end of the day what’s important is who decides to back down first. Protesting farmers who initially won over sympathy of most Indians through their peaceful demonstrations might weaken their position if they keep resorting to desperate but intense strategies.

The protestors have declared that they intend to stay on the road until all of their demands are met. On the other hand, Modi who has offered to make sufficient changes in the legislation to address farmers’ concerns, also shows no sign of submission, as he only suspended the reforms for 18 months as a way to stave off the pressure of the protests without ultimately offering any real solutions. Maintaining an untainted image all around the world while protecting his nationalist beliefs should be one of his concerns. But there is no denying that the ugly truth of farmers’ suppression in India is already out for the whole world to witness.

 


Tahia finds solace in reading; she wholeheartedly believes she is similar to Jane Austen heroines. She wants to build a life worth living and has a list of countries she wants to visit. She is an optimist but an overthinker; ambitious but a procrastinator.

 

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