Tractors to Twitter: India’s protesting farmers battle on highway, online

Tractors and Twitter

In a standoff between farmers in India’s northern breadbasket and the government, the farmers have a 21st-century ally: a handful of fans scattered around the world running a Twitter handle.

The farmers have paralysed some visitors in and out of New Delhi, protesting recent agriculture laws they fear may eventually remove government-guaranteed minimal prices for their crops.

However, the demonstrators, most of them from the Sikh religious minority, say they’re also fighting a social media effort by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The BJP brands a number of the protesters as separatists from the giant multi-ethnic nation, a fee that the demonstrators telephone disinformation.

Bhavjit Singh became energised for the battle in November from his bedroom in Ludhiana in the agricultural heartland state of Punjab, where he watched with dismay the internet strikes on the farmers.

With a couple of friends, the information technology professional found the @Tractor2twitr Twitter account in late November. The next month he journeyed into the focal protest site on a primary highway connecting Haryana state and Delhi, the land that contains the capital.

Thousands there have jammed the road for kilometres with tractors, trailers and tents, sleeping in makeshift hovels and cooking in ramshackle kitchens.

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Singh, 38, joined the protesters with two smartphones.

“We will intensify our campaign because we are getting organised and getting more support now,” Singh told journalists at our partner news agency Reuters, speaking near the noisy protest site where open kitchens dished out midmorning snacks. “Our war of perception, the war of messaging is going in the right direction.”

The accounts, with more than 23,000 followers, promotes its message by simply pushing one hashtag a day. One day lately, #FarmersDyingModiEnjoying, driven by @Tractor2twitr, was among the top hashtags on Indian Twitter – fighting #ModiWithFarmers.

8,000 kilometers)away in Houston, Texas, Baljinder Singh is part of their core group that can help run the account.

The BJP “were targeting us, so we felt we had to answer them back,” the proprietor of a couple of 7-Eleven shops in the United States told Reuters. “We are all the sons and daughters of farmers.”

Baljinder and Bhavjit Singh, who share a common Sikh family name, aren’t related.

@Tractor2twitr was joined in recent weeks by a union group called the Farmers Unity Front (Kisan Ekta Morcha), setting up accounts on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp and Snapchat, staffed by 50 volunteers, that have surged to countless thousands of followers.

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The farmers need Modi repeal the three farm laws, enacted in September, which they say might make them vulnerable to retail giants like Walmart Inc and India’s Reliance Industries.

The government says the legislation, which let growers skip government-regulated wholesale markets and sell directly to buyers, would be a reform which provides farmers more options. It has sought to assure the farmers that the guaranteed-pricing system won’t be dismantled.

Since the farmers were trooping toward Delhi late in 2020, a wave of misinformation started spreading online, said Rajneil Kamath, publisher of fact-checking website Newschecker.

Old, unrelated images and videos – including some from presentations outside India calling for an independent Sikh homeland – were passed off as representing the farmers, Kamath said.

In December, Twitter flagged a tweet by the head of the BJP’s vast social networking team, Amit Malviya, as “manipulated media,” saying that a video he submitted revealing an elderly protestor narrowly avoiding a police beating had been misleadingly edited.

BJP spokesman Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga states the party has been legitimately highlighting that people aside from farmers, including Sikh separatists, had potentially infiltrated the protests.

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“We believe some people are trying to hijack the movement,” Bagga said.

At the protest site, Ammy Gill, a 25-year-old lyricist out of Punjab, divides his time helping out at community kitchens and chronicling the protests on social networking.

“The objective of our social media messages is to counter the trolls and the campaign against farmers,” Gill said.

“We are not here for a picnic.”

The team at Platform Executive hope you have enjoyed the ‘Tractors to Twitter: India’s protesting farmers battle on highway, online‘ article. Initial reporting via our official content partners at Thomson Reuters. Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal and Manoj Kumar in New Delhi. Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and William Mallard.

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