NEW DELHI (BLOOMBERG) - Pop star Rihanna and environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg have drawn global attention to Indian farmers' fight against the government's new agriculture laws, shining a spotlight on its suspension of Internet services at protest sites around New Delhi.
"Why aren't we talking about this?! #FarmersProtest," Rihanna tweeted to her more than 100 million followers, linking to an article about the communications crackdown.
By Wednesday (Feb 3), her tweet had been liked by more than 391,000 people and shared nearly 200,000 times.
India's government has fortified Delhi's borders and sought to block the Twitter accounts of key protest leaders and journalists, after farmers' unions called for roads to be blocked across India on Saturday in their latest protest against the new laws, as well as the crackdown against protesters and reduced farm sector allocation in the annual budget announced on Monday.
With 8,927 hours of blacked out or curbed bandwidth access, the Indian government restricted Internet use more than any other nation in 2020, according to the Global Cost of Internet Shutdowns report.
Thunberg tweeted her support for the demonstrators: "We stand in solidarity with the #FarmersProtest in India."
At least 122 people have so far been arrested in the Indian capital ahead of the latest demonstrations and following violent clashes on Jan 26, when thousands of protesters entered New Delhi for a tractor rally, the Delhi police said in a statement.
Police investigations have also been initiated against several journalists and opposition lawmaker Shashi Tharoor for tweets about the police response to that violence.
About 250 Twitter accounts, including those belonging to the news magazine The Caravan and other journalists and activists were blocked for several hours on Monday over claims they spread rumours about the protests.
The handles, restricted "in response to a valid legal request from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology", were later restored because they constitute "free speech and are newsworthy", Twitter said in a statement.
Police have erected concrete barricades, spread concertina wire and hammered long metal spikes at the key protests sites on the outskirts of the capital, where tens of thousands of farmers have been gathering since late November.
Internet connections have also been suspended for prolonged periods of time on police orders.
"The government is desperate to quell the farmers protest by any means," said protest leader Darshan Pal Singh.
"They are violating human rights, harassing farmers and creating fear for protesters."
The farmers are demanding the repeal of the legislation pushed through Parliament by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government, which they say will make agriculture vulnerable to market vagaries by allowing corporates to take control of farming.
While the government has offered to suspend the reforms for 18 months and the Supreme Court set up a mediation committee, protesters have remained firm on their demand the laws be scrapped.
The decision on the heavy barricading of the city was taken to avoid a repeat of the Jan 26 clashes, when protesters breached security to swarm the city and managed to reach the iconic Red Fort, said officials familiar with the developments, who asked not to be identified, citing rules on speaking with the media.
Federal Home Minister Amit Shah - who oversees the Delhi police - is monitoring the situation, they said.
The Ministry of Home Affairs didn't immediately respond to a request seeking comment.
The Indian Parliament's Upper House was adjourned for a few hours on Tuesday after opposition parties demanded an immediate discussion on the farmers' agitation and actions against protesters and journalists.
Police have charged Tharoor, a member of the opposition Indian National Congress and six senior journalists with sedition, criminal conspiracy and promoting enmity and for posting "malafide, defamatory, false and misleading" tweets blaming the Delhi police for the death of a protester on Jan 26, the Hindu newspaper reported.
The Delhi police have denied any involvement in the death.
"The Indian authorities' response to protests has focused on discrediting peaceful protesters, harassing critics of the government, and prosecuting those reporting on the events," said Ms Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
"The government instead should conduct a transparent and impartial investigation into the Jan 26 violence in Delhi."