New Delhi: Hollywood celebrities are calling attention to protests in India over farm laws that could devastate livelihoods.
After Rihanna tweeted a CNN article on Feb. 2 about the ongoing farmers’ protests in India and wrote “why aren’t we talking about this?!”, other Hollywood names are putting a spotlight on the struggle. Since November, nearly a million farmers have gathered on the outskirts of New Delhi to protest government reforms they say will damage — and make it easier to exploit — their industry and drive down prices. The protest has been called the single-largest in human history, with up to 250 million people on strike in a single day.
The response from the government has been harsh. Police have used tear gas and water cannons against the farmers. The government has imposed internet shutdowns, arrested journalists and deployed paramilitary forces against the protesters.
“This time of tumult and divide in India has caused us a great deal of pain,” Indian actor Suraj Sharma (The Life of Pi, God Friended Me) tells The Hollywood Reporter, “but it has also mobilized the voice of the people. It has forced us to question our actions and beliefs. The greatest strength of a democracy is the space it creates for voices to be heard, and there has never been a time when the people have evoked this spirit and change has not come. Let us hope that these changes move us in the direction of secular equanimity, kindness and unity.”
Others bringing attention to the issue include Padma Lakshmi, who wrote on her Instagram “As it’s a democracy, at the very least the govt needs to hear them out”; Trevor Noah; and climate change activist Greta Thunberg, who said, “We stand in solidarity with the #FarmersProtest in India.” On Feb. 10, actress Mindy Kaling posted on her Instagram story, writing, “Both sides of my ancestry have a long history of fighting oppression. More than half of India’s working population comes from agriculture. Our Punjabi brothers and sisters deserve to be heard and respected.”
In response, India’s Ministry of External Affairs has blasted “celebrities and others” for their “neither accurate nor responsible” comments.
Political journalist Mehdi Hasan, host of Peacock’s The Mehdi Hasan Show, says Bollywood stars have remained mostly quiet regarding the protests because they’ve “lined up behind Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi, most likely due to government pressure.” He adds that stars can help pressure the government. “We should all be talking about it. There is shared DNA between what is happening in India and what the U.S. experienced under Trump.”
Actress and activist Sophia Bush tells THR: “We are witnessing a global swing toward consolidation of power over workers — farmers, warehouse workers, health care and front-line workers — the people who keep us, all of us, alive. We cannot take them for granted. Anywhere, at any time. I believe we have a responsibility to shed light — whatever each of us can — on their plight, and stand in solidarity as they fight for their rights.”
Just this week, Disha Ravi, 22, an Indian climate change activist with ties to Thunberg, was arrested by police in Delhi. He’s been accused of being an “editor and key conspirator” of creating and then sharing a “protest toolkit,” a document that outlines how to support the protest. Thunberg shared it on Twitter.
Two humanitarian groups that are working to help the plight of the farmers are Save Indian Farmers and United Sikhs.
“For decades,” says Pakistani-American actor Iqbal Theba (Never Have I Ever, Glee), “Indian farmers have had to deal with soil infertility due to mega-corporate farming, water scarcity and the government’s mismanagement of water resources. Their struggle is wrongfully painted as unpatriotic and treasonous, the favorite tools of all the despots around the world. I wholeheartedly support their struggle for justice and fair play.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.Hollywoodreporter.com