Rihanna’s episode is a sign of growing social decomposition in India

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The right-wing troll backlash against the star for supporting the farmers’ protests reveals how the ruling political class stokes, rather than discourages deep fissures in society.
The recent quote-tweet by the American-Barbadian pop icon, Rihanna, has once again exposed India’s partisan fault lines that are becoming increasingly clear, chasmic and certainly, unbridgeable. Starting with the global pandemic in March 2020 to the nationwide farmer protests that began in November 2020, the realities yet again expose the politics of the extreme right in India, dominated by an aggressive resurgence of Hindu ethno-nationalist forces operating and controlling the narrative in the public domain.

Rihanna became the first international figure to extend support to the ongoing farmers’ movement in India. Sharing a CNN article on the internet shutdown at the border areas close to the protesting site in, and around the national capital Delhi, the influential star, with more than 100 million followers, quote-tweeted, “Why aren’t we talking about this?! #FarmersProtest.”

In India, hundreds and thousands of farmers, mainly from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, have been protesting at several border points of the capital, seeking a repeal of three draconian farm laws that scuttle the provision of Minimum Support Price (MSP) for the crops. According to the policy, the market price could not fall below the fixed minimum guaranteed price. So if nobody bought the crops, then the government would buy it from the farmers. This policy has been in place since the 1970s and has protected agricultural producers from sharp falls in prices.

The protests made international headlines after a huge tractor rally led by the farmers ended in violent repression by the state security forces that left one protester dead. By deregulating the markets, the Indian government seems determined to transform the markets into masters that will put the farmers under the mercy of large corporations that will pay extremely low prices for essential crops. In this fear of corporate loot and subsequent financial debt that they may incur, the farmers stand committed in their resolve to repeal these laws that endanger the present as well as the future generations.

To contextualise the Rihanna controversy, the ruling political dispensation that is conservative in its outlook and politics, succeeded in bringing together its divergent congregants against an internal and an external “other”. This “other” is often derided as the “enemy of the state” or as “global conspirators” colluding to “tarnish India’s image” abroad. But what is appalling to see is the systematic fabrication of facts that is fed to blinkered sympathisers and supporters who fail to see or deliberately ignore the preposterous role played by the right-wing trolls on social media, who partake in the “tarnishing of India’s image” by exporting their bigotry, chauvinism and prejudices.

In a matter of three hours after Rihanna’s post on Twitter, the “midnight’s children” of an independent, postmodern India, who are instrumental in transforming the country from a liberal-democratic polity to one producing religious forms of political legitimacy and authoritarianism, rose up to react to the tweet. Their vitriolic reaction with vile comments and malicious language revealed the two interrelated afflictions of the right-wing troll army – the deep fear of losing power and the inferiority complex inherent to conservative politics.

To fill this gap of acute inadequacy, the Indian political right asserts power by building and employing an ideological army that enables the state in actualising its main political project – an unbridled fascist state. So, each time a contrarian view is floated in the public domain, there erupts an entire state-supported pernicious machinery to target, vilify and traumatize any alternative voice. The riled-up forces resurfaced the hostile and hideous underbelly of a misogynist right-wing troll party on social media – which has emerged as a dangerous apparatus in the hands of a patriarchal and oppressive state.

This ugliness was demonstrated in spiteful tweets that mocked Rihanna for her abusive relationship with Chris Brown. While Rihanna’s tweet gave a global dimension to the raging issue, it was the Hindu right-wing bigots who didn’t miss a chance to export their toxic masculinity laced with racism.

Amid this reprisal by social media trolls, Rihanna was joined by allies, both in India and abroad. One prominent ally who amplified Rihanna’s voice was Greta Thunberg, the teenage environmental crusader, who backed the agitation by extending solidarity to the protestors. Thunberg had shared a controversial “toolkit on farmers protests” that led the Delhi police to file a case against her under several sections of the Indian Penal Code, including sections 153 and 120B for “criminal conspiracy”. The toolkit was a document with details on the ways to support the protesting farmers, such as starting a Twitter storm and protesting outside Indian embassies abroad.

Despite the intimidation tactics adopted by the Delhi police, Thunberg remarked that she continues to support the farmers in India. The police complaint lodged against Thunberg at the behest of the state is tantamount to George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, where a surveillance state resorts to authoritarian politics to hide vast social inequities, where common people live in a constant state of conflict, and where there is an unrestricted lust for power and brutality. The state’s capacity for cruelty is exhibited in unlawful arrests, and turning cities into fortresses with barbed wires, nailed roads and concrete barricades. All this to silence the protesting farmers and their allies.

This incident is a telling moment in the political history of India, as the signs of social decomposition signal an ominous decline of a long celebrated civilization. While Rihanna’s tweet received positive response at home as well, most importantly from the Kisan Ekta Morcha handle, the online voice of the protesting farmers, there was a defensive statement released by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) that said that a “very small section of farmers in parts of the country have some reservations about the farm reforms.” The sharp reaction by the MEA was shared by the actors in the Indian film industry, pleading the citizens to focus on the government’s efforts to resolve the farmer crisis rather than paying attention to “half-truths” by those “creating differences.” One such celebrity, actress Kangana Ranaut, who is a supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), replied to Rihanna, “No one is talking about it because they are not farmers, they are terrorists who are trying to divide India.”

Kangana’s disdain for the protesting farmers is part of a pattern, a system, an ideology that has transformed the old liberal institutions – like the judiciary, media, film and sports industry –into conservative bodies and bastions of right-wing politics on one hand and reinvigorated public life with majoritarian claims of purity, identity assertion, and Hindu ethno-nationalism, on the other.

The Rihanna episode is neither startling nor unprecedented. Nevertheless, it does two important things. First, it reopens the wound of a brutally divided society – where the media, film industry, and cricketers – are waging a war of ideas with one another, while the ruling political class continues to stoke hate and violence. Second, it compels the people on the other side of the political divide to rethink the ‘colonial’ in the postcolonial state, institutions, and law and reimagine a political future where this moment in history becomes the Achilles heel for the current political dispensation.

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