Former adult film star Mia Khalifa tweets support for India's protesting farmers
Former Lebanese-American adult actress Mia Khalifa has joined US pop superstar Rihanna and climate change activist Greta Thunberg in tweeting a message of support for Indian farmers protesting controversial laws to deregulate their industry.
India's Hindu Nationalist government, which has shut down the internet and arrested journalists after a rally last week turned deadly, slammed the tweets as "irresponsible".
The outpouring of celebrity solidarity comes as the British-based Sikh Council called on the UK to press India for breaching "international laws regarding the right to protest, access to information and free press" and raise the matter at the UN.
Tens of thousands of farmers have blocked roads leading to India's capital since November. demanding the repeal of three laws passed in September.
They argue that the changes have brought devastation for farmers by bringing the country's huge agricultural sector under corporate control.
The contentious legislation has exacerbated existing resentment among farmers, who have long been seen as the heart and soul of India but often complain of being ignored by successive governments.
Their protests are an unprecedented challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's right-wing government. They form the country's most influential voting bloc and are crucial to its economy, with nearly 70 percent of the 1.3 billion-strong population working in farming.
Yet last week, a tractor rally organised in Delhi turned deadly, killing one and wounding hundreds.
Some demonstrators stormed the capital's historic Red Fort, occupying it until police pushed them back.
Authorities responded by shutting down the internet at three sites around the capital where protesters had set up camps.
They also dug ditches, drove nails into roads, and topped barricades with razor wire to prevent farmers from entering the capital again.
At least five criminal cases have been registered against journalists and an opposition politician, accusing them of sedition and conspiracy over their reporting and tweets on the rally.
Twitter also blocked hundreds of accounts sympathetic to their cause at the government's request on Monday.
Rihanna, Greta and Mia strike back
Mia Khalifa, who last week donated $20,000 to Lebanese Red Cross, came out on Twitter to express her shock at the clamp down on the farmers' movement.
"What in the human rights violation is going?! They cut the internet around New Delhi?! #FarmersProtest," she wrote.
Her post, which became a top trend on Twitter, was followed by another, in which she ridiculed claims that the protesters had been paid.
"'Paid actors,' huh? Quite the casting director, I hope they're not overlooked during awards season. I stand with the farmer. #FarmersProtest"
The former adult film star's show of support followed those of US pop diva Rihanna, who shared a CNN article on the demonstrations with her more than 100 million followers.
"Why aren't we talking about this?! #FarmersProtest," she wrote.
Hours after Rihanna's tweet, Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg also posted the same CNN piece, taking a stand alongside India's protesting farmers.
"We stand in solidarity with the #FarmersProtest in India," tweeted Thunberg to her 4.6 million followers.
Meena Harris, the niece of US Vice President Kamala Harris, also joined the chorus of celebrity voices.
"It's no coincidence that the world's oldest democracy was attacked not even a month ago, and as we speak, the most populous democracy is under assault. This is related," she tweeted.
"We ALL should be outraged by India's internet shutdowns and paramilitary violence against farmer protesters."
The outpouring of sympathy appears to have troubled the Modi government, forcing the country's ministry of external affairs to issue a statement defending authorities' actions.
"The temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible," the statement read.
Anger grows in the diaspora
The protests, led by turban-wearing Sikh farmers from the wheat and rice-growing state of Punjab, northern India, triggered a growing farmer rebellion that has spread to other parts of the country.
The close-knit community, which is spread around the world, has also organised protests in Australia, the UK, and the US.
The UK-based Sikh Council has written to Dominic Raab, London's top diplomat, to express their "grave concerns" about human rights violations against farmers and journalists in India.
The group accused the Indian government of being in breach of various UN resolutions regarding the right to protest, access to information, and free press, urging Raab to raise the issue with the international body.
In comments to The New Arab, Sukhjeevan Singh, senior adviser at the Sikh council, said it was laughable that the Indian government was compelled to take aim at celebrities like Rihanna and Mia Khalifa for showing solidarity with India's farming protesters.
While agriculture supports more than half of the country's 1.4 billion people, the economic clout of farmers has diminished over the last three decades. Once producing a third of India's gross domestic product, farmers now account for only 15 percent of the country's $2.9 trillion economy.
More than half of farmers are in debt, with 20,638 killing themselves in 2018 and 2019, according to official records.
Devinder Sharma, an agriculture expert who has spent the last two decades campaigning for income equality for Indian farmers, told The Associated Press they are not only protesting the reforms but also "challenging the entire economic design of the country."
"The anger that you see is compounded anger," Sharma said. "Inequality is growing in India and farmers are becoming poorer. Policy planners have failed to realise this and have sucked the income from the bottom to the top. The farmers are only demanding what is their right."
Modi has tried to dismiss the farmers' fears as unfounded and has repeatedly accused opposition parties of agitating them by spreading rumours.
Agencies contributed to this report.