Indian Twitter is the gift that keeps on giving. What started as a three-way tussle between Twitter, the Indian government and outraged users has morphed into a full-blown international kerfuffle. As with anything Indian that is political, the plot is never simple.
The controversy started a few days ago with Twitter temporarily suspending hundreds of accounts –seemingly on orders from the Indian government – that were perceived as sympathetic to the farmers’ protests against new laws relating to the agricultural sector.
The rationale offered by the Indian state in asking Twitter to enforce its request was that these accounts, of activists, news groups, and actors, were intent on whipping up anti-government violence among the protesting farmers.
In a perfect demonstration of Max Weber’s dictum that only the state is legitimately entitled to the use of force in a territory, this temporary de-Twittering was carried out almost exactly as the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party went full Stasi on the protesting farmers, cutting off their internet access, and turning the sites of protest into something resembling a paramilitary zone.
With much national and some international pushback, Twitter revived the suspended accounts, while Twitter India’s executives mumbled unconvincing explanations for their initial actions. The Indian government made its displeasure with Twitter clear, even as Twitter’s India management somewhat haplessly tried to portray itself as valiant defenders of free speech.
Fuel to the fire
Enter, Rihanna, global pop superstar and beloved diva of farmers everywhere.
With a fairly innocuous tweet that merely asked why the farmers’ protests weren’t getting more attention, Rihanna instantly sent the Indian Twitterverse ablaze.
Climate activist Greta Thunberg also happened to share her thoughts on the goings-on, sharing an informational document which declared that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-BJP were a “fascistic ruling party”.
This, well, was like adding fossil fuel to the fire.
India, 5,000-year-old civilisation (or 8,000 if amateur Hindutva archaeologists are to be believed), emerging global superpower, inventor of the internet and neem toothpaste, land of the Buddha and Chetan Bhagat, went ballistic.
The fire rages on. The tweets and their authors have aroused the anger of bhakt trolls, galvanised Indian celebrities into profound meditations on sovereignty and national unity, and provoked the characteristically oversensitive Indian state into issuing sanctimonious proclamations about foreigners meddling in Indian affairs and the like.
QAnon-worthy conspiracies about conspiracies to undermine India are trending on Twitter as are kitschy proclamations about a billion-plus Indians standing strong against the evil Rihanna and Thunberg.
On Thursday, the Delhi Police filed a case against the unidentified creators of the informational “toolkit” that Thunberg had tweeted, saying this was evidence of a criminal conspiracy to “wage economic, social, cultural and regional war against India”.
There is more to this than meets the eye. Conference papers will be presented about these events in the years to come, dissertations will be written, and grandparents will tell their grandchildren how they were there on Twitter when it all went down. For now, let me share three aspects of the controversy that are particularly illuminating about Indian politics, celebrity, and social media.
Narendra Modi and his followers are likely shattered that the prime minister and his government have been snubbed by celebrities and – that too, by foreign celebrities. Modi craves constant recognition from the rich, powerful, and famous, and the army of Modi bhakts see any compliment to Modi from a celebrity as validation of the man’s brilliance.
Recall Modi’s photo-op with a jaw-clenched Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan, a rare occasion when the formidable acting prowess of the Khans was not enough to conceal their obvious pain. And remember when Modi posed with Nick Jonas and Priyanka Chopra and with Anoushka Sharma and Virat Kohli.
Or when Modi casually dropped in at Facebook’s office in Mountain View. Or when Zuckerberg had to meet Modi on his visit to India. Or when...you get the picture.
The impotence of the rage of Modi’s supporters at this moment is instructive in itself. It has come as somewhat of a shock to the army of the faithful that neither Rihanna nor Greta Thunberg can be tried in an Indian court for sedition. The utter indifference of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to their abuse and pleas is a sobering reminder to the Hindutva trolls who run riot on Twitter everyday that Indian Twitter is not Twitter at large, and, in fact, is not even a particularly significant part of Twitter, especially as earnings and the plans of the company go.
Hindutva supporters can shout all day long but Jack Dorsey is unlikely to suspend the accounts of either Rihanna or Greta Thunberg simply because a low-level BJP functionary might say so.
Finally, the events have given us a rare glimpse into the self-serving and hypocritical patriotism of Indian celebrities. In the last day or so, Sachin Tendulkar has suddenly discovered his political voice, claiming that “India’s sovereignty can’t be compromised”.
It is a mystifying insinuation since the protesting farmers have not sought in any way to undermine Indian sovereignty and India, a country that shook off the yoke of an empire, surely cannot be so weak as to crumble when faced with two tweets.
Commitment to Indian unity
Virat Kohli, other cricketers, Lata Mangeshkar, and assorted actors from Bollywood have also expressed their commitment to Indian unity against the perceived attack from Rihanna and Thunberg. This is all very well, and they have the right to express their views, of course. Yet, it begs asking if any of these worthies ever thought that the Hindu Right’s assaults on Muslims and Dalits or the government’s crackdown on protesters against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens could ever undermine Indian unity.
In his remarkable text, Hind Swaraj, and in his other writings as well, Gandhi had argued that true political sovereignty and freedom could only exist in a society that respected the sovereignty of all its inhabitants.
It is telling that the attacks of the Hindu Right on the sovereign selves of Indian Muslim and Dalit citizens, especially over the last six years under Pax Modica, have drawn nary a political squeak from most Indian celebrities.
Instead, many of them have embraced the role of cheerleaders of the BJP and Modi, grating in the excessiveness of their supplication. Tendulkar and Kohli are batting geniuses but neither is a Muhammad Ali. Lata Mangeshkar’s singing exemplifies the idea of music as freedom and liberation, but clearly she does not sing for those who might find themselves as the forgotten, downtrodden, and oppressed of the nation. Akshay Kumar waves flags at Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad rallies, so one expects nothing there anyway.
Collectively, the response of politicians, bureaucrats, celebrities, and trolls to these tweets by Rihanna and Greta Thunberg reveals a deep national insecurity and anxiety about India’s place in the world. Beneath all the bluster and bravado of the new India, the new confidence of the new India, the new India under new Hindu strongman, Modi, lurks the fear that the world may not see us as we see ourselves.
It has taken a grand total of two tweets to call out this fear. Metaphorically speaking, the Indian emperor, it would seem, has no clothes, Italian or homespun.
Rohit Chopra is an Associate Professor of Communication at Santa Clara University.