Why Rihanna and Greta Thunberg Are Taking on India’s Modi

Original article here.

These days, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar is a worried man. What keeps him awake at night, it seems, is not the specter of Chinese troops massing at the border in the Himalayas but a celebrity with a global following. Rihanna, the 32-year-old Barbados-born reggae and hip-hop singer, swooped in unexpectedly to support tens of thousands of Indian farmers who have surrounded the nation’s capital, New Delhi, following months of protest.

Indian farmers are seeking the repeal of three controversial laws passed in 2020. The laws are intended to reform India’s highly regulated and subsidized agricultural market but which, many farmers fear, will leave them defenseless against corporate power and increase their risk of uncertain returns. The Indian parliament passed those laws in unseemly haste, without the usual consultation or parliamentary scrutiny. Since then, protests have continued unabated, with farmers laying siege on the outskirts of New Delhi and embarrassing the government. The Indian Supreme Court has intervened and set up a committee to examine the laws. A whiff of constitutional crisis is in the air.

Rihanna, however, made no claims of being an expert on agriculture or India’s parliamentary procedures. Her concern was more straightforward: Why is the world not concerned about the stifling of dissent in India? Pointing out a CNN report about India blocking internet access around the protest sites, the singer asked in a tweet: “[W]hy aren’t we talking about this?!” Internet blackouts have become a standard operating procedure for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to prevent critics and protesters from communicating with one another or to the rest of the population and to stop images from being circulated.

Rihanna has more than 100 million followers worldwide. Within hours, other international celebrities had stepped in: Greta Thunberg, the teenage Swedish environmentalist, provided a link to a toolkit that explained in detail what people around the world could do to support Indian farmers. Meena Harris, the niece of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, whose mother was born in India, also joined in, as did Mia Khalifa, the Lebanese American former porn star. So did the phenomenally popular Canadian Indian poet Rupi Kaur. Other celebrities chimed in as well. Politicians in BritainCanada, and the United States have backed the protesters, as have British farmers.

The government’s battle against the protesters and their celebrity supporters has gotten far more serious than social media exchanges. India used Section 69A of its Information Technology Act to require Twitter to take down dozens of accounts, including those of the magazine Caravan and the farmers’ movement, known as Kisan Ekta Morcha. Twitter initially complied without explaining why. Reports said it was because of the inflammatory hashtag #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide, but several of the affected accounts had not used that hashtag. Twitter soon reinstated most accounts, and the government has now threatened the company with prosecution and fines. Meanwhile, the New Delhi police lodged a first information report—the mechanism with which Indian authorities begin investigating a case before deciding whether or not to prosecute—against unnamed persons for distributing the protest toolkit Thunberg had tweeted about. Early reports alleged that Thunberg was named as a target of the investigation, which the police denied. Thunberg, undeterred, reiterated her support for the farmers right after those reports.

The government is preparing for an escalation. It has placed barricades that look like military fortifications around the capital. Barbed wire and solid boulders to prevent vehicles from passing make New Delhi seem as if it fears an enemy invasion.

Meanwhile, on social media, the government’s vociferous and intemperate supporters—many of them right-wing Hindu nationalists—have begun insulting India’s critics. Misogyny against female celebrities abounds, and in Rihanna’s case, there have been racist comments as well. Indian Twitter trolls speculate whether she is Muslim, which for Hindu nationalists is the equivalent of being an enemy of India. A fake photograph shows her holding a Pakistani flag. Pro-government protesters also took to the streets and burned large photographs of ThunbergHarris, and RihannaOthers noted mockingly that Khalifa had acted in adult films and Rihanna posed topless in a field in Northern Ireland in 2011, as if that undermined their disapproval of India’s curbs on dissent. Kangana Ranaut, a pro-government film actor, fulminated against the critics—calling Rihanna a “fool”—and in a baffling stream-of-consciousness tweetstorm attacked an impressively large number of targets.

India doesn’t like critics these days. While external critics are vilified in a tone of injured innocence that reveals the government’s deep-rooted sense of insecurity, internal critics face much harsher consequences. Several journalists and opposition politicians have been named in a case filed under India’s colonial-era sedition law, and Mandeep Punia, a young reporter who had interviewed the farmers, was detained for several days before being released on bail. A recent study by Article 14, a web journal that monitors the Indian justice system, showed a perceptible rise in the use of the old sedition law against critics. The charge under which Mohandas Gandhi, when he was leading India’s anti-colonial struggle, was prosecuted by British authorities is being bandied around like confetti in modern-day India.

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