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OP-ED: Shooting the messenger

  • Published at 07:35 pm February 4th, 2021
Farmers' Protest India
Protest against farm laws at a village in Haryana, India REUTERS

The damage done to India’s reputation can’t be fixed by celebrity tweets

The combined weight of India’s official soft power, writ, and influence was brought to bear against an unlikely target this week, when the mass of government, Bollywood, cricketer, and sundry celebrity Twitter accounts all swivelled to face off against the 32-year-old, Barbados-born pop superstar Rihanna.

The sparkling young singer, who has an amazing 101.2 million followers on the platform (she ranks fourth in the world after former US president Barack Obama, and fellow musicians Justin Bieber and Katy Perry) seems to have earned this co-ordinated wrath on February 2, when she tweeted the link to a BBC story about the Indian government cutting off internet to districts surrounding New Delhi, where farmers are rallying against new laws that they believe are corporate giveaways.

“Why aren’t we talking about this?!” wrote Rihanna, adding the popular hashtag #FarmersProtest. 

Already reeling from the events of the past fortnight, when the farmer protest leadership not only rejected its overtures, but continues to visibly burgeon in strength, popularity, and political clout across the country, the government reacted notably clumsily.

First, the Ministry of External Affairs issued an ill-advised statement that “it is unfortunate to see vested interest groups trying to enforce their agenda on these protests, and derail them … and some of these vested interest groups have also tried to mobilize international support against India.”

It concluded: “Before rushing to comment on these matters, we urge that the facts be ascertained, and a proper understanding of the issues at hand be undertaken. The temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible.” 

Then it added its own hashtags: #IndiaTogether and #IndiaAgainstPropaganda.

The following day, with conspicuous lack of irony, followed the lockstep barrage of tweets from the regime’s representatives, allies, and employees.

As the opposition leader, Dr Shashi Tharoor tweeted: “For GoI [the government of India] to get Indian celebrities to react to Western ones is embarrassing. The damage done to India’s global image by GoI’s obduracy & undemocratic behaviour can’t be remedied by a cricketer’s tweets. Withdraw the farm laws & discuss solutions w/farmers & you’ll get #IndiaTogether.”

Tharoor -- the eloquent former under-secretary of the United Nations, and member of parliament from Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala -- is himself in the government’s crosshairs at the moment. Along with the veteran news anchor Rajdeep Sardesai, and the journalists Mrinal Pande, Zafar Agha, Paresh Nath, Anant Nath, and Vinod Jose, he faces the remarkably extreme charge of sedition for the simple act of tweeting what was breaking (albeit now disputed) news during the January 26 skirmishes between farmers and police in New Delhi.

Sardesai’s employer, the India Today media conglomerate, has already taken him off the air (reportedly for two weeks) and peremptorily docked a full month of his salary, in an obvious -- and almost certainly futile -- attempt to ingratiate itself with the Modi-Shah regime, and its agenda to render the media entirely compliant.

Those intentions are apparent in the government’s recent demand to Twitter to immediately suspend hundreds of accounts, including those of journalists, opposition party politicians, the farmer-backed Kisan Ekta Morcha, and the stellar independent magazine The Caravan. The social media giant complied, but only for six or seven hours, in which time it sent its lawyer to the IT ministry to argue that the ban would violate constitutional guarantees of free speech.

But now the ministry has come back with increased menace, evidently intent on enforcement. According to Buzzfeed News, its new notice says Twitter has no “constitutional, statutory, or any legal basis whatsoever” to try and interpret what is free speech in India, and in an unprecedented and rather shocking manoeuvre, has threatened steep fines and jail terms of up to seven years for employees if the company does not “abide and obey” its orders. 

This showdown -- like the sedition cases -- will likely go to the courts. They will measure the resilience of India’s constitutional safeguards, and the independence of its judiciary, and also constitute a gut check for the multinational media companies that have -- seemingly overnight -- become our public commons, for better or worse. 

We know that when it really counted in the US during Donald Trump’s outlandish, slow-motion attempt to overturn the rule of law, Twitter drew the line and held firm against the rogue actors in leadership. Will it show the same kind of mettle elsewhere?

As Nicholas Dawes, the former communications director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted: “Applying human rights-based standards for content moderation at global scale may be hard, but it’s the job they [Twitter] signed up for … India’s crackdown on dissent is broad and deep, and affects most severely Dalit and Tribal activists. But in this instance, the point of pressure is a huge global platform that Narendra Modi uses daily. That is an opportunity, and a test.”

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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