When three SUVs rammed a group of protesters on October 3 in Uttar Pradesh – resulting in the death of four farmers, three Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers, and a journalist – right-wing accounts blamed the protesters for being extremists. As has become routine in misinformation campaigns against the agitation, protestors were falsely claimed to be Khalistani, members of a Sikh separatist movement responsible for violent insurrections in the 1980s and 1990s.
The response on social media, leading news outlets, and members of the ruling party to what happened in Lakhimpur-Kheri is indicative of the onslaught of vilifying narratives the farmers' protests have been subject to in the last year.
About 13 months ago, a movement started by a small collective of farmers’ organizations in the state of Punjab attracted the attention of media outlets worldwide. The farmers were protesting against three farm bills from the BJP-led government that would have given private players more power in the government-regulated sector.
In over a year, the bills have been passed amid intense opposition. Dozens of talks between farmers and the government have fallen flat, and pro-government voices have accused the movement of being funded by foreign powers. Global icons including Greta Thunberg and Rihanna have been subject to vicious trolling for tweeting in solidarity, and about 600 farmers have reportedly died stationed at Delhi’s borders and other protest sites.
The movement has been witness to immense clashes and misinformation campaigns. The biggest narratives were that the protests are organized by international powers that support a Khalistani state, and are being funded by the Pakistani government and Sikh Canadians, known to be an influential diaspora community.
How the Lakhimpur-Kheri incident was used against farmers
In light of provocative speeches made by Union Minister of State for Home Ajay Mishra Teni (whose son was reportedly driving one of the SUVs), farmers organized a protest against his visit with deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya in Lakhimpur-Kheri. When news of the incident broke, mainstream media (including reputable international outlets) were quick to label the incident a “clash” despite local reports suggesting the violence was triggered by protestors being mauled by a car. Even when a video of cars running over dozens of marching protestors surfaced, a counter-narrative on social media quickly tried to disprove the video, alleging that the car’s broken windshield was proof that BJP workers were attacked first and were trying to flee the spot. This was further spread by a tweet from Network18’s editor with a following of over 278,000.
Translation: But the car windshield is broken from before, the whole truth is not out yet
Others insinuated a sinister plot by those agitating, claiming the incident was a declaration of war against India. Such tweets, often with the same text, were shared by accounts displaying bot or bot-like behavior.
This tweet by Sunny Sindhu made over 350,000 impressions and was retweeted over 500 times. Several right-wing accounts tweeted the same text using hashtags tagging Lakhimpur-Kheri and #योगी_जी_लठ_बजाओ which translates to Yogi (U.P. Chief Minister) crack the whip.
Terrorism vs. redefining Khalistan
While the bills were opposed nationwide, the movement was primarily led by farmers in Punjab for the first month and a half before protesters from across North India began camping outside New Delhi’s borders in November 2020. The Punjab-led agitation made it convenient for pro-government voices to label the protests as “extremist,” “Khalistani,” and “anti-national,” all common right-wing terminology used for dissenting voices. However, on January 26, when violence broke out on India’s Republic Day after a younger cohort of protestors said they would make inroads into New Delhi, flouting the approved route for an organized tractor rally, the months-long protests were dismissed as one being infiltrated by terrorists.
This tweet had over 153,000 impressions and reached 75,000 users.
From January 11, 2021, to February 10, 2021, the terms Khalistan or Khalistani from users endorsing varying narratives had a combined reach of over 5.7 million on Twitter, albeit with overlap.
“The contrast between the reality of what happened and the perception that is being created is stark. Lakhs of farmers moved through Delhi. There was no assault on private property, nor on civilians,” journalist Hartosh Singh Bal wrote for the Caravan. “Beyond these facts are only the events at the Red Fort. Some protesters raised a flag and attacked the police. But even in the aggressive stupidity of those at the monument, care was taken to ensure the supremacy of the tiranga, the Indian flag, was not dwarfed by the Nishan Sahib, the Sikh flag (not a Khalistani symbol), hoisted below it.”
Right-wing narratives were propagated by BJP IT cells and Twitter handles including the leading party’s IT cell head Amit Malviya, who shared a cropped video to falsely show police did not resort to lathi-charge. Additionally, government agencies such as the National Investigative Agency summoned farmers, shopkeepers, activists, and journalists from Punjab and Haryana in connection with its case of alleged terror funding by the pro-Khalistan organization Sikhs for Justice.
Although Sikhs for Justice is widely condemned and vocally dismissed by major farmer unions, the counter-narrative includes support for Khalistan as an idea of empowerment and autonomy. Many accounts, including that of the actor Deep Sidhu (who was accused of conspiring the incident at the Red Fort) controversially defended Sikh militant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale – the leader behind the violent insurrection in the demand of a separate Khalistani state. Sidhu’s sentiments are shared by several Khalistani sympathizers and were amplified in light of the protests.
The Khalistani movement for an independent state began in the early 1980s amid Bhindranwale’s and his followers' rise who made Amritsar’s Golden Temple their headquarters. The then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi eventually sanctioned 1984’s Operation Blue Star, in which the military stormed the holy complex to neutralize Bhindranwale. Upset with the desecration of the temple, Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in retaliation the same year. At its peak, the Khalistani movement claimed 21,532 lives in a span of a decade and a half, dying down by the mid-1990s. The dead included 8,090 separatists, 11,696 civilians, and 1,746 security personnel.
But for founders of Poetic Justice Foundation (PJF), a Canada-based organization charged with sedition, criminal conspiracy, and promoting hatred for allegedly creating a social media “toolkit” on the protests, being Khalistani is misunderstood. Despite claiming to not have spoken to any agitating farmers, PJF took the forefront in the media's coverage of the protests.
