Updated: February 4, 2021 7:46:31 am
In a highly unusual move that has raised eyebrows, the government Wednesday slammed “celebrities and others” for their comments in support of farmer protests, calling them “neither accurate nor responsible”.
The Ministry of External Affairs, in an official statement, said: “Before rushing to comment on such matters, we would urge that the facts be ascertained, and a proper understanding of the issues at hand be undertaken. The temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible.”
Incidentally, the MEA’s statement had two social media hashtags: “#IndiaTogether” and “#IndiaAgainstPropaganda”.
Responding to the MEA statement and hashtags, Union Home Minister Amit Shah too weighed in and took to Twitter, saying: “No propaganda can deter India’s unity! No propaganda can stop India to attain new heights! Propaganda cannot decide India’s fate only ‘Progress’ can. India stands united and together to achieve progress.”
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar also joined in: “Motivated campaigns targeting India will never succeed. We have the self confidence today to hold our own. This India will push back.”
— Dr. S. Jaishankar (@DrSJaishankar) February 3, 2021
Both Shah and Jaishankar tweeted with hashtags #IndiaTogether and #IndiaAgainstPropaganda. They were joined by a range of celebrities from Lata Mangeshkar to Sachin Tendulkar, Ajay Devgn to Virat Kohli.
The MEA statement and Jaishankar’s tweet drew a sharp response from Congress leader and former Union Minister P Chidambaram who called the government’s response “puerile”.
It is good that Rihanna and Greta Thunberg can wake up the MEA.
Come on MEA, when will you realize that people concerned with issues of human rights and livelihoods do not recognize national boundaries?
— P. Chidambaram (@PChidambaram_IN) February 3, 2021
In a series of tweets, Chidambaram said: “It is good that Rihanna and Greta Thunberg can wake up the MEA. Come on MEA, when will you realize that people concerned with issues of human rights and livelihoods do not recognize national boundaries? Why did MEA comment on the military coup in Myanmar? Why is it “deeply concerning” to the MEA? Why does MEA regularly comment on issues that are “internal” to Sri Lanka and Nepal? Why did the PM of India comment on the assault on the Capitol building in Washington by the Trump storm troopers? It is sad that someone erudite and worldly wise like Mr S Jaishankar should allow such puerile reactions by the MEA.”
As a long-standing norm, the government, especially the Ministry of External Affairs, only reacts to statements by international and multilateral organisations, foreign governments, that too from Foreign Ministries, Foreign Ministers, heads of States (Presidents) and heads of governments (Prime Ministers).
In recent years, it has started responding to comments from Members of Parliament and political leaders of other countries. The Ministry does not usually respond to private individuals and their comments.
This time, that exception was made after two major social media influencers, Rihanna and Thunberg, tagged a CNN report and commented on the farmer protests.
Rihanna, who has over 100 million followers on Twitter, took to the microblogging site and shared a CNN report headlined, “India cuts internet around New Delhi as protesting farmers clash with police”.
“Why aren’t we talking about this? #FarmersProtest,” Rihanna wrote.
Her tweet gained instant traction on Twitter, with more than 2.7 lakh retweets and more than 6 lakh likes within 24 hours.
She had also tweeted on Myanmar Tuesday. “My prayers are with you #myanmar!”, and had quote-tweeted Human Rights Watch, which said that the situation in Myanmar required an urgent response from the international community.
Climate activist Thunberg also shared the CNN report on farmer protests, but was more explicit in her support. “We stand in solidarity with the #FarmersProtest in India,” she wrote.
Kamala Harris’ niece Meena Harris said everyone should be “outraged by India’s internet shutdowns and paramilitary violence against farmer protesters”. She said that “as we speak, the most populous democracy is under assault”.
Defending the farm laws, the MEA, in its statement, gave a full account of the process: “The Parliament of India, after a full debate and discussion, passed reformist legislation relating to the agricultural sector. These reforms give expanded market access and provide greater flexibility to farmers. They also pave the way for economically and ecologically sustainable farming.”
It said “a very small section of farmers in parts of India have some reservations about these reforms”.
“Respecting the sentiments of the protestors, the Government of India has initiated a series of talks with their representatives. Union Ministers have been part of the negotiations, and eleven rounds of talks have already been held. The Government has even offered to keep the laws on hold, an offer iterated by no less than the Prime Minister of India,” the MEA said.
“Yet, it is unfortunate to see vested interest groups trying to enforce their agenda on these protests, and derail them. This was egregiously witnessed on January 26, India’s Republic Day. A cherished national commemoration, the anniversary of the inauguration of the Constitution of India, was besmirched, and violence and vandalism took place in the Indian capital,” it said.
“Some of these vested interest groups have also tried to mobilise international support against India. Instigated by such fringe elements, Mahatma Gandhi statues have been desecrated in parts of the world. This is extremely disturbing for India and for civilised society everywhere,” it said, referring to statues being vandalised in the US recently.
The MEA said Indian police forces have handled these protests with utmost restraint. “It may be noted that hundreds of men and women serving in the police have been physically attacked, and in some cases stabbed and seriously wounded,” it said.
“We would like to emphasise that these protests must be seen in the context of India’s democratic ethos and polity, and the efforts of the Government and the concerned farmer groups to resolve the impasse,” it said.
On the MEA issuing an official statement on tweets by private individuals, former diplomat Vivek Katju, who retired as Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, said: “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.”
Last December, days after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came out in support of the protesting farmers, India summoned the Canadian envoy and warned that such “actions”, if they continued, would have a “seriously damaging impact” on bilateral ties.
While Trudeau was the first head of a country to speak out on the protests, he was not the only foreign politician to do so. At least a dozen members of parliament from the UK, Australia, Canada and a Republican Party functionary from the US also voiced support for the farmers.
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