Farmers slogans protest India
Farmers raise slogans during an ongoing protest against the new farm laws, at the Singhu border in New Delhi on Wednesday. Image Credit: ANI

New Delhi: India on Wednesday slammed pop superstar Rihanna and climate activist Greta Thunberg for making “sensationalist” Twitter comments on farmer protests, and threatened legal action against the US social media giant for not taking down other content on the protests.

Social media platforms have become a major battleground in India since tens of thousands of farmers camped on the outskirts of India’s capital in November to protest against government action to deregulate produce markets.

Rihanna, who has more than 100 million Twitter followers, wrote “why aren’t we talking about this?!”, with a link to a news story about an internet blackout at some protest camps.

Hundreds of thousands of people retweeted or liked her comment.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg also tweeted a story about the blackout, saying: “We stand in solidarity with the #FarmersProtest in India.”

Meena Harris, a niece of US Vice-President Kamala Harris - whose mother was born in India - added her support, saying everyone should be “outraged by India’s internet shutdowns and paramilitary violence against farmer protesters”.

The celebrity tweets triggered an online storm in India, where the protests have become a major challenge to the government.

The foreign ministry said the celebrities should keep out of internal affairs and needed “a proper understanding of the issues”.

India farmers panchayat
People attend a Maha Panchayat or grand village council meeting as part of a farmers' protest against farm laws at Kandela village in Jind district in the northern state of Haryana, India, February 3, 2021. Image Credit: Reuters

“The temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible,” it said.

Some Indians tweeted in support of Rihanna, but others attacked her.

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

Modi says the laws are necessary to boost rural incomes, but farmers fear the key agriculture industry will be taken over by big corporations.

The government later threatened Twitter with “penal action” for unlocking 250 accounts and many tweets that the company had earlier blocked.

Twitter took the initial action following a government notice, but reversed course after a few hours.

Among accounts targeted was a prominent news magazine and others linked to farmer unions.

The Electronics and IT ministry said Twitter had “unilaterally” unblocked the accounts and content.

Twitter was “obliged” to obey the government, it said, adding: “Refusal to do so will invite penal action.”

India has also faced criticism from media watchdogs over the arrest of a journalist and investigations launched into five others - who could face sedition charges.

India, the world’s biggest democracy, regularly uses internet shutdowns to limit information-sharing during disturbances.

Farmer leaders to scale up protests

Indian farmers’ leaders on Wednesday outlined plans to scale up months of protests against agricultural reforms.

Demanding the repeal of three new farm laws that they say will hurt them to the benefit of large corporations, tens of thousands of farmers have been camped on the outskirts of Delhi since late 2020.

Their generally peaceful protest was marred by violence last week, when some demonstrators drove a procession of tractors into the heart of the capital and clashed with police.

Police have since erected barricades around three main protest sites and shut off the internet in some areas.

Farmers’ leaders, speaking hours after Rihanna weighed into the row, said they would not back down.

“This gathering shows the anger against the government and we will continue our fight,” union leader Rakesh Tikait told a 50,000-strong rally of the politically influential Jat community in northern Haryana state.

He and other leaders said they would send more farmers to the Delhi protest sites and hold similar meetings across the country to gather further support.

Rakesh Singh Vidhuri, a farmer from the neighbouring state of Punjab, the epicentre of the protests, who attended Wednesday’s meeting, said the movement was bringing together growers from across India’s northern breadbasket region.

“The protests have spread because these laws will impact the livelihood of farmers and Indian agriculture overall,” he told Reuters.

The farmers say the reforms, which will allow big retailers to buy directly from growers, will mean the end of long-standing guaranteed prices for their crops and leave them vulnerable to the whims of big business.