The ongoing protests by farmers in India have slipped into the international domain just as the government was hoping that attention overseas would be on its efforts against Covid-19, which includes the planned global distribution of indigenous vaccines.
Led by those from Punjab, the farmers have been protesting for two months against new laws that they say do not benefit them even though the government insists the reforms are needed to boost agricultural growth.
Protesters say the laws, which would allow big retailers to buy directly from growers, could mean the end of longstanding guaranteed prices for their crops. They claim this would make them vulnerable to big business.
The government has clamped down hard on the protests after they turned violent, with farmers clashing with police in some parts of New Delhi during a planned peaceful tractor rally to mark Republic Day on Jan 26.
Access to the Internet has been cut for protesters, barricades erected around protest sites and sedition cases filed against journalists and opposition politicians. Twitter has also been told to suspend accounts that tweet on the protests, particularly those using the hashtag “farmers genocide”.
On top of that, the Delhi police have filed a case against makers of a toolkit tweeted by celebrated Swedish climate change campaigner Greta Thunberg. The toolkit was about how to support the farmers, including by protesting at Indian embassies.
The crackdown by the Indian authorities has not gone unnoticed internationally.
In a tweet on Tuesday, pop superstar Rihanna asked: “Why aren’t we talking about this (farmer protests).” This was followed by tweets by Ms Thunberg and Ms Meena Harris, the niece of United States Vice-President Kamala Harris whose mother was originally from South India.
The Biden administration has called for a “dialogue” with Indian farmers and asked the Indian government to recognise “peaceful protests” and restore Internet access to the farmers. Reports have also emerged that the issue is likely to be brought up in the British Parliament.
Members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration have come out strongly against the tweets.
The Ministry of External Affairs, which usually does not respond to non-government and non-political actors, asked celebrities to get a “proper understanding” of the issues, saying their comments were “neither accurate nor responsible”.
Others were less circumspect as Home Minister Amit Shah dismissed the comments as “propaganda” which would not “deter India’s unity” and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar described them as a “motivated campaign”.
A string of Bollywood celebrities echoed the government’s line on foreign interference, and the hashtags #IndiaTogether and #IndiaAgainstPropaganda were soon trending on Twitter.
The response may seem disproportionate but political analysts said it was likely a strategy to use nationalism to change the domestic discourse to counter the protests, which have turned into one of the biggest challenges for the Modi government.
Dr Sandeep Shastri, vice-chancellor of Jagran Lakecity University, said: “The government is very strategically trying to transform the debate (on farm reforms and farmers) into one involving Indian interests and those against them. It is those who are from India versus Greta and Rihanna.
“This is a clever strategy to try and shift the debate in a different direction in that people outside India have no right to talk about what’s going on in the country,” he added.
Despite all the government’s tough talk as well as action, though, the farmers have not dispersed.
Mr Abhimanyu Kohar, coordinator of the National Farmer’s Alliance, a federation of over 180 non-political farm organisations, said: “The movement has strengthened and farmers’ participation has gone up, There are panchayats (gatherings) taking place in villages to see how to go forward.”