Since last September, more than 250 million protestors have crowded the streets of Delhi to overturn three new agricultural laws set forth by the Indian government. Deemed the largest protest in human history, protestors are calling to have the government repeal the three laws that would leave the sector volatile and farmers themselves vulnerable. About 58 per cent of India’s approximately 1.3 billion population find agriculture to be their primary source of income, making up the largest voting bloc of the country. The handling of these protests is a central political issue for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government as its implications could affect the next general election in 2024.
The new laws lack the safeguards that should accompany any deregulation this massive, including safety nets and regulatory frameworks that protect farmers against market volatility. These have been recommended consistently by the government’s previous legislation but oddly not for these laws. One of the laws also prevents farmers from suing or taking private companies to court if they violate contracts, once again making it clear that there are no protective measures in place for farmers.
How are the farmers supposed to trust the government when laws are designed to take away their protections by violently repressing them with cruelty? Sleeping protestors have been reportedly beaten by the police, internet and social media accounts have been suspended, electricity and bathroom access for protest camps restricted, journalists rounded up and arrested, and protestors tortured and sexually assaulted in jail.
The most bizarre situation to unfold amid all this was the over-the-top, rushed, and dramatic response to social media posts made by Rihanna and Greta Thunberg. Rihanna shared a CNN article reporting the internet cuts in New Delhi and captioned it with a simple question: “Why aren’t we talking about this?!” Soon after, climate activist Greta Thunberg shared that she stood in solidarity with the farmers and shared a toolkit for those wanting to sign petitions or get involved.
The response was immediate. While much of the Indian diaspora praised Rihanna for shining light on such a monumental event in human history, an army of pro-government and right-wing fanatics criticized them within hours and spread baseless conspiracy theories alongside extremely misogynistic comments about them.
Within hours of Rihanna’s tweet, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs released a statement criticizing celebrities of foreign countries of “sensationalism” and spreading “neither accurate nor responsible” comments that promote “propaganda” against the reputation of a country. Police in Delhi investigated Thunberg’s post, claiming it to be an international campaign to damage India’s reputation. Nationalist trolls even had the audacity to hail Chris Brown, Rihanna’s ex-boyfriend, for assaulting her in 2009 by praising him on social media and making signposts of his picture. One news anchor made a racist and Islamophobic comment about her name by asking whether her name was actually “Rehana.”
Indian celebrities soon joined in too. Sportspeople like legendary cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, badminton player Saina Nehwal, musical icon Lata Mangeshkar, and actors like Ajay Devgn and Akshay Kumar (who has honorary citizenship to Canada) were seen parroting the Ministry of External Affairs’ statement with hashtags like “IndiaAgainstPropaganda.”
Most notably was the series of tweets by Bollywood actress and right-wing nationalist Kangana Ranaut. Ranaut called Rihanna a “porn star” trying to make money off the “terroristic activities” taking place in the country. She made comments about her skin colour, her character as an influencer, and baseless accusations about her being a “communist” that wants to help China take over.
Her tweets ran side by side with other baseless conspiracy theories about Rihanna and Greta Thunberg being puppets of the Khalistan movement and being funded by terrorists. Ranaut even accused Jagmeet Singh, leader of the National Democratic Party of Canada, of being a terrorist supporter after Rihanna followed him, claiming to be a “porn singer’s friend” and have “Khalistan in his head.” These conspiracy theories were so viral that the Delhi Police and the Home Ministry registered a case against “unknown people” that are hellbent on “destroying India.”
The absurdly dramatic social media response to Indian farmers’ protests has exposed the problematic pattern of right-winged and nationalist groups responding to different and independent opinions with abuse and violently misogynistic threats. Rihanna is no political figure and did not make any explicitly political statement—she simply asked a question. Why was there a need to respond at all, especially by the government? Why was a national government so rattled by a question posed by her that they had to coordinate social media posts with Indian celebrities?
The aggression of the Hindutva, or today’s extreme nationalists in India, has declared certain tenets, which include the mandatory hate of Muslims and Pakistan and blind worship of Prime Minister Modi and his policies. Anyone that questions it, protests against it, or even comments about it are immediately labelled anti-national.
Although these protests have been labelled as the “farmers’ protests,” it crosses religious, caste, and socio-economic lines in a desperate plea to urge the government to protect the backbone of the nation. There is no doubt that agricultural laws in India needed reform as farmers have a painful amount of debt and a jarring history of suicides, and that one way to improve their economic situation would require liberalizing the sector and giving more reign to the free market. However, this would be a method that denies democratic due process and the recognition that this sector is made up of vulnerable human beings. This method is neglectful and irresponsible. Instead of trying to shut down internal and foreign voices, wouldn’t it be better and more productive to concentrate the government’s energies on listening and winning back the trust of the farmers?