A Thin-Skinned Reaction
A storm erupted on 2nd February when Rihanna tweeted about the ongoing farmer’s protest. Soon, Mia Khalifa, Meena Harris and Greta Thunberg supported in favour of farmer’s protests. However, what followed after that was not only bizarre but also very much telling about the Indian government and Indian celebrities.
A day after the tweet the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) issued a statement saying that the farmer’s protest was India’s internal matter and ‘sensational’ statements like these should be avoided. The MEA did two new firsts that day: For the first time it was reacting to a statement made by a private person, and for the first time it had issued a hashtag within the press statement (It had earlier used hashtags in a tweet body before)
Soon after, we saw a bunch of Indian celebrities tweeting in support of the government and using the same hashtag as the MEA did. Some of these celebrities included cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Ajinkya Rahane, Hardik Pandya and Ravi Shastri. Other celebrities included: PT Usha, Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn, Suniel Shetty, Saina Nehwal etc.
It has to take one hell of a coincidence for all of them to tweet in support of the government, it is most likely these celebrities must have received directives from the government and they were compelled to do so. It is not possible that they were doing it out of heartfelt nationalism for their country as both Saina Nehwal and Aksay Kumar’s (Isn’t he Canadian?) tweets were exactly the same. It seems like they were given orders and they decided to carry them out without verifying.
Bizarrely, Suniel Shetty had tagged the Vice-President of BJP Mumbai in his tweet:
The question still remains as to why these celebrities are following a script mostly directed by the government. Anurag Kashyap explains it very well:
Kashyap spoke from his own experience of having been “co-opted.” After this government first came to power, in 2014, he was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, he said. Rajavardhan Rathore, who had taken over as the minister of state for information and broadcasting, reached out to him. Kashyap spoke to Rathore about his concerns around cigarette warnings running during films. He organised a meeting with Rathore and members of the film industry in Mumbai, and did not lend his voice to the protests against the government’s appointment of Gajendra Chauhan, a B-movie actor and BJP loyalist, as the chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India. “I started feeling maybe I’m wrong because of the way the minister and others reached out to me,” Kashyap said. “They must have done similar things to other people.” When Kashyap’s Udta Punjab ran into censorship troubles, he realised he was “being manipulated” and started speaking up again.
Kashyap said his criticism of the government has damaged his films’ prospects. Both Saand ki Aankh and Mukkabaaz, which were shot in Uttar Pradesh and should have got the benefits of the state’s Film Bandhu scheme, were abruptly denied government support. “Because of me being vocal, the producers lost their subsidy,” he said.
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It is clear that there is enough pressure from the government to make sure that the celebrities toe the line, whether it is Karan Johar’s apology video in 2016 to not cast any further Pakistani actors or, more recently, how the makers of Tandav were compelled to cut a few scenes.
It can be said that the current government relies a lot on local influencers to convey their message across the country. The government tactics can be a little faulty, Rihanna is an international celebrity with a fan following around the globe, so is Greta Thunberg. It does not make sense for the Indian government to use local celebrities like Sachin Tendulkar and Lata Mangeshkar to spread the message of the government if it wanted to appeal to the same global audience. It is no doubt that people like Amitabh Bachan, Shahrukh Khan and Priyanka Chopra have a better global fan following and their tweets may have a better impact.
However, this also shows how the government is hypersensitive to online criticism. It is said that only 19 million Indians use Twitter which translates to less than 1.5% of Indians. For a medium of such small size, the impact on Indians is negligible then, yet the government reacted harshly and, perhaps, aggressively.
It also shows that the government is extremely thin-skinned when it comes to any form of criticism. It has sung the crude song of international conspiracy to denounce the criticism when it came to events like Hathras rape case, the CAA protest and now the Farmer’s agitation. If the criticism comes from a foreign government functionary or head of a State then the government says that it is an internal matter. The government must realise that human rights and fundamental rights are not restricted to sovereignty, India is also a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This is the reason why India has commented on the Capitol Hill riots and the coup in Myanmar, this also the reason why private individuals can react to things like Internet suspension in farmer’s agitation and in Kashmir.
Is it a mere coincidence that the Biden administration raised the notice on the freedom to protest that the Central government decided to lift 4G restrictions in Kashmir? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Who knows?
It is amazing that not everyone toed the line. There were some like Sonakshi Sinha, Cricketer Sandeep Sharma (He deleted his tweet later), Irfan Pathan who did not support the government. Cricketer Manoj Tiwary tweet was confusing as it did not specify whose side he stood on but it was in good taste.
In all this Twitter storm we have forgotten how bad things have become. The protests were started because farmers wanted to repeal the three laws passed by the parliament. The way the laws were passed indicated that the government did not have the support of the opposition, the way the farmers are protesting shows that the government did not build adequate confidence between them and the farmers. Perhaps, the government cannot be blamed. The Indian middle class (or the masses) have chosen a Prime Minister who brandishes himself as a figure of steep authority. Modi’s style of announcing decisions has been shocking and most of the time surprising. There is definitely an electoral appeal to his style and that is why he continues to enjoy popular support despite his government's disastrous economic policies.
However, when authoritative decisions can have a rebound effect. In the absence of any strong opposition, it is the people who organize themselves to show dissatisfaction with the government. Last year this time, it was the CAA protests that were going on. This year it is the farmer’s agitation that has perplexed the govt.
We are heading towards a low trust society. There is limited trust between a certain section of farmers and the government. There is limited trust between the state governments and the centre. There is limited trust with intellectuals and the governments. A low trust society falls back on social and economic factors.
Maybe, it is the right time to look at the legacy of Atal Bihari Vajpayee who focused on coalition dharma and made an attempt to reach out to his fellow parliamentarians across the aisle to discuss complicated matters. This is why under his government India was able to deliver above 8% growth for three to four years without any major backlash.
However, that did not get him elected again. Modi and Shah know this well.