All it took was six words from popstar Rihanna. Suddenly, she was India’s worst enemy to the bhakts and yet another glamorous liberal to the Twitterati and armchair activists who regularly champion the cause of the farmers protesting in Delhi.
Protests by citizens of various persuasions—students, Muslims, agriculturists—have all been romanticised as some kind of crucial revolution against oppression by the media and social media. The government’s responses and the troll army’s rage against celebrities who don’t toe the line of the BJP—particularly female celebrities—have been fodder for memes, bound to crop up given that most armchair activists are intellectually and artistically inclined.
But of how much significance is this, really?
The newspapers carry headlines that the farmers are happy to sit in protest till October 2. But to what end?
There is little clarity on the facts around the Republic Day fiasco. The tractor rally, which the farmers insisted on pushing through despite a firm no from the government, caused the death of at least one farmer. But there are disagreements on whom the blame rests with—while the police claim his death was a vehicular accident, The Wire editor Siddharth Varadarajan quoted his family alleging he was shot, and has been sued for his tweet. The government also claims several policemen were injured in the tractor rally, but the media has not caught any reliable footage of this.
There is also a fair bit of discord over how many farmers are actually against the reforms, and who will benefit or lose out from these.
Beyond all the misinformation and disagreement is a question none of us seems willing to answer: What do protests achieve in this state other than registering our objections to something, whether it is the Citizenship Amendment Act or a new set of laws?
By asking to be consulted, what we are essentially seeking to do is to redefine a democracy. This redefinition is necessary in a country whose population has grown too large and too fast to be ruled by representation at the national level. It is important that we divide state and central subjects more logically than they have been at present. And if this is what we want to do, our approach is entirely wrong.
A huge gathering in the capital makes for sensational photographs. It is powerful when it lasts a day, or two, or even a week. When it goes on for weeks on end, and cannot force the government’s hand, it becomes futile. Worse, it becomes habitual and therefore is no longer considered a threat—not even to public image. This is a government that not only survived such a largescale exercise as demonetisation, but was actually able to spin it so that a majority of the voting public believed and still believes it was a good idea.
We can always dissect the election results, and say it isn’t actually true that the BJP won by as large a margin as the party claims. The fact is, the Prime Minister remains Narendra Modi and the country remains bound by the laws by the party in power passes.
We can release songs about Rihanna, and call on celebrities to tweet their support. But what does Priyanka Chopra’s standing with the farmers, or Sachin Tendulkar’s and Akshay Kumar’s standing with the government signify beyond a 280-character opinion? What do Diljit Dosanjh’s songs achieve for the farmers or take away from the government?
The questions we have to ask ourselves are uncomfortable ones: What do we really believe in, and have we actually done our research before throwing ourselves behind a cause? What is the motivation for a tractor rally, or for that matter a barefoot march? What are we trying to do when we take or tweet or retweet photographs of broken soles and withered hands and weather-beaten faces? And why is the voice of celebrities important?
Social media creates a powerful illusion—the difference between making a statement and getting a job done has gradually been eroded. It has also become so important for celebrities to be seen taking a stance, to keep up their street cred with the powers they consider important—the liberals or the reactionaries—that their PR machinery busies itself with statements on issues in which they have no real stake and about which they have no real education or even familiarity.
The outcome of the US elections was evidence that work at the grassroots level is far more effective than control of the social media. It is also far harder than taking a photograph and watching it go viral. Joe Biden’s victory was crafted by volunteers at the local level, people who made calls to urge voters to register, people who accompanied voters to the desks and fought in courts for their names to be included in lists that had overlooked them.
If the Indian public is serious about making a change, the work has to be as intense and as nuanced. The media—news or social—can be a tool. But there will be no real change unless leaders emerge and begin to work towards the issues that matter to them, while also understanding how to use the tools that control public perception and policymaking.
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com