How India's farm protests went global
Social-media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have played a central role in the farmers’ protests going global, as supporters scattered around the world have amplified the protests.
By Zia Haq
A surge in global support for the months-long farmers’ agitation against three agricultural pro-reform laws, led by popstar Rihanna and Swedish climate-change icon Greta Thunberg, has energised a small, rural, tech-savvy team behind the agitation’s international outreach. It has also brought fresh challenges: internet clampdowns and suspended social-media accounts.
Social-media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have played a central role in the farmers’ protests going global, as supporters scattered around the world have amplified the protests. The government directed Twitter to act against about 250 Twitter accounts that posed a “grave threat to public order”.
Tens of thousands of farmers, mainly from Sikh-dominated Punjab and Haryana, have blocked entry points into New Delhi for more than two months, demanding the repeal of three pro-reform laws passed in September last year.
Farmers say the laws will allow corporate giants to take control over a vast, antiquated agricultural sector that supports half of all Indians. Farmers have tapped an array of social-media and messaging platforms – SnapChat, Firechat, Signal and so on – to spread information and disseminate videos and photos from the protests in five sites around the national capital. Social media tools have given the protesters an edge in reaching supporters globally.
The idea of a digital wing, alongside the physical protests, was not among plans of the farmers until “misinformation” and “propaganda” to tarnish the agitation went viral, said Baljeet Singh Sandhu, the head of the digital team and vice-president of the Majha Kisan Committee, a farm organisation.
“We have been called Khalistani terrorists and what not? We knew that we had to counter it,” Sandhu said. Khalistani is a reference to supporters of a Sikh separatist movement.
Early in December last year, a team of five tech-savvy farmers went back to their villages, brought their laptops and got going under a rain-slick tarpaulin tent, known as the “hub,” at the Singhu border, a major protest site north of Delhi.
The digital arm of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha, a platform of farm unions leading the protests, called the Kisan Ekta Morcha, has a five-member team --: two farmers are from Punjab, two from Haryana and one from Rajasthan.
The team records videos, devises hashtags, takes photographs and streams press conferences. They tweet slogans and videos in their thousands every day.
Its Twitter account by the same name, ordered to be shut down by the government, has 186,288 followers while its Instagram account has 219,169 followers. The farmers’ YouTube channel is subscribed by 1.2 million people.
On December 21, the Facebook page of the Kisan Ekta Morcha was gaining followers so rapidly within a span of a few hours that Facebook’s internal algorithms mistakenly flagged it as spam, leading to a shutdown.
A plethora of anti-Walmarters and opposers of big corporations in the US and elsewhere, apart from independent farm organisations, have also picked up the thread.
Cities where demonstrations have been held include global financial hubs, New York, Sydney and London. Protests have also been organised in other overseas towns and cities including Leicester in the UK; Sacramento, California; Houston, Texas; Melbourne, Australia; and Ontario, Canada.
In November, Ludhiana-based software engineer Bhavjeet Singh launched the @Tractor2twitr Twitter account to garner global protests.
“Big corporations have common global policies that hurt interests of consumers and small growers,” said Anastasia Elliot of Walmart Watch, a Washington-based NGO. “So, anti-capitalists of the world must unite to protect larger interests of society whether in developed or developing countries. We support Indian farmers,” she said in an email.
Mewa Singh, the head of Non-Resident Indian Council in Punjab’s Ropar, said his office constantly coordinated with Indians abroad on making the protests global. “My son, a resident of Houston coordinated the protests there,” he said.
Sikhs make up 1.4% of Canada’s population, but their close- knit community is an influential voting block. “We stand by Punjab’s farmers because that’s who our ancestors were,” said Banda Singh, a resident of Brampton, Ontario.