Why are protesting farmers in India being labelled 'violent Muslim infiltrators'?

These are several examples of the fake news that has been circulating about farmers protesting in India.
These are several examples of the fake news that has been circulating about farmers protesting in India. © Observers

Farmers across India have been protesting since October, expressing their anger at new agricultural bills that would leave them vulnerable to drops in food prices. Social media has been flooded with fake news seeking to portray the protesters as violent or claiming that they are led by Muslim extremists.

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Protests have been held all across India against the Farm Bills, a new series of proposed agricultural laws that would loosen rules around the pricing of produce, meaning that farmers would lose price protections currently in place. Farmers are afraid that with the end of fixed prices, the minimum price for basic foodstuffs like wheat and rice could plummet. 

On January 12, after two months of protests, farmers were able to get the bill put on hold by the Supreme Court. This initial victory didn’t serve to calm the protesters, who continued to gather in New Delhi, blocking highways.  

However, the Indian government seems determined not to give in. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has made repeated claims that the farmers are being controlled by the opposition and that they are violent.

In this vein, a tidal wave of false information about the protests has swept across social media. Indian fact-checking site BoomLive.in recently compiled a list of more than 63 fake news stories about the protests that have been circulating online. 

Old videos used as “proof” that the protesters are violent or destructive

Some of the most widely circulated fake news items claim that the farmers have destroyed foodstuffs or damaged public property. 

This video was posted on Facebook and Twitter on January 18. The caption claims that the man in the video is putting water on bags of wheat, apparently to make them “rot” (or, more accurately, ferment) so that the wheat could be sold to “breweries and distilleries”. Internet users claim that this video was filmed in the state of Punjab. It’s true that many protesters are farmers from this region. The majority are Sikh. 

Indian fact-checking website BoomLive.in reported that the video is actually from 2018 and was filmed in Haryana state in northern India. The man in the video, who lives in Fatehabad, was caught putting water on his wheat, not to destroy it but to increase the weight of each bag and, thus, his profit.

In late December, someone posted a video of a burning telephone pole on Twitter, claiming that it was the handiwork of protesting farmers. 

It turns out, however, that the video is actually from 2017. Several media outlets at the time reported that the pole caught fire by accident.

While this video was not filmed during recent protests, it is true that people protesting the Farm Bills did destroy around 1,500 telephone poles, many in Punjab. 

Fake news infused with nationalist sentiment 

There have also been widespread claims that the farmers are actually rising up against the Hindu population. As proof, some social media users have been circulating a photo that supposedly shows farmers destroying the Hindi writing on signposts.  

#रिलायंस जियो के टॉवर तोड़ने के बाद अब अगला काम #हिंदी_नही_चलेगी... क्या ये #किसान है ? ये समाधान नहीं #व्यवधान चाहते...

Publiée par अभिनव भारत sur Samedi 9 janvier 2021

Once again, this image was taken out of context. We ran this image through a reverse image search and found the same photo in articles from 2017. A Sikh extremist group covered up words in Hindi and English on street signs and demanded that they be replaced with words in their native Pendjabi, reported Boomlive.in

“60% of fake news items discredit the movement, while about 40% glorify it”

 

Archis Chowdhury
Journalist at BoomLive.in
Calcutta, India

 

Archis Chowdhury is a journalist at BoomLive.in, where he analyses some of the most egregious examples of fake news circulating online.  For example, he examined claims that Indian Muslims were responsible for bringing Covid-19 to India, a fake news campaign dubbed #CoronaJihad. He is now focusing his attention on the farmers' movement. 

When the farmers started to protest, no one could have imagined that it would go on so long. We are currently witnessing one of the longest and most intense protest movements of the past few decades. And, of course, that attracts media attention and, with that, disinformation.  

Overall, about 60% of the fake news about the farmer’s protests is meant to discredit the movement. But I’d say that about 40% of the fake news is actually glorifying the movement [Editor’s note: like a widely circulated video showing a procession of decorated tractors  that was actually filmed in Germany].

“The major theme in the fake news is that Muslims have infiltrated and hijacked the movement”

Of course, as is often the case, people will take any opportunity to denigrate Muslims. The  major theme in most of the fake news is that Muslims have infiltrated and hijacked the movement. 

This latent xenophobia and Islamophobia, which is stoked by politicians and some media outlets, has, unsurprisingly, reared its head during these protests. 

For example, lots of people have been sharing a photo online showing a group of women wearing burkas under the caption “false farmers”. The photo was posted along with the caption #FarmersProtestHijacked, implying that Muslim political parties had infiltrated the movement. 

 

ये वहीं हैं...जो कागज नहीं दिखाएंगे #Khalistan #khalistani #FarmersProtestHijacked #Ghazipur #border #FarmersProtest #किसान_आंदोलन #Tikait

Publiée par Kajal Kumari sur Vendredi 15 janvier 2021

However, as BoomLive reported, the real story is different. The women in the photo are not farmers themselves. However, this group paid a visit to the Punjab offices of Bharatiya Kisan Union—an apolitical organisation that defends farmers in India— to offer their support on January 14, 2021. 

Archis Chowdhury continues:

However, we are also seeing new forms of false information circulating online. Hindu nationalists have been taking advantage of the fact that many of the farmers taking part in this movement are Sikhs from Pendjab and Haryana. Some Hindu nationalists have accused the farmers of flying the Khalistan flag— which represents a separatist movement that calls for the creation of a Sikh nation— instead of the Indian flag [Editor’s note: on January 26].

But the protesters didn’t remove the Indian flag. And it wasn’t the Khalistan flag they were flying. Some protesters had the Nishan Sahib flag [Editor’s note: a Sikh religious flag], while others had the Kisan Mazdoor Ekta flag [Editor’s note: which represents farmer unity]. Neither of these flags are associated with separatist movements. 

I have to add that it is difficult to make a case that Sikhs are not good citizens. Traditionally, they make up a large part of the Indian army.