A couple weeks ago, I opened my Twitter to a barrage of racist and Islamophobic tweets by Kangana Ranaut, a prominent star-studded Bollywood actress, against Rihanna and Greta Thunberg, of all people. The sheer unexpectedness of the trio made it sound like the setup for a joke about walking into a bar. However, the real situation was much more bizarre.
Rihanna had retweeted a CNN article about the farmers’ protests in India where, for the past three months, farmers of Haryana and Punjab have camped at the outskirts of New Delhi. They are protesting new parliamentary laws designed to strip them of wage protections to redirect resources to other industries. These protests have been escalating since November, with Delhi recently fortifying its borders, cutting off water to the protestors and employing paramilitary personnel around the clock. After Rihanna’s brief moment of #activism, Greta Thunberg then tweeted out a toolkit for getting involved with the protests on a global scale.
A nerve was immediately struck among right-wing Hindu nationalists. Then, Kangana Ranaut, brandishing her crown as the most bigoted mouthpiece for India’s right-wing ruling party, the BJP, claimed that both Greta and Rihanna’s tweets were anti-national sponsored ads from Sikh separatist movements, Islamist insurgents and Maoists. In reckoning with this frightening crossover between my American and Indian identities, I realized a few things.
Non-resident Indians are known for juggling the fine balance between deep-rooted patriotism and complete apathy for politics. I was always proud of being different. I would read Indian news, scoff and think “that’s so typical of them,” explain the events to my parents with an air of moral superiority and then rest easy. It felt rewarding to distance myself from the absurdities of my country of origin, while still allowing myself full reign to bash them. If that sounds like you, please join my club called “We Are Part of the Problem.”
I had only followed Indian actors and actresses on the off-chance that they’d tweet thirst traps, so you can imagine my surprise at having to read their hateful words. #IndiaAgainstPropaganda dominated my timeline, as if most Indian celebrity accounts were taken over by BJP bots calling for an “amicable” resolution without “infighting.” The tone felt more appropriate for a brief misunderstanding among family members and not an outcry of the working class.
However, I don’t entirely blame them. There is a tension between the image of a celebrity and the reality of living in a country with such a white-knuckled grip on media representation. Their position is unenviable — each tweet is riddled with the unspoken dangers of insulting a fascist government. Hence, most celebrities took the path of least resistance.
Ultimately, Rihanna is not a Khalistani insurgent, nor is she the patron saint of agriculture. This brand of “activism” is usually so commonplace: where a celebrity quickly goes “Look!” and points to a terrible humanitarian crisis, people fake-gasp in horror and then the world goes on. To most people, Twitter is an ephemeral landscape where human rights issues and global news wrestle for the same two seconds of consideration as celebrity gossip and memes.
However, this one random shoutout by Rihanna ushered in a violent reckoning to the BJP that their theater of absurdity has an audience much wider — and possibly far more scrutinizing — than previously imagined. Their threats to Twitter staff to remove Greta and Rihanna’s tweets were attempts to hastily yank back the Indian curtain from an international crowd that’s only softly begun to boo.
The Indian crowd, on the other hand, has either been gagged, removed from the theater or overpowered by the amplified cheers of Hindu nationalists, or the Hindutva. Take for example the fate of Disha Ravi, the 21-year-old activist who had shared the toolkit with Greta. She was recently put on a national trial for sedition and the incitement of a “war against India.” I’m 20 and can barely bear the weight of a Socratic seminar, much less a trial backed by the vitriol of all of India’s right wing. Unfortunately, she is in plentiful company; over the past couple years, many other student organizers have been arrested under the same draconian sedition law for similar actions. This classic BJP defense strategy, in the words of human rights lawyer Suchitra Vijayan, is highly effective for maintaining public image: “disinformation, discrediting, disruption, destruction.” The past couple years have borne witness to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruthless march towards a fascist authoritarian regime, while international reaction has been muted at best.
This begs the question: Why haven’t we been booing louder? Have we not been paying attention?
As we near the four-month anniversary of the farmers’ protests, the situation in India is getting actively worse. Journalists covering the protests are still being arrested in droves. Protestors, many of whom belong to religious and caste-based minorities, are still currently on the front lines, marching in freezing temperatures and withstanding devastating counts of police brutality and hate speech from Hindutva supporters.
However, those abroad have the privilege of being shielded from the consequences of speaking out. Although direct actions are difficult in a time like this, Rihanna’s tweet was more than I had ever done regarding the protest. Starting conversations is a key avenue for Indian Americans to shape the future of a country whose past is so integral to our identity. Censorship is only effective if an audience is capable of being silenced. Our capabilities are limited only by our own apathy. The Indian government’s paranoia of young activists and foreign celebrities points to what we actually can do: keep talking, keep tweeting and most importantly, keep watching.
ADHYA BEESAM is a junior in Pauli Murray. Contact her at email@example.com.