The Saga of The Indian Farmer Protest: Rihanna vs Rightist India
What is happening in India?
The 2020–2021 Indian farmers’ protest is an ongoing protest against three farm acts which were passed by the Parliament of India in September 2020. The contentious acts often called the Farm Bills, have been described as “anti-farmer laws” by many farmer unions and politicians from the opposition also say it would leave farmers at the “mercy of corporates”. The farmers have also demanded the creation of a Minimum Support Price (MSP) bill, to ensure that corporates cannot control the prices. The government, however, maintains that the laws will make it effortless for farmers to sell their produce directly to big buyers, and stated that the protests are based on misinformation
The infamous acts sparked protests soon after being introduced mainly in Punjab and Haryana ultimately escalating to the movement named Dilhi Chalo (Let’s go to Delhi), in which tens of thousands of farming union members marched towards the nation’s capital (Delhi).
The Indian government ordered the police and law enforcement of various states to suppress the protesters using water cannons, batons, and tear gas to prevent the farmer unions from entering into Haryana first and then Delhi. On 26 November 2020, a nationwide general strike of 250 million people, as per trade unions claim, took place in support of the farmer unions. On 30 November, an estimated crowd of 200,000 and 300,000 farmers was converging at various border points on the way to Delhi.
While a section of farmer unions have been protesting, the Indian Government claims some unions have come out in support of the farm laws. Transport unions representing over 14 million truck drivers have come out in support of the farmer unions, threatening to halt movement of supplies in certain states. After the government rejected the farmer unions’ demands during talks on 4 December, the unions planned to escalate the action to another India-wide strike on 8 December 2020. The government offered some amendments in laws, but unions demanded a complete repeal of the laws. From 12 December, farmer unions took over highway toll plazas in Haryana and allowed free movement of vehicles.
By mid-December, the Supreme Court of India had received a batch of petitions asking for removal blockades created by the protesters around Delhi. The court also asked the government to put the laws on hold, which they refused. On 4 January 2021, the court registered the first plea filed in favour of the protesting farmers. Farmers have said they will not listen to the courts if told to back off. Their leaders have also said that staying the farm laws is not a solution.
On 30 December, the Indian Government agreed to two of the farmers’ demands; excluding farmers from laws curbing stubble burning and dropping amendments to the new Electricity Ordinance.
On 26 January, tens of thousands of the farmers protesting against the agricultural reforms held a farmer’s parade with a large convoy of tractors and drove into Delhi. The protesters deviated from the pre-sanctioned routes permitted by the Delhi Police. The tractor rally turned into a violent protest at certain points as the protesting farmers drove through the barricades and clashed with the police. Later protesters reached Red Fort and installed farmer union flags and religious flags on the mast on the rampart of the Red Fort.
What is the Riri connection?
Rihanna’s tweet on 2nd February linked to a news story about the internet blockade at the protest sites and soon went viral, gaining more than 700,000 likes. “Why aren’t we talking about this?!” wrote the singer, who has 100 million followers on the social network.
It is unclear why the singer chose now as the time to intervene in Indian domestic politics – she didn’t comment on last year’s mass public protests over a new ‘Islamophobic’ citizenship law, for example – but the tweet proved as provocative as her music.
why aren’t we talking about this?! #FarmersProtest https://t.co/obmIlXhK9S
— Rihanna (@rihanna) February 2, 2021
The 32-year-old Barbadian pop star regularly tweets on sociopolitical and human rights issues worldwide, showing support for the Black Lives Matter movement and for Myanmar.
In 2020, she personally donated £1.5 million for Covid-19 relief and has been a vocal advocate for the education of women worldwide.
While the government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has refused to scrap the laws after eleven rounds of talks. The demonstrations that have been rolling for more than 70 days now, pose a serious challenge to Mr Modi.
Who else is backing the protests?
Following Rihanna’s tweet, several other international and Indian public figures expressed their support for the protests on Twitter, including Greta Thunberg and Meena Harris, the niece of the US Vice President.
Within India, the protests enjoy considerable public support because approximately half of Indians are employed within agriculture and so Rihanna’s tweet was met positively.