In an exclusive interview with Logically earlier this year, Mo Dhaliwal, founder of PJF said, “Media houses have equated Khalistan to an expletive, projecting it as someone who hates Hindus, wants a violent uprising, who wants to murder Indian nationals. In much the same way Kashmiris are looking for self-governance, for me, the Khalistan movement is an opportunity for a Punjabi populace to look at self-determination. Any human who wants to seek self-determination can be allowed to do that. My sympathies are more about allowing there to be space for dialogue, where people can think and speak freely about the topic, and that is the extent of it. That activism for dialogue has been equated with being anti-India. Calling for conversation does not mean you want harm to come to those who disagree.”
When asked about intertwining Khalistan with the protests, Dhaliwal said, “the earliest agitations towards an independent state sought to protect people and their land and those are the areas of Punjab that have been compromised. So of course they’re interlinked because the Khalistan movement was calling to protest these very things decades ago. An ideology should not be thrust on anybody, but there should be room for both of them. The government is introducing structural violence on such a scale that I'm quite confident that even if laws get repealed they’ll find other ways of getting to their ends – camping outside Delhi is not sustainable, there has to be a better movement.”
'Real farmers support the bills'
A parallel narrative running over the past year has been that since the protestors have vested interests unrelated to the farm bills, and in some instances are paid, farmers fully back the bills. Hashtags including #NahiChahidaKhalistan (we don’t want Khalistan), #RealFarmersWithModi, #किसान_मित्र_खट्टर_योगी (Yogi and ML Khattar are in solidarity with farmers) and #भारत_खुला_है (India is not on strike) have been trending. Others blamed opposition parties for starting the movement. The media pushed the same narrative. For example, a regular panelist on major Hindi news channels speaking in favor of the bills who was designated a farm leader was a BJP spokesperson.
These hashtags were promoted by BJP IT cells and other right-wing accounts. For example, a user with nearly 40,000 followers, who is also followed by Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s office account, posted tweets with similar claims and retweeted other users delegitimizing the protests.
Translation: These are farmers, they are goons so this is how they’ll behave. Those who think people causing roadblocks are farmers, they should take their mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives to the protests and they’ll understand everything.
Translation: I too am a farmer. I support all three bills introduced by Modi. Rakesh Tikait (farm leader) is nothing but a khalistani-talibani supporter wanting to divide the country.
Translation: After dangerous conspiracies like the Shaheen Bagh protests and Delhi riots, a new fake agitation of farmer protests is being plotted. This is clearly orchestrated by the Indian National Congress and other political parties.
Threat to national security
While the farmers' protests were limited to pockets in Punjab and Haryana, supporters backing the bill shared posts arguing how India was already heading towards privatization and the new laws would be necessary and profitable for the farmers. But as they gained momentum, eventually resulting in thousands moving to Delhi’s borders until a repeal, the narrative that the agitation in a conspiracy to divide India and a major threat to national security gained prominence.
Following the Republic Day incident, when support for farmers came in from all around the world, claims that Khalistanis settled in Canada along with Pakistani agents were funneling major funds to create stir were shared. As witnessed in several protests before, efforts were made to stir nationalistic sentiments by suggesting India was “under threat.”
Leading news agency ANI, along with many major media outlets, shared unsourced reports claiming “farmers were unaware they were playing into the hand of stooges controlled by Pakistani ISI and ones associated with the so-called Khalistani movement.” Though Khalistani sympathizers and Pakistani accounts outside India were aggressively speaking against the government, those voices were used to squash the protests at the ground level. It happened in several ways.
First, government agencies and members of the BJP started claiming that coordinated attacks were being planned. To substantiate such allegations, Delhi Police cited a “rise” in the sale of tractors in Punjab and Haryana between November 2020 and January 2021 before Republic Day. The “sale of tractors rises to a considerable extent rapidly in a well-orchestrated conspiracy and with the sole object…to take tractors to Delhi for agitation and protest,” the charge sheet said. However, Indian Express reported Tractor and Mechanisation Association’s data that showed a similar high year-on-year sales growth trend across India.
Many verified users shared similar narratives on social media. All three accounts listed above are also followed by Sitharaman’s office account.
Secondly, as groups staged protests worldwide in solidarity, claims that millions of dollars were being spent by Khalistani sympathizers started going viral. The narrative reached its pinnacle when Thunberg shared a toolkit allegedly made by PJF and was subjected to vicious trolling. Rihanna, who shared a CNN article highlighting the protests, was accused of being paid millions. In response to such a spotlight, the Indian government, along with eminent Indian personalities started posting in support of the government using #IndiaAgainstPropaganda and #IndiaTogether.
Although misinformation has been spread from both ends of the spectrum, a wide range of unions and groups are participating in the ongoing protests and extremist sentiments of some have been used to delegitimize a historic Indian movement. Combined with the media’s biased coverage, the government has used its entire machinery to ensure the laws aren’t repealed.
Moreover, a fringe segment of Khalistani voices is being used to paint the entire agitation comprising 82 unions with varying ideologies and thousands of protestors as extremists. When Logically asked Dhaliwal if their unabashed Khalistani support had taken away from the protest he replied, “I think it has taken things away, there were a few occasions where I felt some guilt around that. But if it wasn't us, it would be something else. Even within the community, we received criticism that we’re causing distractions, but we need to recognize the actual violence is coming from the state and media and they’re the ones causing actual harm when they take a news cycle for weeks distracting from the protest action. If the government was looking to resolve with the farmers in full sincerity, they would have still walked ahead and done it.”