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6 February 2021updated 12 Sep 2021 1:58pm

How India’s farmers’ protests went global

The Indian government has discovered it can shut off internet access, but not social media ire.

By Emily Tamkin

To say it’s been quite the week for India and the internet would be an understatement. 

On Monday, amid protests over the government’s plan to change the agricultural sector in a way farmers argue would be devastating, Twitter followed the Indian government’s instructions and prevented people from being able to view more than 250 accounts, including the account of The Caravan, an independent, investigative magazine. Roughly six hours later, the accounts were back up; a Twitter lawyer had reportedly argued that the tweets had news value. The Indian government, in turn, threatened Twitter India’s employees with legal action.

But another move by the Indian government attracted even more international attention. At the start of the week, following a weekend of protests and clashes between police and farmers, internet access was still shut off in areas around Delhi’s borders (the internet had been turned off on Friday in some areas and the previous Tuesday in others). The Indian government said it did this “in the interest of maintaining public safety and averting public emergency”. 

On Tuesday, Rihanna (yes, that singer Rihanna), on seeing a CNN article about the internet shutdown, tweeted: “Why aren’t we talking about this?! #FarmersProtest.” Climate activist Greta Thunberg and Meena Harris, the niece of US vice-president Kamala Harris, also tweeted about the protests.  

The response was wildly out of proportion. Sachin Tendulkar, an Indian cricket player, tweeted that “India’s sovereignty cannot be compromised”, which implied a tweet from a pop star could undercut the country’s sovereignty. The right-wing Indian outlet Zee News accused Thunberg of having “motive to target India’s democracy”. Activists from the United Hindu Front burned portraits of Rihanna, Thunberg and Harris. 

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The issue, of course, is not Rihanna, or Thunberg or Harris. A tweet is not a violation of sovereignty. The protests were not orchestrated by Thunberg and her allegedly insatiable desire to hurt democracy, as the hashtag “GretaThunbergExposed”, which circulated on Twitter, implied. But that is, of course, the point: the protests are happening not outside of Indian sovereignty, but very much within it. The battle between the farmers and the government, which wants to implement reforms that farmers say would leave them at the mercy of large corporations, is being waged very much within the Indian political context. No burned portrait will change that.  

There’s another problem for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, too: India started deploying its own Covid-19 vaccine, before the manufacturer had completed final trials, alongside the AstraZeneca vaccine, which did complete them. With many worried that they’ll get the former instead of the latter, as of this past week, little over half the targeted number of individuals have stepped up to receive their vaccinations. India has already vaccinated four million people, but not at the pace the government had hoped.  

[See also: The accelerating rise of a dangerous new nationalism in India]

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