NEW DELHI — In its showdown with protesting farmers, India's government is striking out at an unusual target: pop star Rihanna.
Farmers in India have been on the streets for over two months protesting recent agricultural laws that they see as a threat to their livelihood. On Tuesday, the demonstrators received backing from Rihanna, whose support has given them even more exposure on the world stage.
"Why aren't we talking about this?!" Rihanna tweeted to her more than 100 million followers. She shared a link to a CNN news article on the demonstrations with the hashtag #FarmersProtest.
Her post prompted an uproar in India as pro-government supporters trolled the singer, accusing her of tweeting in exchange for money. In 2020, Rihanna's net worth was reported to be $600 million, and she was featured in a Forbes list of the richest self-made women in the United States.
For several months, tens of thousands of farmers have sat on highways in the biting winter cold, blocking roads leading into the national capital. A sprawling protest city has emerged with a community kitchen, laundry services and portable toilets.
The protests, which had been largely peaceful, took a violent turn on Jan. 26 with clashes between farmers and the police in Delhi. A crackdown followed: Internet in the areas where demonstrations are taking place was turned off, roads were fortified with upturned nails, and ditches and concertina wires were laid out to prevent farmers from entering the city. Many likened the measures to "warlike" preparations.
Authorities have filed criminal charges against dozens of protesters, farmer union leaders and activists for the violence. In some states, authorities have opened cases against an opposition politician and prominent editors of news channels and magazines for sedition for "misreporting" the incidents around the death of a protester.
Rihanna's tweet was followed by a spate of tweets from other international figures in support of the farmer protests. Environmental activist Greta Thunberg said she stands in "solidarity" with them, while Vice President Harris' niece, Meena Harris, said "democracy was under assault" in India.
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., a member of the influential Foreign Affairs Committee, said the "right to peaceful protest must always be respected."
The Indian government fired back with a Foreign Ministry statement saying celebrities should refrain from the "temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments" without full knowledge of the issue.
"We would like to emphasize that these protests must be seen in the context of India's democratic ethos and polity, and the efforts of the government and the concerned farmer groups to resolve the impasse," the statement read.
Referring to the farmers' storming of the capital's famous Red Fort monument on Jan. 26, the statement said that only a very "small section" of farmers had "reservations" about the laws. The statement was shared with the hashtags #IndiaTogether and #IndiaAgainstPropaganda.
Indian celebrities also came out in support of the government. A Bollywood actor responded to Rihanna, calling her a "fool" and equating protesting farmers to terrorists.
Farmers are afraid the new laws will remove the safeguard of guaranteed prices for some crops and lead to their exploitation at the hands of large corporations. The government has said the laws are necessary reforms to liberalize the sector. Talks between the two sides have failed to break the impasse.
Earlier in December, the protests caused a diplomatic headache for the government after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed concern over India's handling of demonstrations. India said the comments by Trudeau and other Canadian leaders were "unwarranted" and "ill-informed."