Farmers’ protest: Why did a Rihanna tweet prompt Indian backlash?

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Hours after a tweet by pop superstar Rihanna drew global attention to the cause of protesting farmers, India launched an unprecedented backlash against the Barbadian singer.

The ministry of external affairs released a statement criticizing “celebrities and others” for their “neither accurate nor responsible” comments, and top ministers and celebrities tweeted against “propaganda” that threatened India’s unity. Some pro-government news channels amplified the establishment voice; one Bollywood actress known for her pro-government opinions called Rihanna a “porn star”; and misogynistic trolls even hailed her ex-boyfriend Chris Brown for assaulting her in 2009.

Tens of thousands of farmers have been protesting on the borders of the capital Delhi for more than two months against new laws that will loosen the rules around the sale, pricing and storage of agricultural produce. Rihanna’s tweet on Tuesday linked to a news story about the internet blockade at the protest sites and soon went viral, gaining more than 700,000 likes. “Why aren’t we talking about this?!” wrote the singer, who has 100 million followers on the social network.

The government push-back was swift, led by Home Minister Amit Shah who tweeted on Wednesday night with hashtags #IndiaAgainstPropaganda and #India-together. “No propaganda can deter India’s unity! No propaganda can stop India to attain new heights! Propaganda can not decide India’s fate… only ‘Progress’ can. India stands united and together to achieve progress,” he wrote.

Soon afterwards, ministers, Bollywood stars and cricketers also began tweeting, using one or both of the hashtags used by Mr Shah. “India’s sovereignty cannot be compromised. External forces can be spectators but not participants. Indians know India and should decide for India. Let’s remain united as a nation,” wrote cricketer Sachin Tendulkar. Similar or even identical tweets were shared by several celebrities, including Indian captain Virat Kohli, Bollywood’s Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn and Karan Johar, legendary singer Lata Mangeshkar and badminton player Saina Nehwal – leading to suggestions that the messages were co-ordinates by social media managers from the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

And after climate campaigner Greta Thunberg shared a link to register objections to the new laws, police in Delhi said they were investigating whether there was an international campaign to damage India’s reputation. The protests have become the most intractable challenge for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. The protesters, including elderly men, women and children, have refused to budge even during the freezing winter temperatures, camping in the open, living and sleeping on the streets. Dozens have died too. The government has offered to suspend the laws for 18 months, but the farmers say they must be repealed.

Last week, the protest hit global headlines when a tractor rally by farmers ended in violent clashes, which left a protester dead and hundreds of policemen and protesters injured. Some demonstrators stormed Delhi’s historic Red Fort and occupied it until police chased them away. As Rihanna’s tweet went viral, gathering tens of thousands of responses, many hailed her for bringing global attention to “an important cause”. But many also criticized her for wading into the protests against the laws that have been defended by the government and its supporters.

Some pro-government news channels ran headlines that described Rihanna as “an ill-informed outsider” who was a part of a “plot to divide India” and vowing that “propaganda will not win”. One news anchor – in what was seen as an Islamophobic comment – asked whether the Barbadian singer was named Rihanna or Rehana. Nationalist trolls pulled out old images of the singer’s assault by her ex-boyfriend, heaping misogynistic abuse on her. Some pointed out the problematic manner in which some Indian men resort to abuse to shut down women with contrarian and independent opinions:

But one of the most shocking outpourings against the singer came from Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut, a vocal supporter of the BJP. In a series of tweets, she criticized Rihanna’s work, her music, her appearance, even her skin color. She posted photos of the pop star in a bikini, called her a “porn star” and a “porn singer”, and insinuated that she had been paid for the tweet.

The massive backlash has left many wondering about India’s over-the-top response to a social media post. But Rihanna’s tweet, which amplified the voice of the protesting farmers, could not have come at a more inconvenient time for the government. The farmers have announced plans to block highways leading into the capital city on Saturday and the government is deploying vast resources to stop them.

Iron nails, rods, barbed wire, boulders and makeshift walls have come up and trenches have been dug on Delhi’s borders – with farmers and critics accusing the government of making “war-like” preparations against its own citizens. The authorities are also fighting a battle of perception and trying to keep a lid on international criticism of India’s treatment of its farmers.

In late November, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was the first to express concern over India’s response to the demonstrations. In the weeks since, British and Canadian MPs have criticized Delhi’s handling of the protests. India has maintained that it stands for no interference in its internal matters, but on Thursday, a day after Rihanna’s tweet, the United States became the latest to comment on the protests.

A US embassy spokesperson in Delhi said Washington “welcomed steps that would improve the efficiency of India’s markets and attract greater private sector investment”, but said it “encouraged” differences between the parties to be resolved “through dialogue”. On internet curbs at the protest sites, the spokesperson said the US recognized that “unhindered access to information, including the internet, is fundamental to the freedom of expression and a hallmark of a thriving democracy”. India’s government defended its actions, saying internet curbs had been imposed in some places “to prevent further violence”.

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