Now that Rihanna's got your attention, let's unpack India's farmer protests

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This past Tuesday, Rihanna fired off a tweet heard around the world when she asked her 101.1 million Twitter followers why we aren't talking about India's widespread farmer protests. A few hours later, Greta Thunberg followed suit with a tweet reading, “We stand in solidarity with the #FarmersProtest in India.”

For those who haven't been talking about it, here's the scoop: It all started with calls for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to repeal the new farm act, a set of three bills passed last September that essentially loosen government protection of small farmers and facilitate private buyers to engage in contracts with them directly.

In response, tens of thousands of farmers, farm workers, and supporters descended on the nation’s capital of New Delhi, some camping outside for months. At the forefront of this movement are protesters, many of whom are Sikh, from the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana who stand to lose the most from these bills.

The bills envision a framework of agriculture that looks a lot different from the system these small farmers were used to. As of right now, they sell crops to the government in wholesale markets, or mandis, that assure them with minimum support prices. These markets are run by commission agents known as “middlemen,” who broker deals but often take a cut from sales. Small farmers could still sell their crops directly to private agents rather than go through these mandis; but as inefficient as the system is and as much as it deserves serious reform, it does supply a safety net by guaranteeing sales and expected yearly incomes.

But the farm bills upend a system that serves as a lifeblood for communities in Punjab and Haryana. Their biggest fear is that the bills will eventually lead to the decimation of these regulated markets, guaranteed prices, and secured livelihoods — and place their fates in the hands of big corporations.

The notoriously insidious fine print of these bills also allows these private investors to hoard crops for future sales and prevents farmers from taking disputes to court. No farmers were consulted in the making of these bills, and Prime Minister Modi went around parliamentary procedure to enact them.

With 70% of Indians dependent on agriculture to support their livelihoods, and 82% of farmers being small and marginal (i.e., owning less than 5 acres of land), these laws stand to make them even more vulnerable.

In response to the protests, the Indian Supreme Court said, on January 12, that it would halt the three bills temporarily and assign a committee to look into the farmers’ demands. However, it was responded to with skepticism from protest leaders, who say that the committees are composed of members in support of the laws.

“The fight of the farmers is, at the heart of it, a fight against big monopolies owning everything we need to survive with dignity: medication, transportation, education, and food,” says Mallika Kaur, a human rights lawyer and professor at U.C. Berkeley School of Law.

Rihanna and Greta Thunberg have brought attention to a harsh reality, clearly touching a sore point for a nation at odds with itself. And of course, now they face the wrath of pro-government Indians who accuse them of spreading propaganda and fracturing national unity. Spiteful, racist tweets emerged on Rihanna's appearance and work, while flames engulfed effigies of Thunberg in Delhi. They'll shake it off — pettiness has been known to slide off these icons like Teflon.

Yet, attention on the movement from U.S. celebrities and figures continued. The L.A. Lakers’s Kyle Kuzma exclaimed on Twitter, “Should be talking about this! #FarmersProtest.” The Pittsburgh Steelers’s Juju Smith-Schuster announced that he had donated $10,000 to go towards farmers’ medical assistance. Baron Davis, a former L.A. Clippers player, prompted his 1 million Twitter followers to join him and “bring awareness.” Comedian Hasan Minhaj, actor John Cusack, and singer Jay Sean all backed the protests, not to mention Mia Khalifa and Rep. Ilhan Omar. Meena Harris, a lawyer and Vice President Kamala Harris’s niece, tweeted her support for the protests, but like Rihanna and Thunberg, she was faced with photos of herself burning on the streets.

India’s foreign ministry issued a statement on Wednesday: “The temptation of the sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible.”

The fact that American and international figures’ responses evoked a rare and salty response from the government speaks volumes about just how effective they can be in bringing attention to the movement — even when told to mind their own businesses.

“It's remarkable to see how a few global celebrities can galvanize people all around the world. I'm so grateful to them for speaking up,” professor and activist Simran Jeet Singh tells Mic. "At the same time, I'd love to live in a world where we cared less for the power of celebrity and more for the humanity of the working class as they stand for justice."

This spotlight on the farmer’s movement couldn't have come at a better time. Human rights abuses continue to escalate, evidenced in frightening scenes of police brutality, internet, water, and electricity shutdowns, blatant suppression of dissent, and unjust arrests of government critics and activists like Nodeep Kaur. They're a painful reminder of the government’s bitter history in oppression, as with Sikhs, Muslims, those in Jammu and Kashmir, and Dalits.

The Biden administration's response to this conflict was lukewarm; it supports any progression of the free market agenda but points to a necessity to farmers’ peaceful protests. But these ongoing abuses stand in direct opposition to our conceptions of a robust democracy. “The right to political protest, the right to free speech, that’s something that should be guaranteed all across the planet,” says Rajan Gill, a history professor at Yuba College and a farmer in northern California. “It’s something that a lot of Americans would agree with.”

Rihanna's right. We should be concerned about Indian farmers. And not just because we're one global community, but because the U.S. is uniquely interwoven in the struggles of the Indian farmers. U.S. food aid to India was tied to the implementation of the Green Revolution, which implemented new technologies like high-yielding seeds, chemicals, and irrigation that increased output and fed people during a nationwide famine. But it led to a whole host of long-term problems like crippling debt and destroyed soil, ravaged further by disastrous effects of climate change. A full-on agrarian crisis evolved in the 1990s, ravaging the nation with one of the world’s highest rates of farmer suicides as well as skyrocketing cancer rates.

Beyond the U.S.’s historical complicity in this crisis, each of us has a stake in the protests. “‘Made in India’ has a real person, a real producer, a real farmer behind it,” Kaur points out. “That person demands your attention today.”

The turmeric that goes into our golden lattes, the indigo that dyes our clothing, the Basmati rice that’s served with our meals — we benefit from these stricken farmers, and those protesting have been tear gassed, barricaded with barbed wire, gone missing, and killed for attempting to secure their economic livelihoods.

The tactics used by the government against the farmers are all too familiar for the U.S., which still contends with its own treatment of Black and marginalized folx. And the parallels are clear, Kaur says: the racialization, the demonization, the gaslighting, the belittling, the fear-mongering, the "selective use of the law" as the State uses lawless force to bludgeon and strangle its own citizens.

These unjust new rules being pushed upon farmers have culminated in the single largest protest to have ever been conducted in world history. It's a movement taking place on soil thousands of miles away but wielding a humanizing agrarian spirit, plighted by decades of hardship, that has finally caught the world’s attention.

“The past is very present,” Kaur says. “But the future is on everyone’s minds.”