How farmers’ protest in India became a global issue

One tweet is what it takes!

Politics

February 4, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

How farmers’ protest in India became a global issue

Rihanna's tweet talked of CNN report on internet shutdown at the protest areas (MIG photos)

Favourable comments by companies and institutions across the world on the controversial farm laws have been showcased by the Indian government as a certificate about their innate goodness. However, as an innocuous tweet by Rihanna showed any comment that falls short of outright praise leaves the government unnerved and looking for support.

It took just one question from American pop star Rihanna to apparently leave the Indian government shaken to its core. On February 2, global icon Rihanna posted a one-liner and asked her 101 million Twitter followers “Why aren’t we talking about this?! #FarmersProtest” while forwarding a CNN report on the internet being cut in the protest areas.

The tweet could have gone largely unnoticed in India and may be even the world, but what followed ensured that practically everyone had not only read about the tweet, but also perhaps become more aware of the underlying issue of the ongoing protest by farmers on outskirts of Delhi for nearly 70 days.

It was clearly an overkill by the Indian government. First, the Ministry of External Affairs sent out a press statement about foreign interference in India’s ‘internal affairs’. “It is unfortunate to see vested interest groups trying to enforce their agenda on these protests, and derail them,” it said and promoted hashtags #IndiaAgainstPropaganda and #IndiaTogether. What followed was a Bollywoodesque display of patriotism, with its time-tested leading voice, Akshay Kumar, a Canadian citizen by the way, who swiftly tweeted out his support to the MEA’s statement.

Dozens of other celebrities including actors Ajay Devgn, Suneil Shetty, Ekta Kapoor, Karan Johar, as well as numerous sports personalities like Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Saina Nehwal tweeted nearly an identical text, in a clear attempt to counter Rihanna, who has since been followed by numerous other global personalities like 18-year-old climate change activist Greta Thunberg, who tweeted her support to the farmers. “We stand in solidarity with the #FarmersProtest in India,” she said and also posted a toolkit for those who want to amplify the issue of farmers’ protest in India. The toolkit – link to a document – contained a petition on the farmers’ protest as well as guidelines on how one could participate or support the protest.

While Rihanna may have been the celebrity with highest number of followers on social media to have tweeted about the farmers protest, there has been an increasing amount of awareness and support from international community to the cause of the farmers. Worryingly for the government, this includes a rising number of elected officials of other countries, and only some of them of Indian-origin.

The list includes UK MPs Claudia Webbe and Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, US Foreign Affairs Committee member Jim Costa and also Meena Harris, who, while highlighting the internet shutdowns and state violence, cautioned against remaining silent against “fascist dictators”. Harris is a best-selling author and niece of US Vice-President Kamala Harris.

Congress party leader Shashi Tharoor said the damage done to India’s global image by the government’s “undemocratic behaviour” could not be restored by making celebrities tweet.

Ever since the farmers began to protest at Delhi’s borders over 70 days ago, the government has vacillated, rather sharply, between attacking them, maligning them, talking to them or simply ignoring them. After the Red Fort violence on January 26, the government clearly tightened its grip and hardened its approach towards the farmers, detaining over 200 persons on charges of violence and strengthening the blockades around Delhi by building concrete walls as well as fixing nails on the roads. The government has begun blocking journalists from accessing protest sites and also cut off internet in those areas. It was a report on blocking of the internet that triggered the avalanche for the government, beginning with the tweet by Rihanna.

Farmers welcome increased attention

For the protesting farmers, the enhanced global spotlight on their movement is a welcome move as it would clearly put the Indian government under increased pressure to find a solution rapidly and end the protest that is soon becoming a global phenomenon. “I think the fact that farmers’ movement is getting visibility internationally and people across the world are voicing their support, it is a very welcome thing for the farmers’ movement. I think particularly we see that this struggle for making our voices heard as well as exercising the democratic rights is something which is common, which is what’s happening across the world also. There are so many movements happening across the world and many of the governments in other countries are trying to suppress the people’s voice in various ways. So, we see the people’s voices, especially the independent citizens and groups across the world, their solidarity is very much important,” Kiran Kumar Vissa, national group member, All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, tells Media India Group.

“Secondly, we find that the whole outrage that has been going on since yesterday about why people of other countries should talk about what is happening in India, doesn’t make sense. Any private citizen anywhere in the world they have a right to be concerned about issues happening anywhere else in the world. If the government does not care about the international opinion of people who are famous, as well as common people as it’s not only the famous people who are talking about this, a lot of common people across the world, including Indian citizens abroad, who are voicing their opinions, the government should not be responding and should ignore their voice. But if they care about the opinion then they have to do something about what they are doing. For example, Rihanna has just tweeted an article which talks about internet shutdowns and the kind of repression that is happening against the farmers’ movement. So if Indian government is sensitive about what people are saying then they should do something about the internet shutdowns and the repression of the farmers’ movement rather than saying that somebody should not tweet,” Vissa adds.

The government’s iron fist approach to the protest is beginning to backfire, at least internationally, as an increasing number of global media are talking about the movement and its repression by the government. The ongoing battle between the central government and social media firm Twitter about blocking accounts of some of the critics of government is also set to amplify the protest overseas.

In addition, everyday an increasing number of lawmakers across the world, notably in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada have begun speaking up on the issue. “We recognise that peaceful protests are a hallmark of any thriving democracy and note that the Indian Supreme Court has stated the same. We encourage that any differences between the parties be resolved through dialogue. In general, the United States welcomes steps that would improve the efficiency of India’s markets and attract greater private sector investment,” said US embassy spokesperson in New Delhi.

The critics say that the government cannot pick and choose the international comments on what it considers India’s internal matters. Vissa says that the government does welcome international involvement in many of the Indian affairs. “Today the US government has given some kind of statement through their state department official that these laws are actually good because they will enable more dynamism in the private market for agriculture. Does that constitute interference in India’s internal affairs. If tomorrow, the US President says he supports the Indian farming laws, then will the external affairs ministry go and issue a statement saying that the US government should not interfere in India’s matters? The World Bank, the IMF including the international credit agencies, everybody has an opinion about India’s policies. All those things are taken into account by the Indian government but now with Rihanna or Greta Thunberg’s tweet, why is there such an outrage? ” asks Vissa.

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