How not to respond to Greta, Meena, Rihanna
As India sought to stand against propaganda on farm protests, it appeared to be teaching the world a class on propaganda. And not very smartly at that
There is a reason that truth is so much more dramatic than fiction could ever hope to. This week has offered a ringside view to the theatre of the absurd. To watch our nation, the world largest democracy, be hysterically rattled by a clutch of tweets on the farm protests, has been utterly embarrassing.
That we have such little self-confidence and such narrow shoulders that we could not shrug off a woke, possibly even surface-level intervention by Rihanna, the international pop sensation, says way more about us than it does about her or even about what can often be the western world’s orientalist, saviour complex.
So, it doesn’t really matter whether Rihanna’s Umbrella cover for India’s farmers was rooted in any real understanding of the new farm law legislation. Or if Greta Thunberg’s “toolkit” for activism was somewhat formulaic and superficial. Or whether Rupi Kaur, the minimalist poet from Canada, did a short quick verse on a complex issue. Or whether Meena Harris, niece of the United States (US) Vice-President Kamala Harris, was clambering on a liberal bandwagon because it was the trendy cause celebre of the time.
None of this is the point.
In this case, it barely matters whether you support the farm protests or not. Or which side of the divide you are on about the options before the police after the fracas on Republic Day.
Governments should be responding to other governments, if at all. And unless Rihanna is now a republic, the stodgy, fuming intervention by the ministry of external affairs was unnecessary. It catapulted the issue into the global headlines. As Hannah Ellis Petersen, South Asia correspondent for The Guardian, told me, “If the government had not responded, Rihanna’s tweet would have been just one line in my piece.”
Even more cringeworthy was the coordinated celebrity endorsement from India’s most iconic cricketing and Bollywood stars, as if patriotism and standing with India are now the same as peddling soap or soda. Yes, that is what we reduced Indian pride to, as we saw the silly spectacle of similarly worded tweets lambasting outside interference in internal matters. This came from many of the same folks who freely commented on the George Floyd murder in the US and the Black Lives Matter movement because it was fashionable to do so. The obvious absence of spontaneity in this orchestrated chorus only makes it strike a false note. And this from folks who never take a public position on any contentious issue in India, ever.
Worst of all, the same people who want “foreigners” to mind their own business are now parsing the US state department statement on the farm laws and latching onto the bits that strengthen the government’s stand. How can we play this out both ways — resist foreign commentary, but selectively hold on to it as well?
Since their tweets, posters of Meena Harris, Greta Thunberg and Rihanna have been burnt. Our television channels have lived up to their reputation for dangerous mindlessness by running character assassination campaigns. The police have registered a case, like they don’t have the actual issue of the farm protests in the real world to deal with.
And the full force of vile, ugly misogyny has been unleashed against these and other women, in language that is both vile and violent. Some of us live with this every day on Twitter and are almost numbed by this bootcamp version of coarse sexism. But as Meena Harris tweets passionately about not being intimidated — and rightly so — what was just a kerfuffle is becoming a full-blown diplomatic fracas.
In any case, if you build barricades of cement, snap internet lines, place iron rods, nails and spikes at the sites where a majority of farmers have been protesting peacefully, it is inevitably going to get global attention. This is where the government’s attention should have been instead of going all churlish and petty over a handful of tweets.
There are complex questions that could have been posed to Greta Thunberg, as the excellent economist Shruti Rajagopalan did, in seeking to know why the climate activist backed crops that used up so much water. There are many fair counters to the broad strokes in which India’s police have been painted, especially given that close to 400 police personnel have been injured.
We do not have to be trapped in the simple-minded binaries of the western world.
But when we respond in this manner, we have just gone and proven their point.
As we sought to stand against propaganda, we end up looking like we are teaching the class on propaganda.
And not very smartly at that.
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author
The views expressed are personal