The response of global leaders to the protests has been muted. Some observers say governments are reluctant to criticise India, global power and regional stalwart in curtailing the rise of China.
We stand in solidarity with the #FarmersProtest in India.
— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) February 2, 2021
A planned visit to India by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, on Jan 26, was postponed because of Covid.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did publicly refer to the protests as “concerning” in December, under pressure from Canada’s sizeable Punjabi community, receiving a dressing down from the Indian Government in response.
The government push-back
To the surprise of many, the Indian Government published a statement on Wednesday in response to tweets from Rihanna and other public figures.
“Before rushing to comment on such matters, we would urge that the facts be ascertained, and a proper understanding of the issues at hand be undertaken,” it said. “The temptation of social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible.”
Farmers constitute an extremely important part of our country. And the efforts being undertaken to resolve their issues are evident. Let’s support an amicable resolution, rather than paying attention to anyone creating differences. ??#IndiaTogether #IndiaAgainstPropaganda https://t.co/LgAn6tIwWp
— Akshay Kumar (@akshaykumar) February 3, 2021
The singer’s post was also met with a string of almost identical tweets requesting Rihanna stay out of India’s internal affairs from many of the country’s Bollywood and cricket stars, leading to allegations it was a pre-planned, scheduled response.
Rihanna is yet to respond to the Indian government but the lengthy, firm response to her post demonstrates the growing power celebrities can wield on social media.
Is this part of a wider trend?
It’s not just Rhianna using social media to back political action: celebrities have become powerful vectors in highlighting international news stories through Instagram and Twitter. Rihanna’s comments, “why aren’t we talking about this?”, are an increasingly common refrain.
In October 2020, as conflict raged on between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, Kim Kardashian West directed her power towards the cause.
“Please share the news,” she posted on her Instagram account. “We are praying for the brave men & women risking their lives.”
In turn, the level of celebrity attention itself can become a story. Protests against police brutality in Nigeria intensified towards the end of October, with articles soon following listing the most famous backer – from pop star Beyonce to supermodel Naomi Campbell.
British-Nigerian boxer Anthony Joshua said he was looking into donations to support locals. “This was never a trend for me! It’s real life and I want to learn how to make lasting change,” he said
Some celebrities have become well-known for their involvement in political movements. John Boyega was seen at Black Lives Matter protests last summer and came out in support of Sudan following a crackdown on pro-democracy protests that leftover 100 dead in June 2019.
As news emerged of the violent repression of peaceful protestors, Instagram became flooded with posts of blue squares, each representing another person supporting a movement that held the potential to be life-changing for thousands.
Future of the protests: A tough road to success
The farmers’ unions have vowed to continue the protests until the laws are completely repealed — a demand firmly rejected by the government which has instead offered to amend the laws.
At the end of Saturday’s three-hour blockade, angry yet determined farmers said they were prepared for the long haul.
“Let us see who will blink. We will dig in our heels and fight until these discriminatory laws are scrapped,” Banwari Lal, a farmer from Jind in Haryana, told DW.
This message was amplified by union leader Tikait, who said farmers would give the government until October 2, Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, to fulfil their demands.
“After that, we will do further planning. We will not bow under pressure. What we have shown today should be an indication that nobody can beat us down,” said Tikait.
The Modi government, on the other hand, has refused to repeal the law, going on to suspend multiple Twitter accounts and making arrests of activist and protester, infamously arresting 21-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi from Bengaluru on 13th February for her alleged role in spreading ‘toolkit’ related to the farmer protests.
It seems that while the protests might now be making international headlines, back home in India the protests might stir something deeper, a not so distant past of an era where national protests turned into civil strife and a complete collapse of democracy in the world’s largest one.
To quote the father of the Indian nation himself “An unjust law is itself a species of violence. Arrest for its breach is more so. Now the law of nonviolence says that violence should be resisted not by counter-violence but by nonviolence. This I do by breaking the law and by peacefully submitting to arrest and imprisonment.”
― Mahatma Gandhi, Non-violence in Peace and War 1942-49
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