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Rihanna tweet on farmer protests enrages Indian government, sets off social media firestorm

Singer Rihanna at the 2019 British Fashion Awards
Singer Rihanna at the 2019 British Fashion Awards in London.
(Joel C. Ryan / Invision)

It took just one tweet from pop star Rihanna to anger the Indian government and supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party. “Why aren’t we talking about this?!” the singer wrote, with a link to a news story on the massive farmer protests that have gripped India for more than two months.

Now, senior Indian government ministers, celebrities and even the foreign ministry are urging people to come together and denounce outsiders who they say are trying to destabilize the country.

“It is unfortunate to see vested interest groups trying to enforce their agenda on these protests, and derail them,” India’s foreign ministry said in a rare statement Wednesday, without naming Rihanna and others who followed her example.

Tens of thousands of farmers have been hunkering down on the fringes of New Delhi to protest new agricultural laws that they say will leave them poorer and at the mercy of corporations. The protests are posing a major challenge to Modi and his Hindu nationalist party, which has billed the laws as necessary to modernize Indian farming.

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The farmers’ largely peaceful protests turned violent Jan. 26, India’s Republic Day, when some of the tens of thousands of farmers riding tractors veered from the protest route agreed on with police and stormed the 17th century Red Fort in a dramatic escalation. Hundreds of police officers were injured, and a protester died. Scores of farmers were also injured, but officials have not said how many.

Farmer leaders condemned the violence but said they would not call off the protest.

The presence of women in India’s biggest mass movement in years reflects profound opposition to a slate of agriculture reforms.

Since then, authorities have heavily increased security at protest sites outside the Indian capital, adding iron spikes and steel barricades to stop demonstrating farmers from entering the city. The government had also restricted access to mobile internet at protest sites up until Tuesday evening.

The controversy surrounding Rihanna started Tuesday with her tweet on the protests to her more than 101 million Twitter followers. She highlighted a CNN report about Indian authorities blocking internet services at the protest sites, a favored tactic of the Modi government to thwart protests.

Teenage climate-change activist Greta Thunberg and the niece of Vice President Kamala Harris, Meena Harris, were among others who tweeted their support of Rihanna’s message, and a social media storm soon followed.

India’s foreign ministry accused unnamed “foreign individuals” and celebrities of “sensationalism.”

When Rani’s husband died by drinking pesticide, he left the family in debt.

Bollywood entertainers and sports stars, many of whom have been silent on the farmer protests and are known to toe the official line, issued tweets with the hashtags #IndiaAgainstPropaganda and #IndiaTogether, echoing the government’s stand on the agriculture laws and asking people outside India not to meddle in their country’s affairs.

Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut, a supporter of Modi’s party, posted a message quoting Rihanna’s tweet.

“No one is talking about it because they are not farmers, they are terrorists who are trying to divide India,” she wrote.

Rihanna’s and Thunberg’s tweets also prompted responses from almost every senior leader of Modi’s party, including Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Home Minister Amit Shah, who said that “no propaganda can deter India’s unity.”

Indian opposition leaders then criticized the government.

Shashi Tharoor, leader of the main opposition party, Congress, said the damage done to India’s global image by the government’s “undemocratic behavior” could not be restored by making celebrities tweet in its support. Tharoor himself has been dubbed “Minister Twitter” because of his fondness for social media.

Tharoor said — in a tweet — that the government’s campaign to get “Indian celebrities to react to Western ones is embarrassing.”

Former Indian Finance Minister P. Chidambaram took a swipe at India’s foreign ministry, calling its statement a “puerile reaction.”

India’s effort to gain protected status for basmati rice exports in Europe has irked Pakistan, the world’s No. 2 producer.

“When will you realize that people concerned with issues of human rights and livelihoods do not recognize national boundaries?” Chidambaram tweeted.

Negotiations between representatives of the government and farmers to end the protests have failed. The government has proposed suspending the laws for 18 months but is not meeting the farmers’ demands for a full repeal.


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