Divergent opinions and the right to protest is the lifeblood of a vibrant democracy and that is the reason Article 19 of the Indian Constitution guarantees Freedom of Expression to all citizens. The protest by a section of farmers, mostly drawn from Punjab and Haryana, is, therefore, par for the course of India’s democratic polity. But what happens if external agencies, or even internal actors with the help of external agencies, use the freedoms enjoined in the Indian Constitution, to bring down these very structures of governance in furtherance of their own agendas?
The age of information
We live in the information age. From the most powerful people on the planet to the very humblest, information is the staple diet. But information can be controlled, distorted, placed out of context, or misused by those who have the capacity and the will to do so. We have seen the scandal associated with Cambridge Analytica, wherein the personal data of millions of Facebook users was obtained without consent, predominantly for political advertising.
In the US, allegations that the Russians influenced the election results in 2016 were rife. Similar fears were also expressed in India, prior to the 2019 national elections. Attempts by unscrupulous elements to shape electoral results, or to tilt government policies to further their own agendas must hence be viewed with concern. Information is thus being used to wage war by other means.
The toolkit, unintentionally revealed by Greta Thunberg in a tweet she made supporting the farmer’s agitation in India, points to a wider conspiracy, wherein social media is used to shape opinions and perceptions. Robyn Rihanna Fenty, a Barbadian singer, actress and businesswoman, also tweeted in support of the agitating farmers in India as did a host of other people who have large fan followings.
A tweet is a personal expression but when celebrities are co-opted to tweet in a particular manner, it points to a motivated campaign. The likes of Thunberg and Rihanna know little of what is happening in India and even less of what the farmers bills entailed. So why the tweet? Therein lies the conspiracy. Evidently, Indian farmers made the unwitting tools of a set of conspirators!
India is set on a reformist agenda and hopes to grow shortly to a USD 5 trillion economy. For this to come about expeditiously, multiple reforms are required including in the farm sector. A strong Indian economy in concert with India’s push for achieving self-reliance in key sectors such as defence and cutting edge technologies will however not suit certain countries who perceive India’s rise as being antithetical to their interests. Within the country, vested interests which have benefitted from the statism of the past will also hotly oppose any attempts at reform.
Farmer protests and more
The farmers agitation which began in 2020 and peaked in January 2021 has striking similarities to the protests which took place in Delhi and some other parts of the country against the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019 and which peaked in January 2020, timed to the visit of the US President to India. Going back further in time, we see a continuum of such protests, timed and motivated to fan disturbances.
The fake narratives of an ‘intolerant India,’ and the staged protests against bauxite mining in Odisha, which forced the closure of the Vedanta alumina refinery in the state are examples of how perceptions can be shaped to suit vested interests. It comes as little surprise that the Chinese benefitted from the closure of the Vedanta refinery, as it resulted in increased imports of aluminium by India from China.
Looking into the future, we should be prepared for another round of protests, on some pretext or the other, in the latter half of this year, which will peak in January 2022, to coincide with India’s Republic Day. And the protests will be camouflaged under the veneer of India’s democratic structure and the freedoms which it affords for all shades of dissent. Clearly, reforms by themselves are not enough. They must be accompanied by appropriate messaging, to also win the war of perception.
The irony of the information age is that uninformed opinion also gains credibility. Shaping the information environment must hence form part of the security discourse.