The farm protests in Delhi over three farm bills introduced in September 2020 by the BJP-led Indian government have received international attention and have been subjected to widespread outrage after prominent celebrities like singer/businessperson Rihanna, climate activist Greta Thunberg, lawyer/author Meena Harris, and sports anchor Mia Khalifa tweeted about the protests and drew attention to them. On February 2, 2021, Rihanna shared a CNN article about the farm protests after which various other celebrities and activists took notice of the issue.
But Rihanna’s tweet was met with condemnation in India – by the government, celebrities, and large swathes of the public. In response to this, numerous Indian cricketers and sports personalities tweeted out what seem like scripted responses about this being India’s internal matter and how this international commentary on the farm protests are a threat to India’s sovereignty.
Further, when Greta Thunberg shared a toolkit detailing resources, calls to action, and ways people can contribute to the protests and show solidarity, the right-wing held on to that as proof of some elaborate, international, leftist conspiracy to undermine Indian sovereignty by rallying against the repression of dissenting voices. The Delhi police, which works under the Union government, filed an FIR against the makers of the toolkit on charges of sedition, criminal conspiracy, and promoting hatred.
Rihanna, Greta Thunberg, and Meena Harris’ tweets and the international attention towards India’s issues are being seen as a threat to India’s sovereignty, an intrusion in India’s—as P T Usha puts it “internal matters”. Except, that’s a cover at best—international attention towards a country’s issues or struggles isn’t threatening its sovereignty. The government losing face because of its very real repression of the protests isn’t a threat to sovereignty.
While sovereignty is essential, the downside is that it allows states to carry out gross violations without being held accountable. This is best witnessed in Myanmar and North Korea, in recent years. Most international institutions, including the United Nations, can often do very little to stop these abuses due to the sovereign powers that these states exercise over their own territory. But accountability is not an attack on sovereignty. And the international attention the protests have garnered is only a step towards accountability.
Journalists are being prosecuted for honest reportage of the protests, Delhi has been barricaded to keep the protestors out, activists are being imprisoned, internet access is being denied in prominent protest areas in and around Delhi – if these are the practices of a sovereign, democratic state, we aren’t very democratic indeed. So the least that can be done is to hold governments accountable for their repressive tactics, and the international attention towards the farmer protests do just that. Silence in the face of repression, no matter in which part of the globe this repression might be occurring in, is a precedent we don’t want to set.
Sovereignty is essential to modern politics, it offers valuable safeguards against exploitation and foreign military intervention, but it also allows for unaccountability and a lack of consequences. Modern sovereignty is thus a balancing act – respect for autonomy needs to co-exist with accountability. Governments can’t refuse to answer for their forceful, reactionary tactics against their own citizens by hiding behind the veil of “internal matters”.
‘Don’t interfere in our internal matters’ is a tactic to save face and we as the citizenry of a still democratic country don’t have to parrot that. International attention isn’t interference, highlighting the struggles of the farmers isn’t a threat to anyone. Most of the celebrity tweets condemning Rihanna make use of similar language—external forces, sovereignty, internal matter, unity—this effectively others anyone who doesn’t align themselves with the right. By portraying international commentary in favour of the farmers as an external force or a threat, anyone who does so within India is othered, too. It creates a us v. them narrative, where anyone agreeing with or participating in the protests, is being painted like the others. The use of needlessly strong, militarised language like external forces is not merely an overreaction, but a tactic to achieve this othering of protestors and allies.
Further, Rihanna and the other women who put out these tweets and showed solidarity were met with aggressive, rabid abuse and trolling. They received death and rape threats, their pictures and effigies were burnt publicly, and they were at the receiving end of vile and vicious misogynistic abuse online.
Adding to that, following the tweet, Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty is now being accused of using blood mica from mines in Jharkhand that employ child labour. Legal Rights Observatory, an NGO, filed a complaint alleging this with the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights.
We are hiding behind the garb of sovereignty. Free reign to do as we please while saving face internationally. Silence dissent while appearing to be welcoming of it. Strong-arming the protestors into abandoning their protest while appearing tolerant of peaceful assembly. Parroting these unfounded claims of India’s sovereignty being under threat is a disservice to this democracy. The celebrities and cricketers who did this should be ashamed, they used their immense cultural capital to condone the othering of their own fellow citizens, but the rest of us need to do better.
If we add to this discourse of an attack on sovereignty, we are distracting from the real issues we should be addressing. If anything, Rihanna’s tweet ensures that we are now more accountable, it ensures that we can no longer proclaim this country has democratic values embedded in its very being while acting in the most undemocratic of ways. And most importantly, it might ensure that we do better.