Rihanna’s tweet about farmer protests in India and it’s colossal after effects

On the intervening night of 2nd February, when most of India was fast asleep, international pop icon Rihanna detonated the equivalent of a nuclear bomb on Twitter. Nearly half of 1.25 billion Indians woke up to her tweet on the 3rd and what followed was mayhem the equivalent of the Great Flood in conjunction with an asteroid strike.

The Indian farmers have been protesting against three farm laws that were implemented by the government of India in September 2020. As part of the initiative to reform India’s agriculture sector, the government has passed 3 laws — the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020. While the government has maintained that the laws are aimed at shifting the terms of selling farm produce in favor of farmers by getting rid of unscrupulous middlemen and vested interests that distort the markets, farmers are apprehensive about them landing at the mercy of private sector players and their apprehension is not unfounded.

The amendment to the Essential Commodities Act the government undertook in 2020 now allows it to regulate the supply of essential food items such as food grains, pulses, edible oils and onion only under extraordinary circumstances (such as war and famine). The three laws intend to increase the number of buyers for farmers’ produce by allowing them to trade freely without any license or stock limit which the government claims can result in farmers getting better prices for their produce. The laws also create a framework for contract farming through an agreement between a farmer and a buyer prior to the production or rearing of any farm produce. It provides for a three-level dispute settlement mechanism as well: the conciliation board, Sub-Divisional Magistrate and Appellate Authority.

Free trade for farmers’ produce will automatically eliminate any barriers for private companies from stepping into the agriculture sector. Allowing private companies to buy essential food items without any limitations can lead to potential food inflation and unprecedented price rise as private companies will have maximum control over the availability of those food items in the market. The Adani Group has been accused of setting up silos in Punjab as soon as the farm laws were implemented. Though they have categorically denied the accusation, it is hard to ignore the facts that the group is a major funder of BJP, the political party that has formed government in India and Gautam Adani’s (Founder of Adani Group) proximity to PM Modi who was ferried around for election rallies all over India in Adani’s private helicopter even before he became PM in 2014. Private players entering into contract farming is another contentious issue. Most important here is the dispute settlement mechanism. Dispute settlements can take a long time and the process is susceptible to being influenced by the powerful private companies.

To fan the suspicions even further about the laws, the government drafted the laws without consulting with the farming community. No democratic government would create laws for an industry without involving the stakeholders from the industry and try to impose the laws on the industry. Add to this, the laws were passed as ordinances through voice vote in the Parliament without any discussion and reaching consensus with the opposition parties.

The farmers from the state of Punjab were the ones who started the protest against the farm laws. The media, largely subservient to the government and the government’s propaganda IT cell went to work, branding the farmers as Khalistan terrorists. But the protest soon spread to the nearby states of Haryana and UP and soon enough the protestors reached the border of Delhi. After the disastrous tractor rally in Delhi during the Republic Day celebrations on 26th January, the government has tried to break the resistance of the farmers by erecting concrete barricades at Delhi border and by cutting off water, toilet access and internet services.

It is at this point that Rihanna exploded her Twitter bomb. As her tweet quickly grabbed global attention, support for farmers started pouring in. Even child activists Greta Thunberg and Licypriya Kangujam weighed in with their support. Then the government propaganda machine went into overdrive. On one side, the government issued statements denying any wrongdoing on it’s part. On another it mobilized prominent sports and film personalities who tweeted in identical fashion to “protect” India from “external influences”.

The irony of this is, during his last visit to US, Modi had openly endorsed President Trump for a second term and no American citizen had outraged over it. In democracy, everyone has a voice. The oldest democracy can have an opinion about the largest democracy and vice versa. This is what makes democracies mature and vibrant. Having democracy written into a country’s Constitution without people understanding the true meaning of it is simply useless.

But it is the venom of hatred and abuse on social media that the IT cell run by BJP has unleashed on Rihanna, Greta, Licypriya and even on Meena Harris, niece of US VP Kamala Harris that has left the world stunned.

The simple fact is, when someone is abused and threatened for no fault or for taking a stand on an issue, the fault is mostly on the side of the abusers.

The state police of Delhi has even lodged an FIR on Greta prompting users on Twitter to mock the government to ask the help of Interpol to arrest her.

Rihanna has even been accused of taking payment for making her tweet.

This is when ironically, the farmers are protesting against the government’s alleged attempt to put agriculture sector under the control of select corporate companies. I do not have a view on whether Rihanna was paid or not but when the government is playing an unfair game it should not expect the farmers to play it fair and square.

What has been exposed though is that for the hatemongers who are sending vitriol laden messages and abusive threats to supporters of the protest, this is far more than the protest itself. By openly abusing women and even girl children, they have exposed their patriarchal upbringing and mindset before the world.

This is how a friend of mine who supports the government and BJP responded to me when I told him that Rihanna may not have taken any money for her tweet.

The article Rihanna had shared in her tweet is about government restricting internet access to farmers and not about the farm laws. What most people in India do not know is about the concept of Maslow’s hierarchy and the fact that internet is considered as part of our physiological needs in developed countries.

She may or may not know about the farm laws, why the farmers are protesting and she definitely doesn’t need to know where Punjab in India is. The protest has become pan India now. The right wing ecosystem that thrives on the patriarchal upbringing and mindset of the people in it cannot accept any free thinking woman especially when she takes a stand on an issue. They will readily stoop to even physical assault to gain control over women.

As the government continues to rebuff repeated calls to repeal the farm laws and end the protest, it is finding itself being increasingly cornered by the tenacity and will of the protesting farmers. Modi has the mindset of an authoritarian ruler and he seems to know the below fact clearly.

What Rihanna’s tweet and the global outrage that followed it has done is to make it untenable for the Indian government to impose authoritarianism on the people under the garb of democracy. Modi’s inflated ego will suffer a massive dent if he is forced to repeal the farm laws. It would be wise for him to repeal the laws, end the impasse and do not let the protest descend into a civil unrest against the government. After all, BJP and it’s allies got only 39% vote share in the 2019 elections which means 61% Indians rejected BJP and do not consider Modi as their leader.

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