Western Elites vs. India? Behind the Farmer Protest Controversy
Much of India has united against new adversaries – global celebrities and climate activists. International criticism of the government’s crackdown on farmers protesting against new agriculture reforms precipitated a robust backlash this month. The Indian Foreign Ministry issued a stern riposte to Rihanna. Cricketers and Bollywood actors came together on Twitter to demand that firangi (foreign) celebrities keep their noses out of India’s internal matters. Two weeks after the United States inaugurated its first Indian-American Vice President, some aggrieved Indians burned posters of her niece Meena Harris on the streets and harassed her online for expressing support for the protestors.
Serious commentators, including former Indian envoys, insinuated that these celebrities are part of a vast international conspiracy to defame India. Instead of producing any credible evidence of a coordinated scheme, they have peddled absurdities that cast environmental activist Greta Thunberg as an evil mastermind. The Delhi police escalated matters further by arresting 22-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi for sharing and editing a social media toolkit supporting the protests. Ravi’s shocking arrest for the high crime of social activism reveals how far the Indian state is willing to go to squash domestic dissent when it cannot silence international criticism.
The brouhaha over the protests has been ironic and unfortunate because the Indian police had previously been relatively restrained in its treatment of the farmers and because the reforms being protested might actually be necessary and salutary. The protests, which began in September, had been predominantly peaceful for four months, and the farmers had succeeded in getting the Supreme Court to temporarily suspend the new laws. Before the January 26 violence, the government had been negotiating with the farmers and had even offered to delay implementation of the bills for 18 months. Democracy was working as it should, and the farmers’ voices were being heard.
The reforms – which deregulate agricultural markets so that farmers can contract with and sell directly to retailers – are good for most Indian farmers — and India as a whole. Experts from reputable institutions, including the International Monetary Fund, have endorsed the farm bills and urged the Indian government not to backtrack simply because a subset of farmers from two states opposed them. In fact, Western economists and governments have been urging India to implement these reforms for years.
The government’s defenders have used these points to belittle and reject international criticism. Countless Indians have declared that Western elites simply hate India and Hindus, never mind that the opposite is true. From Martin Luther King Jr. to the Beatles to Steve Jobs, Western cultural figures and leaders have drawn inspiration from India and at times have even adopted its spiritual practices. The ubiquity of yoga classes and saag paneer across the West today indicate at least a superficial affinity for Indian culture. Western elites are guilty of many things, loathing India is not one of them.
These conspiracy theories distract from an uglier reality. Rihanna objected not to India’s farm laws but rather after violence had broken out, leading to one death, hundreds injured, and the government cutting the internet in several districts around New Delhi. Other celebrities similarly reacted to the crackdown on protestors and journalists in the aftermath of the initial violence. The images of police barricades particularly resonated in the United States, where the Black Lives Matter movement and cases of police brutality and state repression are fresh in the collective consciousness.
What we saw earlier this month was ultimately a byproduct of the world having witnessed India backslide on democracy and human rights for six years. New Delhi’s response to the farmer protests on and after January 26 reinforced a growing and genuine concern in the West about the direction of India’s storied democracy. The online kerfuffle didn’t reveal that people are out to defame India – it indicated that India’s democratic reputation had already been blemished due to its own actions.
If you look at the severity of the January 26 violence and state response on their own, then the international reaction might seem overblown and disingenuous. But this incident does not exist in a vacuum in global perceptions about India. It evokes the government’s violent suppression of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the deadly communal riots in Delhi last year. It’s a reminder of India’s security lockdown in Kashmir, where civilian and political leaders were detained without recourse, and the government implemented a prolonged communications blackout. It corresponds with numerous accounts of the government and its supporters intimidating, harassing, and trying to silence its critics in the media, academia, and civil society.
Because of these past actions, a growing number of people abroad are no longer willing to give the Indian government the benefit of the doubt. The pushback against the latest foreign criticism, not just by Twitter bullies but also Indian officials, has only reinforced that negative perception. When faced with outside criticism, countries have four basic options: they can engage in self-reflection, ignore their critics and move on, refute the criticisms soberly, or dig in their heels and counterattack. Too many in India have chosen the latter path, and in doing so, they have revealed the dark side of Indian nationalism and the corrosion of its civic discourse to the rest of the world.
Indian diplomats have long made India’s status as the world’s largest democracy a key talking point when speaking in the West. Recent expressions of dismay suggest that their public diplomacy has been spectacularly successful. Western elites may not be informed about India’s domestic politics or policy debates, but they have internalized what Indian leaders have consistently been telling them for decades – that the foundation of their relationship with India is shared democratic values. One is welcome to disagree with Rihanna, Meena Harris and others, but their intentions seem clear. They were responding to a friend and a fellow democracy veering off course.
Anubhav Gupta is Associate Director at the Asia Society Policy Institute. The views here are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @AndyGupta21.