No sooner had Rihanna’s tweet raised the hackles of all things RW in India and among the diaspora, the primary instinct, sharp and immediate, was to raise a dust storm around the pop star’s tweet and sweep it away into the wind, to try and ensure Indians at least are none the wiser to the impact of a tweet from a cultural icon.
That impact is the fact that all Rihanna needed to do, and successfully did, was to draw an otherwise unaware world’s attention to goings-on in contemporary India, of internet shutdowns, farmer protests and muzzling of dissent.
But it is far more convenient to question Rihanna’s locus standi. It only took porn star Mia Khalifa’s support to the farmers’ protest to reveal the real Indian heart where misogyny rules supreme. Abuse and porn star went hand in hand with the narrative of locus standi. It is a mindset, likely born of caste, where everyone is allotted their little box to jump about in and you will not step beyond. After all, aukaat kya hai for Rihanna or a Khalifa to comment on non-democratic processes in India?
Here’s where Rihanna’s aukaat lies. In October 2020, she backed a people’s movement in Nigeria against police brutality and excesses – specifically against a controversial police unit called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). The unit itself dates back to about 1992, several protests started soon after and even the hashtag goes back to about 2017, as per various media reports. Rihanna tweeted with the hashtag #EndSARS in October 2020 when the protests turned violent. World attention and international media were forced to note the protest that continued apace. Shaken by the global attention, the Nigerian government promised to disband the unit, though none took them at their word as similar promises had been made earlier. The protests continue, the government has not moved much on its words as per media reports but the excesses are not going unnoticed by international media.
Mia Khalifa’s support for the farmer is a complicated issue for the average Indian male to deal with. Indian men, a robust market for porn, where MLAs have been caught watching porn in even the Assembly, are likely more familiar with Mia than Rihanna. A pornstar should only be obscene, not seen or heard to twist a Groucho Marx quote. To simply identify Mia by her porn celebrity status is “besmirching” enough, but for extra masala, those marvelling at Mia’s support will no doubt talk of her Muslim-ness as something to hold against her though it is her act in a hijab that fetched her death threats. She is as despised a figure for Muslim RW as well. Suffice to say Mia is getting knickers in a twist.
Rihanna’s influence – 101 million followers on Twitter alone – has triggered a whole lot of people to now know about what is going on. They do not need to know about the details of farm laws. Suffice to know that there appears to be outlandish severe state action to prevent farm protests. It’s the action of state against protesters that is their focus.
Coming to which is the next point. What can such attention from pop stars mean for a govt for whom public perception, international praise and positive optics is an essential tool to maintain supremacy.
Here’s the thing. Indians going – what a 20-year-old said – “batshit crazy” about maligning the messengers, their reported drug habits and porn flicks, is but the fig leaf. The government appears to be well aware of the damage from such publicity and international glare. Bollywood loyalists and cricketer faithfuls are belting out templated messages in a bid to draw attention away from the Rihannas and Mias.
That MEA issued a full statement within half a day in itself is telling. Rihanna nor any other name is mentioned yet the message is clearly aimed at the “negative press” a celebrity has triggered.
Within 16 to 17 hours of Rihanna’s tweet of a CNN report on internet shutdowns, farmer protests and state action on dissent in India, government has also found it necessary to issue a notice to Twitter to take down a certain hashtag among many farmer-protests hashtags. It is evident that the government is not in the least immune to the harm it can suffer by such global attention. The RW ecosystem online is the furiously flapping fig leaf, a din created to cover a government’s swift moves in damage control.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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