A couple of months ago, I was least surprised to find high cortisol levels, hormonal imbalances, and metal toxicity in my blood. My work and I were finally persuaded to follow a strict diet—of staying away from media and social media. During this period, I have been listening to the legends, practicing ragas that I had forgotten, spending more time with books—evolving, but not earning so much, thanks to the concert season getting wiped out by Covid-19.
So, it was a rare morning when I broke my rules and checked my social media timelines on Wednesday. It was quite a jamboree. A whole lot of friends from the entertainment and creative industry, in particular, were over the moon, sharing captions and screenshots of the “queen” Rihanna (pop star from the West) tweeting about farmers’ protest in India. Tears of joy followed when teenager #climateer Greta Thunberg joined Riri aka Rihanna to support the cause of the desi farmers, with adult star Mia Khalifa chiming in too.
I had no choice but to think through this latest ‘international coup’ featuring western celebrities who comment on India’s agricultural policies.
Since a very young age, a certain image of the Indian farmers has remained etched in my mind: They’re the ones who toil endlessly for meagre returns; their fate hangs on the whims of the weather and the moneylender; they’re someone whom everyone takes for granted. It has never been a prosperous or an empowered image, but a noble one. Jai Kisan, indeed? Not really.
Except the Punjab farm-owners—some of their kids have even turned into pop stars with the most lavish music videos, bling and BMWs thrown into the mix, and luckily, their real lives are fairly similar too. I have always wondered why the rest of the 90 per cent of the farmers in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Odisha end up being in the news in the most morbid of circumstances—despair and suicides.
So, when I saw the three farm bills being passed by Parliament, it seemed like a new era of opportunity and possibilities for the Indian farmer. Long-pending reforms were finally happening and the President’s assent had sealed the deal. Of course, these hopes were short-lived as we are now officially in the era of ‘A Protest for Every Season’. The furore over CAA (Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019) had barely died down, so we needed another issue to fight over! What is shameful is that this time, the arguments presented by those opposing the farm laws sound downright unreasonable. They don’t want to discuss or debate the bills, they just want them repealed. I’ve tried to find some sense in their argument but there’s none. I am not sure how many of my woke friends have properly read the new farm laws; I did only last night.
The government seems to have left the choice to the farmer, who can now seek any buyer they please, among many other progressive ideas that unshackle them from the chains of the middlemen-controlled ‘mandis’. To add some perspective, the IMF has praised and wholeheartedly backed these reforms, and many small farmers across the country have lauded it. Of course, there would be some creases that would need ironing out during the transition, including some safety nets, but that would be possible only with dialogue and discussion.
I am no expert in the matter but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a lot of this is politically motivated. The same parties who proposed similar reforms when they were in power seem to be fuelling, fanning and funding the worst fires to oppose them now.
I’ve always believed in treating every issue on its own merit. I’m sceptical of most politicians and have turned down hugely lucrative assignments because I’d much rather maintain my voice and dignity than genuflect in front of them. It is important not to allow biases or personal prejudices to colour one’s view, but right now, it seems like the society is so polarised that those who are against the ruling disposition believe them to be evil-incarnate, refusing to see the merit in anything they do, and that tribe, unfortunately a large section of them, call themselves ‘liberals’. There’s no room for nuance anymore.
Great literature, from Mahabharata to Iliad, reminds us that humanity mostly inhabits the many shades of grey (not the 50 variety), but now it’s all binary. Black and white. For or against. It’s in this climate that we’ve seen the emergence of the ‘Socially Conscious Woke Celebrity’, who with their armies of celebrity-stricken followers and plenty of ‘fake bot followers’ indulge in ‘virtue signalling’, just to show the world how ‘virtuous’ they are by standing up for the small guy. Well, in this case, little do they know that they’re siding with the SUV-driving small clique of rich farmers from two states that together constitute just a fraction of India’s land. Most of these farmers have deep pockets and well-heeled NRI brethren. They have made a killing during the old disposition and want the old practices to be restored, else… These are the words that rankle the most. Protest, dissent, yes; bully, no.
The stunt that they pulled on Republic Day was a slap on the face of every Indian. Their politics of division, their stubble-burning air poisoning pollution, their depletion of the ground water with thoughtless agriculture—these are the things that should terrify us all. Getting other farmers riled up in different pockets of India is a matter of time and has, in all probability, happened already. Chinese whispers travel fast. I still remember the famous Farhan Akhtar responding to a journalist during an anti-CAA protest, who asked him what his specific concerns with the CAA were, with this—“I don’t want to discuss the details right now … Why would so many people be concerned, if everything was okay”.
I am expecting to be ostracised by my ‘liberal’ brethren for ‘letting them down’ & ‘showing my true colours’. To them I say: Read. Read the bills, read the many dissertations on them by scholars in the field. I’m no expert in this field and I’m happy to stand corrected on issues, but I do make an effort to read on an issue before shooting my mouth off, something that Rihanna, Greta Thunberg and the vast multitude of celebrities obviously don’t do. Well, maybe, they should tell their social media handlers to read then. It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.
Whatever happens, it looks unlikely that concert artists like me are going back on stage anytime soon. I’ve advised the most brilliant musicians of my band to look for regular jobs, alternate careers, anything to survive, to get by. We can just let go of the music in our lives. Rihanna has music royalties to party with, Indian musicians don’t.