It took just one tweet from Rihanna to anger the Indian government and supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party. The pop star linked a news article in a tweet drawing attention to the massive farmer protests that have gripped India for more than two months.
Now, senior government ministers, Indian celebrities and even the foreign ministry are urging people to come together and denounce outsiders who try to break 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 Wednesday in a rare statement criticizing “foreign individuals” posting on social media. It did not name Rihanna and others who followed suit.
Tens of thousands of farmers have been hunkering down at the Indian capital’s fringes to protest new agricultural laws they say will leave them poorer and at the mercy of corporations. The protests are posing a major challenge to Modi who has billed the laws as necessary to modernize Indian farming.
Their largely peaceful protests turned violent on Jan. 26, India’s Republic Day, when a section of the tens of thousands of farmers riding tractors veered from the protest route earlier decided 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 given their numbers.
Farmer leaders condemned the violence but said they would not call off the protest.
Since then, authorities have heavily increased security at protest sites outside New Delhi’s border, adding iron spikes and steel barricades to stop demonstrating farmers from entering the capital. The government had also restricted access to mobile internet at protest sites up until Tuesday evening.
The latest controversy started Tuesday when Rihanna tweeted to her more than 101 million followers: “Why aren’t we talking about this?!” She linked to a CNN news report about India blocking internet services at the protest sites, a favored tactic of the Modi government to thwart protests.
The Associated Press and multiple other international news agencies have been covering the farmer protests for months.
Soon after Rihanna's tweet, international condemnation from human rights groups and outrage from Indian supporters of Modi’s party followed. And the foreign ministry accused “foreign individuals” and celebrities of “sensationalism,” without names.
Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg and the niece of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, Meena Harris, were among those who tweeted their support, triggering a social media storm back in India.
Bollywood entertainers and sports stars, many of whom have long been silent on the farmer protests and often toe the government's line, tweeted in one voice.
They used hashtags #IndiaAgainstPropaganda and #IndiaTogether, echoing the government’s stand on the agriculture laws, and asked people outside India not to meddle with their country’s affairs.
“No one is talking about it because they are not farmers, they are terrorists who are trying to divide India,” actress Kangana Ranaut, a supporter of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, tweeted.
Rihanna’s and Thunberg's tweets also prompted responses from almost every senior leader of BJP, including Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Home Minister Amit Shah, who said that “no propaganda can deter India’s unity.”
The main opposition Congress party leader Shashi Tharoor said the damage done to India’s global image by the government’s “undemocratic behaviour” could not be restored by making celebrities tweet.
Tharoor in a tweet said Indian government getting “Indian celebrities to react to Western ones is embarrassing."
Former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram took a swipe at the foreign ministry and called its statement “puerile reaction.”
“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.