These days, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar is a worried man. What keeps him awake at night, it seems, is not the specter of Chinese troops massing at the border in the Himalayas but a celebrity with a global following. Rihanna, the 32-year-old Barbados-born reggae and hip-hop singer, swooped in unexpectedly to support tens of thousands of Indian farmers who have surrounded the nation's capital, New Delhi, following months of protest.
Indian farmers are seeking the repeal of three controversial laws passed in 2020. The laws are intended to reform India's highly regulated and subsidized agricultural market but which, many farmers fear, will leave them defenseless against corporate power and increase their risk of uncertain returns. The Indian parliament passed those laws in unseemly haste, without the usual consultation or parliamentary scrutiny. Since then, protests have continued unabated, with farmers laying siege on the outskirts of New Delhi and embarrassing the government. The Indian Supreme Court has intervened and set up a committee to examine the laws. A whiff of constitutional crisis is in the air.
Rihanna, however, made no claims of being an expert on agriculture or India's parliamentary procedures. Her concern was more straightforward: Why is the world not concerned about the stifling of dissent in India? Pointing out a CNN report about India blocking internet access around the protest sites, the singer asked in a tweet: "[W]hy aren't we talking about this?!" Internet blackouts have become a standard operating procedure for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government to prevent critics and protesters from communicating with one another or to the rest of the population and to stop images from being circulated.
Rihanna has more than 100 million followers worldwide. Within hours, other international celebrities had stepped in: Greta Thunberg, the teenage Swedish environmentalist, provided a link to a toolkit that explained in detail what people around the world could do to support Indian farmers. Meena Harris, the niece of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, whose mother was born in India, also joined in, as did Mia Khalifa, the Lebanese American former porn star. So did the phenomenally popular Canadian Indian poet Rupi Kaur. Other celebrities chimed in as well. Politicians in Britain, Canada, and the United States have backed the protesters, as have British farmers.
Jaishankar tweeted as if India were facing a grave crisis. And his ministry's officials drafted a remarkable statement complaining that the "temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible." Even as the officials were criticizing Rihanna, Thunberg, and others without naming them, leading Indian cricket players and film stars came out in support of the government in what appeared to be a clearly orchestrated move, using the Twitter hashtag #IndiaAgainstPropoganda to voice their resentment against foreign interference in India's internal debates.
Misogyny against female celebrities abounds, and in Rihanna's case, there have been racist comments as well.
The government's battle against the protesters and their celebrity supporters has gotten far more serious than social media exchanges. India used Section 69A of its Information Technology Act to require Twitter to take down dozens of accounts, including those of the magazine Caravan and the farmers' movement, known as Kisan Ekta Morcha. Twitter initially complied without explaining why. Reports said it was because of the inflammatory hashtag #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide, but several of the affected accounts had not used that hashtag. Twitter soon reinstated most accounts, and the government has now threatened the company with prosecution and fines. Meanwhile, the New Delhi police lodged a first information report—the mechanism with which Indian authorities begin investigating a case before deciding whether or not to prosecute—against unnamed persons for distributing the protest toolkit Thunberg had tweeted about. Early reports alleged that Thunberg was named as a target of the investigation, which the police denied. Thunberg, undeterred, reiterated her support for the farmers right after those reports.
The government is preparing for an escalation. It has placed barricades that look like military fortifications around the capital. Barbed wire and solid boulders to prevent vehicles from passing make New Delhi seem as if it fears an enemy invasion.
Meanwhile, on social media, the government's vociferous and intemperate supporters—many of them right-wing Hindu nationalists—have begun insulting India's critics. Misogyny against female celebrities abounds, and in Rihanna's case, there have been racist comments as well. Indian Twitter trolls speculate whether she is Muslim, which for Hindu nationalists is the equivalent of being an enemy of India. A fake photograph shows her holding a Pakistani flag. Pro-government protesters also took to the streets and burned large photographs of Thunberg, Harris, and Rihanna. Others noted mockingly that Khalifa had acted in adult films and Rihanna posed topless in a field in Northern Ireland in 2011, as if that undermined their disapproval of India's curbs on dissent. Kangana Ranaut, a pro-government film actor, fulminated against the critics—calling Rihanna a "fool"—and in a baffling stream-of-consciousness tweetstorm attacked an impressively large number of targets.
India doesn't like critics these days. While external critics are vilified in a tone of injured innocence that reveals the government's deep-rooted sense of insecurity, internal critics face much harsher consequences. Several journalists and opposition politicians have been named in a case filed under India's colonial-era sedition law, and Mandeep Punia, a young reporter who had interviewed the farmers, was detained for several days before being released on bail. A recent study by Article 14, a web journal that monitors the Indian justice system, showed a perceptible rise in the use of the old sedition law against critics. The charge under which Mohandas Gandhi, when he was leading India's anti-colonial struggle, was prosecuted by British authorities is being bandied around like confetti in modern-day India.
Modi has only himself to blame for the wave of protest. He is considered to be a master communicator, but his administration has singularly failed to explain the necessity or logic of the agricultural reforms. That is characteristic of his style of governance: In 2016, he withdrew large-denomination rupee bills in what he called "demonetization" with only a few hours' notice, resulting in a severe shrinking of the economy; in 2019, he stripped Indian-administered Kashmir of its special status granted under the constitution; later that year, he forged ahead with a law redefining citizenship and selectively favoring refugees from neighboring countries based on their religion; and in early 2020, he imposed a draconian lockdown to combat the COVID-19 pandemic without creating a safety net for millions of internal migrant workers, leading to a mass exodus from India's cities not seen since Partition in 1947.
The protests have exposed to the rest of the world the fallacy of describing India as "the world's largest democracy."
None of that hurt Modi in the 2019 national elections—but with the present crisis, he faces a genuine, formidable challenge. While the government's supporters claim that only rich farmers are protesting the proposed reforms, nearly 4 out of 5 Indian farmers have small land holdings of less than 2 hectares, adding up to only a third of the cultivable land yet producing 41 percent of India's food. Many of these small farmers are burdened by debt, and suicides are common. Without the safety net of a government-supported minimum procurement price, as might happen if the proposed laws go through, they would become even more vulnerable.
More than any other recent event, the farmers' protests, the wave of international support, and the government's subsequent curtailment of civil liberties have exposed to the rest of the world the fallacy of describing India as "the world's largest democracy." While India has a democratic constitution, regular elections, a parliamentary opposition, and a judiciary expected to act independent of the government, the space for dissent has visibly shrunk. Many dissenting activists are in jail and have been denied bail. In the Economist Intelligence Unit's 2020 Democracy Index, released in early February, India slipped two places in one year—to 53rd out of 167 countries analyzed. India is now firmly in the lower half among other "flawed democracies," behind not only European countries, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand but also many developing countries in the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. In the annual World Press Freedom Index prepared by Reporters Without Borders, India has been declining during the six years Modi has been prime minister, now ranking 142nd out of 180 countries. Freedom House's 2020 Freedom in the World report ranked India 83rd, indicating the worst annual decline among the 25 largest democracies in the world.
Little wonder, then, that the nation feels so insecure and gets so alarmed when global celebrities such as Rihanna direct their attention to India's declining democracy. When India's beleaguered government has to scramble and drum up support from pro-government athletes and movie stars, who then dutifully chorus identical messages on social media, it only confirms the critics' growing apprehensions about the course of India and its democracy.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on foreignpolicy.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.