Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Tweets, Teens and the Fragile Indian Union

Activists burn an effigy depicting Greta Thunberg in Delhi. Photo: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

“Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.”
-Thurgood Marshall

American pop singer Rihanna sent out a perfectly innocuous tweet on 2nd February asking “Why aren’t we talking about this?! referring to the Indian farmer protests that have been ongoing since November last year. Rihanna’s tweet was followed by one from Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist, saying “We stand in solidarity with the #FarmersProtest in India” and she attached a toolkit (not created by her) with actions people can take to support the farmers.

What came next might make people think that India had suffered a foreign-state-sponsored disinformation campaign or that the country was infiltrated by terrorists linked to Pakistan. 

Amit Shah, the Home Minister tweeted that “No propaganda can deter India’s unity! No propaganda can stop India to attain new heights!” This was followed by a tweet storm from prominent Bollywood celebrities like Akshay Kumar Suniel Shetty and Ajay Devgn and famous cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar and Ravi Shastri.

Interestingly, all their tweets were closely worded and echoed the government’s official line about protecting India’s sovereignty and not letting “external forces” interfere with internal matters. One would be forgiven for thinking that they mindlessly followed a script; even using the hashtags, #IndiaTogether and #IndiaAgainstPropaganda, being promoted by the government. 

As if on cue, and without any evidence, BJP leaders took to the airwaves and began inflaming passions by claiming that the toolkit was “evidence of international plans for attacks against India”. Promptly, a police case was filed against Thunberg’s tweet and an investigation launched into determining the origins of the toolkit. The threat to India’s sovereignty was considered so grave and the danger so palpable, by these two female masterminds, that grown men decided to take to the streets and burn effigies of Rihanna and Greta Thunberg.

The government’s Ministry of Internal Affairs demanded that Twitter block the accounts of anyone supporting farmers, or criticizing Mr. Modi; including suspending accounts of prominent activists and journalists. Twitter initially complied with the request, but later relented after widespread outrage from Indian citizens and some international pressure.

It is clear Mr. Modi is ratted and his government is scared because their only answer seems to be to shut down the internet, quash free speech and muzzle the press. They have been charging journalists who cover the farmer protests, with draconian Colonial era sedition charges. Now they are threatening to punish Twitter employees with fines and seven years in jail for restoring Twitter accounts. It seems the media manipulator and social media master, Mr. Modi, does not take kindly to being bested by a Swedish teen. I guess there is not much point in Mr. Modi having a 56-inch chest because he clearly lacks a spine.

This whole episode also begs the question about where our celebrities’ priorities lie because I don’t recall this fear for India’s unity when the ruling party, which has a majority in both houses, passed the farm reform bill by circumventing electronic voting. They pushed the bill through with brute force with an unreliable and undemocratic voice vote.

Nor did these celebrities express their righteous anger when the opposition parties of Congress, Aam Aadmi Party, Trinamool Congress, and DMK said they were not allowed to debate the bill and had their mics muted. Nor do I recall any of these noble Indians being concerned about our freedoms being eroded when the media reported that the government also suspended the audio on the Rajya Sabha TV broadcast during the passage of this contentious bill.

Seventy-three years after Independence, if India’s unity is so desperately fragile that a Swedish teen and American popstar can upend it with two tweets, then we should just admit defeat with this experiment in self-rule. Mr. Modi and his government should pack their bags, call the Queen to invoke the British Empire’s return policy and hand India back to them. Given the mess the UK is in after Brexit, I expect they will jump at the chance to regain the Jewel in their Crown. 

India is the world’s largest and most culturally rich and diverse democracy on earth. We should be a beacon of freedom and a guiding light for the world, but under Mr. Modi we are behaving more like the de facto dictatorships of China, Russia and Iran, whose leaders feign democratic principles but curtail free speech and quash public debate and all criticism of government by restricting internet access and imprisoning journalists.

In 2020 alone Modi’s government shut down the internet over 75 times – more than any other country in the world. Beyond curtailing free speech, this desperate action by our government also hurts us from an economic perspective. India’s shutdowns are estimated to cost the economy $2.8 billion a year. Not exactly a great example for a country that wants to be a global economic power and for a Prime Minster who has championed an initiative called Digital India.

 

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