Pop star Rihanna is living up to her breakthrough album ‘Good Girl Gone Bad’ as far as many Indians are concerned. They have gone into a tizzy ever since she tweeted “Why aren’t we talking about this?! #FarmersProtest”. Even though it does not namecheck Rihanna, the Ministry of External Affairs has put out a response lamenting “the temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments” and “vested groups” trying to “mobilise international support against India” as if Rihanna was a sovereign state firing a diplomatic salvo. Instead of banana republics, we have the Rihanna Republic now joined by the Democratic Socialist State of Greta Thunberg who tweeted “solidarity with #farmersprotest in India”. She also tweeted and deleted a toolkit for protest which has led to an FIR lodged under IPC sections for sedition.
After her one and only farmer tweet, Rihanna moved on to prayers for Myanmar. But Indians have responded with predictable josh. Kangana Ranaut led the charge calling her a “fool”. Others sneered that she would not be able to find Punjab, or even India, on a map. One wonders how many Indians opining on the mob attack in Washington DC would have been able to map point the US capital. Such geographical niceties certainly did not stop anyone, from the highest echelons of government down to every Indian uncle, from waxing eloquent about it. If expert knowledge of an issue became a necessary prerequisite to having an opinion about it pretty much every WhatsApp group on our smartphones would go defunct. This artistic solidarity is not unprecedented either. Historian Rohit De tweeted that American singer, actor Paul Robeson spoke out on behalf of the Telangana 12 condemned to death in 1950 for armed struggle against feudal landlords. A parade of Bollywood stars advertised their woke credentials during the Black Lives Matter protests in the US.
The Rihanna factor has ignited a culture war. Actor and singer Diljit Dosanjh quickly put out a RiRi song thanking God for creating a pari (fairy) like Rihanna. A senior government functionary claimed “the tweets by Rihanna and others weren’t organic and part of a larger campaign to malign India.” There are allegations a pro-Khalistan PR firm paid her to tweet. But neither has the response been exactly “organic”. A parade of celebrities from Akshay Kumar to Ajay Devgn, from Sachin Tendulkar to the venerable Late Mangeshkar have all tweeted #IndiaTogether and #IndiaAgainstPropaganda. Most of the celebrity tweeters seem to have also organically discovered the word “amicable”. It’s like a Twitter version of that famous Doordarshan video Mile Sur Tumhara Hamara with everyone singing the same hashtag tune.
To be fair, in a world where troll armies are ready to tar and feather anyone who opposes government policy as anti-national, celebrities are in an unenviable position. The only wiggle room a hapless celebrity appears to have is deciding whether to use both #IndiaAgainstPropaganda and #IndiaTogether or just #IndiaTogether. (But Kangana Ranaut seems to be monitoring that as well.)
But the sadder truth is the brouhaha also reminds us that popular culture has all but banished the farmer from its storyline. Web series like ‘Panchayat’ or ‘Laakhon Mein Ek’ might venture into the rural heartland but the farmer rarely surfaces in popular imagination anymore. That is why we are so shocked that some of the protesting farmers might eat pizza! In our imagination they are still in ‘Lagaan’ singing ‘Chale Chalo’. That apathy towards rural India means most of us do not really know or care to understand the small print in the farm bills. We largely view them through the polarised lens of whether we are for or against the government.
In a globally connected world we will have opinions on everything from Donald Trump to Black Lives Matter to the coup in Myanmar, and yes, the farmers’ protests in India. We are free to ignore those opinions or rebut them but it’s pointless to go apoplectic about them. Rihanna is neither India’s Enemy No. 1 nor is she some newly-minted patron saint of rural distress but the over the top reaction to her tweet has certainly made the farmer issue a red carpet issue. Even Vogue Magazine UK is now covering it.
In the end it’s irrelevant what Rihanna thinks. The real question is not how dare Rihanna (or whoever) tweet about Indian farmers. The bigger question is why so many of our cultural icons (with the exception of a handful like Priyanka Chopra, Sonakshi Sinha, Sonam Kapoor and South Indian stars like Prakash Raj and Vishal) had to wait for the likes of Rihanna to tweet before they ventured to voice an opinion, whether supporting or opposing, on an issue that is, as one Bollywood celebrity put it in his #IndiaTogether tweet, about farmers aka “the backbone of India.”
He is right. This is about the backbone of India but it’s not the farmers who should be worried about the state of their spines.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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