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Modi hardens nationalist stance amid pressure on Twitter over criticism

By David Asta Alares

New Delhi, Feb 12 (efe-epa).- The recent support offered by celebrities like Rihanna and Greta Thunberg on Twitter to the Indian farmers’ months-long protests against liberalization of agriculture has raised the heckles of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which has alleged that there is an international conspiracy to defame the country.

Modi has whipped up nationalist rhetoric in recent days with multiple references to “foreign threats” even as his government remains at loggerheads with Twitter, which has been accused of not complying with official orders of blocking hundreds of accounts linked to the protests.

The social network has tried to walk a thin line by invoking freedom of expression to sidestep the order while blocking accounts only within India in some cases.

Thousands of farmers have been camping on the outskirts of Delhi since November as part of a wave of protests against laws that allow peasants to directly negotiate the sale of their crops with companies.

The Modi government has defended the laws as necessary modernization of the sector, but the farmers fear that the liberalization would end the system of minimum crop prices guaranteed by the government and leave them at the mercy of large corporates.

After violence rocked New Delhi on Jan. 26 when a peaceful farmers’ march against the reforms on the Republic Day deteriorated into clashes, famous singer Rihanna tweeted asking why nobody was talking about the protests, while environmental activist Greta Thunberg also came out in support of the farmers.

Indian foreign ministry lashed out against “sensationalist” comments by “celebrities,” and subsequently the Hindu nationalist Modi has hardened his narrative.

“We need Foreign Direct Investment but the new FDI is ‘Foreign Destructive Ideology,’ we have to protect ourselves from it,” Modi said in the parliament on Monday.

Earlier, the prime minister had claimed in a speech in the northeastern state of Assam that an international conspiracy was afoot to defame Indian tea and yoga, based on a document shared by Thunberg about the farmers’ protests that stirred controversy in India and led to a police investigation.

Meanwhile the western state of Maharashtra, ruled by an opposition coalition, is investigating whether Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), pressurized major Bollywood actors into tweeting messages supporting the government.

“On the farmers agitation, most analysts contend that the government has lost the political narrative,” Asim Ali, a researcher for think-tank Center for Policy Research, told EFE.

“The government noises about global conspiracies hatched in the West are mainly aimed at the domestic constituency. Whenever this government finds itself in a challenging spot, it ratchets up muscular nationalism,” he added.

Twitter has been increasingly dragged into the government’s efforts to reclaim the narrative surrounding the protests, and authorities have intensified pressure on the United States-based company.

After the Jan. 26 clashes – when the capital’s iconic Red Fort was occupied by hundreds of protesters for hours and violence led to the death of a farmer even as hundreds of police officers were injured – the authorities asked Twitter to block hundreds of accounts.

The information and technology ministry said that these were handles of separatist sympathizers “backed by Pakistan,” who published content using the hashtag “farmer genocide.”

On Wednesday Twitter asserted that freedom of expression was in danger across the world and claimed that the orders were inconsistent with Indian law.

However, in the same statement the network said it had suspended 500 accounts and blocked a number of users only within India – without specifying a number – a week after withholding dozens of accounts, including those of journalists and media house, before quickly restoring them following an outcry.

Modi “is showing himself to voters as somebody who is so powerful that he can dictate anything to the rest of the world, while feeding on an Indian sense of victimhood,” Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, an analyst who has written a biography of the prime minister, told EFE. EFE-EPA


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