How one tweet from Rihanna on farmer protests got India incensed

It took just one tweet from Rihanna to anger the Indian government and supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party.
Published February 4, 2021

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 in a rare statement on Wednesday, without naming Rihanna and others who followed her suit.

Farmer's protests

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 modernise Indian farming.

Read: How Modi’s attempt to crush the farmers’ protest seems to have backfired

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.

What does Rihanna have to do with it?

The latest controversy started on Tuesday when Rihanna tweeted to her more than 101 million Twitter 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.

Soon, international condemnation from human rights groups and outrage from Indian supporters of Modi's party followed.

Then India's foreign ministry accused foreign individuals and celebrities of sensationalism. The ministry's statement did not, however, name Rihanna.

Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg and the niece of US Vice President Kamala Harris, Meena Harris, were among others who then tweeted their support, and a social media storm soon followed.

According to The Wire, Rihanna's tweet "shouldn't have mattered, but it did," adding that "right-wing trolls and supporters" got to work as the issue garnered support.

"Besides slut-shaming her, they glorified and justified the violence that was once meted out to her: 'Chris Brown' began to trend on Twitter India, with the right-wing sharing images from Rihanna’s 2009 domestic violence case with captions that she 'deserved' being assaulted. Further, derogatory comments justifying slavery were made, as well as the inevitable Muslim connection," the publication said in an op-ed.

Indian Twitter kicks up a storm

Bollywood entertainers and sports stars, many of whom have long been silent on the farmer protests and are known to toe the government's line, tweeted in one voice.

They used hashtags #IndiaAgainstPropaganda and #IndiaTogether — coined by the Indian foreign ministry and echoing the government's stand on the agriculture laws — asking people outside India not to meddle with their country's affairs.

Sporting legend Sachin Tendulkar, cricket's highest scoring international, led the Twitter riposte by Indian celebrities.

“India's sovereignty cannot be compromised. External forces can be spectators but not participants. Indians know India and should decide for India.” he said.

Indian cricket team captain Virat Kohli followed suit calling for unity in this "hour of disagreements".

Head coach Ravi Shastri also offered his two cents of the situation.

"Agriculture is a very important part of the machinery of the Indian economic system. Farmers are the backbone of any country’s ecosystem. This is an internal matter which I’m sure will be resolved through dialogue," he said.

Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut, a Modi supporter, called the protesting farmers “terrorists” and Rihanna a “fool”.

Actors and directors Anupam Kher, Akshay Kumar, Suniel Shetty and Karan Johar joined the fray against the “foreigners”.

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.

However, India's opposition leaders rallied against the government's move.

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 India's foreign ministry and called its statement a "puerile reaction".

"When will you realise that people concerned with issues of human rights and livelihoods do not recognise national boundaries," Chidambaram tweeted.

A person reads tweets by Indian celebrities, one of the many backing the Indian government, on his mobile in New Delhi on Feb 4. — AP