- Rihanna recently tweeted about the farmer protests in India, causing, in part, the Indian government to release a statement.
- Indian celebrities immediately tweeted their support of the government and called for unity.
- To say nothing while farmers protest, then jump in when the government indirectly accuses a pop star of propaganda, is tragic and forces a look at how political power is tied to the cricket and movie industries.
- Amitoj Singh is a New York based journalist who has previously been Principal Anchor and News Editor at India’s New Delhi Television (NDTV).
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
When did India, the world’s largest democracy, wake up to the hundreds of thousands of farmers protesting outside the national capital in the bitter cold for more than two months?
Soon after she tweeted, the Indian government issued a statement with allegations of propaganda by “vested interest groups” trying to “mobilize international support against India.”
“The temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible,” the statement said.
Enter the unbeatable Indian influencers: cricket players and Bollywood stars. Within hours, these worshipped stars became disaster response professionals.
Rihanna’s tweet simply asked a question while sharing a story about India cutting off internet around New Delhi. The tweet wasn’t explicitly lending support to the farmer agitation, but raised questions about the breach of a fundamental right — freedom of speech.
In stark contrast, famous Indians were defensive and retaliatory. They dipped their toes in the hot water of the farmer protests, but stayed far away from talking about freedom of speech.
Indian celebrities defend the government
The Indian government’s statement was tweeted at 1:35 am local time. Just two hours later, Indian actor, Akshay Kumar, who has 40.5 million followers, retweeted the statement, saying he seeks an “amicable resolution rather than paying attention to anyone creating differences” — a clear jab at Rihanna.
Later that morning, India’s most revered Sachin “God of Cricket” Tendulkar (35 million followers) hit back saying, “India’s sovereignty cannot be compromised.”
Kumar and Tendulkar used both the hashtags #IndiaTogether and #IndiaAgainstPropaganda, which were featured in the government statement. Tendulkar is a former member of the Upper House of India’s Parliament and had a poor attendance record and a general lack of participation in legislative action. But on this day, uncharacteristically, he spoke out.
It didn’t end there. India’s current cricket captain, Virat Kohli (40.4 million followers) tweeted “stay united” and “I’m sure an amicable solution will be found.” Kohli’s deputy, Rohit Sharma (18.3 million followers), came closest to a tactful statement that could be read either way saying, “Our farmers play an important role in our nation’s well-being and I am sure everyone will play their roles to find a solution TOGETHER.” Both used the hashtag #IndiaTogether.
The exception to the celebrity pile-on was a retired Muslim cricketer, Irfan Pathan, who tweeted, “When George Floyd was brutally murdered in the USA by a policeman, our country rightly expressed our grief. #justsaying.”
What’s going on with the farmer protests
Farmers have been protesting since August 2020, against three farm laws proposed by the government. Negotiations have failed, the Supreme Court has appointed a controversial mediation committee, and in the interregnum, 147 farmers have died.
On January 26, isolated clashes between farmers, who entered the national capital to protest, and the police absorbed the nation. The occasion, India’s Republic Day, celebrates India’s constitution coming into effect in 1950. A day dedicated for patriotic celebration had been marred. Videos of violence from both police and protesters further divided the polarized population which bemoaned such optics on a day that celebrates India.
Social media can be a powerful organizing tool for social movements. And it can also be used by political leaders to clap back. The political calculation to bring out the celebrity cavalry in response to Rihanna was an overreaction. And the fact that it was exercised reflects how beholden celebrities are to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
Yes, celebrities could feel they have a responsibility to unify the country, but that’s a small part of it. To say nothing while the less-privileged farmers protest for months, then jump in when the government accuses a pop star of propaganda, is tragic. It forces an exploration into how political power is tied to both cricket and the film industry.
The political power behind India’s celebrities
Nothing in the world of Indian cricket works without the blessings of the Indian politicians in power. The Indian cricket board is the richest of the nations that play the sport. Politicians are either at the helm of the board or have their proxies installed. In essence, politicians can influence contracts, selection of cricketers, and security for stadiums and players (who get mobbed wherever they go).
In all my interviews with the cricketers in question, they have never been critical of the government and always sidestep political issues. Whatever they say becomes the front page headline, so answering political or controversial questions not about cricket is often disallowed. Therefore, it’s not surprising that India has not had a Colin Kaepernick or a Muhammad Ali. Not toeing the government line could have consequences — what those repercussions are is not always clear.
Similar politics make film stars likewise beholden to the government. Yet the political dynamics among film stars carries a different weight. Film celebrities have always been star campaigners for major politicians, influencing and mobilizing voters. More than 130 actors have also run for office.
In the 2019 election, a former television actor Smriti Irani beat Modi’s number one challenger, Rahul Gandhi, in his home constituency. At the start of Modi’s tenure, Modi invited many Indian film stars to his office. Smiling selfies soon adorned social media, signifying Indian cinema was about to be further politicized, for good and bad.
Patriotic films emerged attempting to alter self-criticism of India by Indians, but the films also played into the hands of the Hindu right-wing agenda of the ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party. Bollywood had been weaponized, even if sections pushed back. Also released were socially important films in support of government campaigns like the eradication of open defecation and ending the taboo of women using sanitary pads during menstruation.
India’s male-lead-centric cinema has mostly been led by three Indian Muslims — Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, and Aamir Khan. Neither tweeted anything in line with the government’s stand. They know better now than to get involved.
Aamir Khan was dropped from the government’s “Incredible India” campaign and lost a lucrative deal for saying he felt intolerance was on the rise. When Shah Rukh Khan said religious intolerance would take India to the dark ages, Yogi Adityanath, now the Chief Minister of India’s most populous state, accused him of speaking the language of terrorist Hafiz Saeed — a man the US announced a bounty of $10 million for his alleged role in the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 civilians.
The actors and cricketers who leaped to the government’s defense are likely doing so to maintain the status quo, and not invite a storm.
The Indian government’s overreaction is a reflection that the farmer protests have become the greatest push back against Modi’s popularity, which has so far seemed invincible.
The celebrities have not done themselves proud, but labeling their alignment with the government a treacherous curtain of deference is a gross oversimplification. The loss of their social power is a mirror to how India has changed. Their silence or assimilation with the government’s narrative, due to either connections with political power or to avoid rocking the boat, dilutes healthy challenges to the government’s agenda. This limit on a celebrity speech can be pernicious for a democracy.
Empowering celebrities with social power for the sake of democracy will require a systemic reckoning with authoritarianism. The people have begun it. Will they complete it?
Read the original article on Opinion Contributor. Copyright 2021.
Original posted at www.businessinsider.com