Several Indian celebrities, including cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar and a host of Bollywood stars, have supported the government after pop superstar Rihanna and climate activist Greta Thunberg made social media comments about the months-long farmer protests.
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 the protest camps where tens of thousands of farmers have been since November.
More than one million people retweeted, liked or commented on her tweet, which India’s foreign ministry called “sensationalist”.
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg also tweeted a story about the internet 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.
The celebrity tweets triggered an online storm in India, where the protests have become the biggest challenge to Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi since he took power in 2014.
“The temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible,” said the foreign ministry on Wednesday.
Tendulkar, cricket’s highest-scoring international player, led the Twitter riposte by Indian celebrities.
“India’s sovereignty cannot be compromised. External forces can be spectators but not participants,” he posted, using the same hashtags – #IndiaTogether and #IndiaAgainstPropaganda that the governing party’s ministers had been using in their tweets.
Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut, a Modi supporter, called the protesting farmers “terrorists” and Rihanna a “fool”.
Prominent singer Lata Mangeshkar, and actors and directors, including Anupam Kher, Akshay Kumar, Suniel Shetty and Karan Johar, joined the fray against the “foreigners”, using the same hashtags promoted by the government.
The government later threatened Twitter with “penal action” for unlocking 250 accounts and tweets on the farmers’ protests that the US company had earlier blocked. Twitter took the initial action following a government notice but reversed course after a few hours.
Among accounts targeted were those belonging to a prominent news magazine and others linked to farmer unions.
The information technology ministry said Twitter had “unilaterally” unblocked the accounts and content and that it was “obliged” to obey government orders. “Refusal to do so will invite penal action.”
A senior ministry official told the AFP news agency that the blocking order had singled out content that had the hashtag “#ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide” and not general comments about the protests.
India has also faced criticism from media watchdogs over the arrest of a journalist covering the protests and investigations launched into five others – who could face sedition charges.
Amid the war of words, authorities stepped up pressure on the protest camps, putting up barbed wire fences around some and laying down spikes on roads leading to them so that the tractors could not bring more reinforcements.
Farmers to scale up protests
Meanwhile, as their cause gained high-profile supporters in the West, Indian farmers’ leaders on Wednesday outlined plans to scale up their protests against three new farm laws that they say will hurt them to the benefit of large corporations.
At a rally attended by an estimated 50,000 people in Haryana state, farmers leader Rakesh Tikait pledged to mobilise thousands more farmers for the Delhi protests where a day of action is planned for Saturday.
“This gathering shows the anger against the government and we will continue our fight,” Tikait said at the rally of the politically influential Jat community.
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 the Reuters news agency.