India’s threat to take legal action against Twitter betrays thin-skinned sensitivity breached by pointed criticism of a few actions of the state in the matter of handling the farmers’ strike against three contentious agriculture laws. The overt attack on Twitter is illustrative of the government and the ruling party’s selective outrage because certain truths may have hit home. But Twitter is just a messenger carrying all shades of opinions of users. In raging against Twitter India is in danger of missing the wood for the trees. The issue has more to do with the perception of peaceful dissent being an active ingredient of democracy.
The opinions of celebrities may sometimes be unpalatable but only in responding is importance attached to them. There is no need for official India to have reacted like this to individual opinions unless they came from State actors as it did in the case of the Canadian Prime Minister. What Rihanna or Kangana Ranaut and Greta Thunberg or Sachin Tendulkar think of a social issue like treatment of farmers is strictly a matter of personal opinion and the public can easily see through celebrities if they are seen to offer opinions only in orchestrated campaigns stoked by jingoism or faux nationalism.
The farmers’ strike against Indian laws is an internal matter and if a nation like the United States feels compelled to have its say on the subject, India is free to take it up through diplomatic channels. Much the same argument arose when violent raiders landed on the US Capitol on Jan. 6 after which India’s Prime Minister felt compelled to comment. But sensitivity cannot be allowed to become such a regressive quality as to take us back to an era in which official India saw a foreign hand or a global conspiracy every time someone in authority said something in a world capital.
The right to the Internet is fundamental in a modern democratic setting but Twitter is merely one microblogging platform used by many. Its inconsistencies have been made obvious in its handling of tweets, some of them outrageous or even outright lies and which were selectively removed as offensive or promoted in the guise of “free speech”. The social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, have monetised hate because abusive content, which generates user engagement in millions, has become a highly marketable commodity in the Internet era. It is ridiculous if someone complains now after having cynically weaponised the same platform as a medium to sell ideologies and ideas or to canvass votes.
The handling of the farmers on the borders of India’s capital has become a perception battle more than a true search for corrections in basic issues. Official India is ill equipped to take on the global digital media but it can listen to its own farmers and get down to addressing the problem rather than standing on prestige, even if the protests are beginning to resemble the Yellow Vests movement for economic justice in France. It is still an Indian issue, not war, and it must be solved by India’s ruling party mandarins.