MEA’s response to celebrity activism shows that India is new to Twitter diplomacy

We are now witnessing the second phase of the farmers’ sit-in; the consistently peaceful protest was unfortunately and deeply wounded by the violent events on Republic Day at the Red Fort and Delhi Police has already made some headway in the investigation. The prime minister’s reiteration that “I am just a call away” for the next round of negotiations and his government’s offer to put in abeyance the laws’ operation for one-and-half years have not affected the protesting publics; they reverberate with the slogan, “kanoon wapsi, ghar wapsi (we will return home only when the laws are repealed)”.

Right or wrong, a spectre haunts every protester — that small, marginal, and middle farmers will become landless corporate serfs if a statutory guarantee of minimum support price is not assured. One hopes for a just solution of this democratic impasse, possible only through fair dialogical action on all sides. However, the desperate fortification of the protest sites in Delhi and the frequent shutdowns of essential services and the internet have led to new concerns, both nationally and globally.

A new twist in hashtag activism was evident in the statement by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on the tweets by international pop singer Rihanna and climate activist Greta Thunberg. It decried “celebrities and others”, and denigrated them as being “neither accurate nor responsible”. The Minister for External Affairs has tweeted about “motivated campaigns” targeting India which “will never succeed” and said that: “We have the self-confidence today to hold our own”. There is no doubt whatsoever that India can hold its own but the MEA action has also come under the scanner, inside and outside Parliament.

While hashtag activism was welcomed by the protesting farmers’ associations and many activists, some Indian film and sports stars have urged conscientious restraint on policy matters internal to the nation. Drowned in the chorus of support and dissent, is the sober voice of former Secretary, MEA, Vivek Katju: “This marks a new page for our external publicity efforts to counter criticism. The question is if it will be effective to reach the followers of those who have tweeted.”

Here I engage with only the association of celebrities with public protest, fully recognising the underlying febrile public debates on substantive issues of farm policy and law, the logics of protesting publics, the conduct of the police and all the associated issues. But it must be recognised that celebrity activism is now a long tradition the world over of human rights activism. It is for the MEA to decide how foreign policy is best conducted but Twitter diplomacy is new to India.

The world of celebrities — actors, sports heroes, prominent authors, media personalities, global public citizens, recipients of Nobel Prize and the alternate Nobel prize, such as the Magsaysay Award — is firmly entrenched in international relations. It has helped the growth of global civil society opinion and action. A Bertrand Russell-inspired Permanent People’s Tribunal in Rome is among the institutions which hold participative international tribunals on institutions, actors and networks with a view to truth-finding and shaping global public opinion.

Many Indian film celebrities have engaged in activism. Priyanjana Roy Das had drawn our attention (in 2016) to 10 famous but reticent film stars who did not wear their status on their sleeves but powerfully contributed to grassroots’ human rights activism. One may add many more names to this pantheon. And although he has now decided not to form a political party, Rajinikanth’s attempt at “spiritual politics” and Kamal Haasan’s crusades for better governance await a fuller impact analysis.

Governments and political parties also seek to convey their messages to the masses through their chosen celebrities: Many are nominated to Rajya Sabha, and some receive national honours. Many form their own NGOs themselves and at times receive considerable grants, such as substantial moneys: Bono’s Data Foundation received millions of dollars in grants from 2007, and he claims that he was the first person Buffet gave more than $31 billion to.

The United Nations has deployed celebrities in various roles like “goodwill ambassadors”, and the worldwide institution of human rights defenders. The practice of accrediting many celebrities as “brand ambassadors” is now routinely deployed in corporate governance. The Gates Foundation, to take but just one example, has engaged in supporting AIDS sufferers in India, and elsewhere. And even networks such as the Davos Conference have conscripted celebrity activism. Many companies find a “happy coincidence” of their “self-interest” and the “broader good” at Davos.

Effectiveness studies show considerable gains of sharing and solidarity, but also note the failures in promoting just causes, particularly when governments and even courts remain invulnerable to global public opinion campaigns. Conflicting and inconsistent data promote the “reductionist narrative” offered by celebrities. Still, there exists a growing public trust in the image of the “celebrity-as-rescuer-of-victim”. Also notable is the fact that celebrity activism becomes pernicious when it offers band-aid solutions and capsule knowledge, which tends to glamourise populist policies rife with unintended consequences.

The MEA’s observation about the Indian “democratic ethos and polity” is indeed high-minded but its global pedagogic role and reach has to extend beyond majoritarian representation to the “miniscule” which dissents from the “multitude”. It should refer, beyond governance and development, to the wider constitutional ethos which the apex court has re-articulated as a “constitutional renaissance” and “constitutional trust”.

All citizens have a fundamental constitutional duty to abjure violence and develop respect for India’s “composite culture”. Surely, these and other duties apply equally to protesting publics and to all citizens — whether those in government or Opposition, the media, or state and party actors, and holders of high constitutional offices. Constitutional nationalism demands a rededication to these duties — not just in social media but also on each proudly celebrated Independence Day, Republic Day and Martyrs Day.

The writer is professor of law, University of Warwick, and former vice-chancellor of Universities of South Gujarat and Delhi.

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