As the government and farmers set out ever-tougher positions in their two-month-old battle over new agriculture laws, sporting legend Sachin Tendulkar and a host of Bollywood stars hit out at what the foreign ministry called "sensationalist" Twitter comments.
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. 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.
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.
Tendulkar, cricket's highest-scoring international, led the Twitter riposte by Indian celebrities. "India's sovereignty cannot be compromised. External forces can be spectators but not participants," he said.
Bollywood actor Kangana Ranaut, a Modi supporter, called the protesting farmers "terrorists" and Rihanna a "fool". Actors and directors Anupam Kher, Akshay Kumar, Suniel Shetty and Karan Johar joined the fray against the "foreigners".
We live in turbulent times and the need of the hour is prudence and patience at every turn. Let us together, make every effort we can to find solutions that work for everyone—our farmers are the backbone of India. Let us not let anyone divide us. #IndiaTogether— Karan Johar (@karanjohar) February 3, 2021
"Farmers constitute an extremely important part of our country. And the efforts being undertaken to resolve their issues are evident. Let’s support an amicable resolution, rather than paying attention to anyone creating differences," the Khiladi star tweeted.
Farmers constitute an extremely important part of our country. And the efforts being undertaken to resolve their issues are evident. Let’s support an amicable resolution, rather than paying attention to anyone creating differences. 🙏🏻#IndiaTogether #IndiaAgainstPropaganda https://t.co/LgAn6tIwWp— Akshay Kumar (@akshaykumar) February 3, 2021
Devgn shared, "Don’t fall for any false propaganda against India or Indian policies. Its important to stand united at this hour without any infighting."
Film-maker Ekta Kapoor too had a similar stance. "Let's stand united against any propaganda. Together we can and we will!," she wrote.
"We must always take a comprehensive view of things, as there is nothing more dangerous than a half-truth," said Shetty.
But hours after her tweet, a host of celebrities including Richa Chadha, You Tuber Lilly Singh lauded her stance. "Thank you so much Rihanna. This is a humanity issue! #IStandWithFarmers and this narrative is TIRED," wrote Singh. Chadha also reacted to Rihanna with a heart, hands joined in prayer emoticon and a bow and arrow emoticon.
Whereas Diljit Dosanjh, who had previously tried to reason with Ranaut after her hatred for protesting farmers went viral, also shared a happy picture of Rihanna on his Instagram stories, with her song Run This Town playing in the background. Diljit also shared a Punjabi proverb on Twitter writing, "Jaat Di Kohr Kirli, Shateeriyan Nu Jaffe (Your status in life is rather insignificant but you know how to talk big)."
Jaat Di Kohr Kirli— DILJIT DOSANJH (@diljitdosanjh) February 2, 2021
Shateeriyan Nu Jaffe...
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 a prominent news magazine and others linked to farmer unions.
A senior ministry official told AFP that the blocking order had targeted 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.
Amidst 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 tractors cannot bring more reinforcements. But at a rally attended by an estimated 50,000 people in Haryana state, farmers leader Rakesh Tikait vowed to mobilise thousands of more farmers for the Delhi protests where a day of action is planned for Saturday.
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