Rihanna and Greta Thunberg among international celebrities tweeting support for protesting Indian farmers

The Indian government has hit out at pop star Rihanna after she tweeted about the months-long farmer protests on the outskirts of Delhi and other major cities, triggering an outpouring of support from well-known international figures including Greta Thunberg, Jay Sean and the niece of US vice president Kamala Harris.

Thousands of farmers have been camped out around the Indian national capital for months now, suffering through cold waves and, at times, violent clashes with police, as they demand the repeal of agricultural reforms that they fear will leave them worse off.

“Why aren’t we talking about this?!” Rihanna wrote on Twitter, sharing a CNN article on the protests with her 100 million followers, using the hashtag #FarmersProtest.

Her tweet, however, didn’t go down well with the Narendra Modi-led government in India and its Hindu nationalist supporters. India’s foreign ministry issued a statement accusing the celebrities of making “sensationalist” and “irresponsible” comments and asking them to get a “proper understanding” of the issue.

Calling the hundreds of thousands of protesters to have taken part in demonstrations a “very small section of farmers”, the statement said: “It is unfortunate to see vested interest groups trying to enforce their agenda on these protests, and derail them.

“Before rushing to comment on such matters, we would urge that the facts be ascertained, and a proper understanding of the issues at hand be undertaken. The temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible,” the ministry’s statement read.

While the foreign ministry took a more measured tone, the statement was also accompanied online by vicious trolling from supporters of the Modi government directed at Rihanna. It included racist and misogynistic slurs, and some posts that expressed support for the singer Chris Brown, who was convicted for beating Rihanna when they were in a relationship.

Mentions of Chris Brown soared as trolls started targeting Rihanna after her tweet in support of Indian farmers

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Mentions of Chris Brown soared as trolls started targeting Rihanna after her tweet in support of Indian farmers

After Rihanna, several other celebrities and international figures came out with messages of support for the farmers late on Tuesday and into Wednesday.

They included the teenage climate activist Thunberg, who tweeted: “We stand in solidarity with the farmer protests in India.”

Comic Lily Singh also wrote in response to Rihanna: “Yes! Thank you so much@rihanna. This is a humanity issue! #IStandWithFarmers and this narrative is TIRED.”

American climate activist Jamie Margolin, too, said she stood with the farmers of India, and urged her followers to support their protest.

Kenyan environment and climate activist and founder of the Green Generation Initiative Elizabeth Wathuti wrote: “The big picture here is that India must begin to value the lives and well-being of its own citizens over the potential economic gains for its nation.”

The actor Amanda Cerny posted a photo of women farmers on Instagram and in the caption, she said: “The world is watching. You don’t have to be Indian or Punjabi or south Asian to understand the issue. All you have to do is care about humanity. Always demand freedom of speech, freedom of press, basic human and civil rights-equity and dignity for workers.”

And Meena Harris, the niece of Kamala Harris, said everyone should be outraged by India’s internet shutdowns and what she described as violence against farmer protesters.

“It’s no coincidence that the world’s oldest democracy was attacked not even a month ago, and as we speak, the most populous democracy is under assault,” she wrote, referring to the storming of the US Capitol in January. “This is related.”

Singer Jay Sean also took to Instagram demanding more international coverage of the demonstrations: “It’s one of the largest protests EVER IN HISTORY, and hardly any mainstream coverage,” he said.

“I don’t know what needs to be done to raise more awareness and have more eyes on this but I’ve seen videos that are far too graphic and heartbreaking to post.

“People that are old enough to be my grandparents being trampled over with no remorse or regard. Pls go to my story where I will post a petition link and something actionable,” Sean wrote using the hashtag #istandwithfarmers.

While the farmer protests had simmered for more than two months without major incident, the standoff with the government turned violent last week on 26 January, as India was marking its Republic Day national holiday.

Farmers were permitted to enter Delhi for a “tractor parade” on a pre-agreed route that kept it away from official celebrations. Thousands of protesters broke away from the main rally, however, and broke through police barricades to occupy the iconic Red Fort monument.

In the clashes, one protester died as his tractor overturned. Some farmers and members of the victim’s family claimed he had been shot by police, but the Delhi Police has strongly denied the allegation and said their version of events was supported by a post mortem report.

Since last Tuesday, the Delhi authorities have dramatically enhanced protective barricades on the outskirts of the city, embedding iron spikes in the roads and restricting access to the protest camps for farmers and the media. There has been significant traffic disruption for commuters and internet access has been cut at times in areas around protest sites.

Human Rights Watch has also expressed alarm at how Indian authorities have open criminal cases against a number of journalists covering the protests, saying press freedom was being threatened with “baseless criminal charges” and demanding their release.

On Monday, Twitter, on the direction of the IT Ministry of India, withheld around 100 accounts and 150 tweets that were expressing support for the farmers’ protest, with the authorities appearing to take particular issue with a hashtag that read “ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide”.

The suspended accounts included that of the Indian news magazine The Caravan, which had published a report about the farmer who died on 26 January, quoting experts who said the injuries he sustained could have been caused by a bullet. The accounts were later mostly restored after an outcry, with Twitter judging them to be “free speech” and “newsworthy”.

Meanwhile one of the main farmer unions held a major gathering on Wednesday, estimating an attendance of around 50,000 people, as it and other unions set out terms to continue talks with the government.

The Modi administration, which insists its reforms will ultimately benefit the farmers, says it is open to dialogue and has previously offered to suspend the new laws for 18 months. However, there has been little if any budging by either side in the rounds of talks held so far.

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