'Khalistani,' 'Insulting Tricolor': Old misinformation narratives dog Indian farmers’ protest

'Khalistani,' 'Insulting Tricolor': Old misinformation narratives dog Indian farmers’ protest

By: annet preethi furtado&
February 27 2024

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'Khalistani,' 'Insulting Tricolor': Old misinformation narratives dog Indian farmers’ protest

Farmers fleeing from tear gas at the Shambhu border between Punjab and Haryana states, in India, on February 21, 2024, as they march towards New Delhi. (Source: Rohit Lohia/NurPhoto/Reuters)

Two years after their successful opposition to the Centre's controversial farm laws, Indian farmers are protesting for the fulfillment of their demands, which include farm loan waivers and a minimum support price (MSP) guarantee for their produce. However, their march towards Delhi is shrouded in misinformation, mirroring the challenges they faced during the 2020-21 protests.

The 2020 protests led the Centre to repeal the contentious laws in September 2021, concluding the year-long strike. However, the government's failure to fulfill certain promises prompted the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (non-political) and the Kisan Mazdoor Morcha, a coalition of farmers' unions, to initiate the 'Delhi Chalo' rally on February 13, 2024.

The misinformation narratives debunked during the earlier protest have sprung back up on social media, attempting to cast a shadow of doubt on the ongoing protests. 

Narratives discrediting protests, targeting farmers

The dominant narrative at the ongoing protests attempts to label the protesting farmers, primarily from Punjab, as 'Khalistanis' — supporters of a separatist movement aiming to establish a sovereign state for Sikhs. Logically Facts has debunked several such claims, including those that went viral in 2021. Another video viral as evidence of this 'Khalistan' angle had been fact-checked by several outlets in 2022.

Screenshots of the viral posts. (Source: X/Facebook/Modified by Logically Facts)

During the 2020-21 protests, a similar narrative was pushed, accusing the protesters of being 'Khalistan' sympathizers. A notably widespread claim, later proved to be false, suggested that the farmers had replaced the national flag atop the Red Fort with a 'Khalistan' flag. Various fact-checking organizations had debunked numerous visuals from old, unrelated pro-Khalistan protests that had been shared in the context of the farmers' agitation. 

Screenshots of the viral posts.(Source: X/Screenshot/Modified by Logically Facts)

A linked narrative gaining traction now is of agitating farmers disrespecting the national flag, seen as evidence of their support for the Khalistan movement. Logically Facts recently debunked one such viral video, allegedly showing a farmer desecrating the Tricolor.

Similarly, several claims alleging to show farmers insulting the Tricolor had gone viral in 2020-21 and were fact-checked by several organizations. At least one of these visuals has also been revived now.

Taking note of such narratives targeting the protest, Sarwan Singh Pandher, General Secretary of the Punjab Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee, recently denounced the portrayal of farmers as 'Khalistanis.' He emphasized that the focus remained on the farmers' demands and stressed the lack of political affiliations behind the movement. 

(Source: YouTube)

Logically Facts contacted fact-checkers who covered the 2020-21 protests and asked them about the kind of misinformation that is being shared now. 

One of them, Balkrishna, who is the Executive Editor at India Today Fact Check, said, "We are mostly seeing misinformation involving unrelated or old videos depicting clashes between Sikhs and others, incidents of haggling over money, or protests that occurred outside the country, such as in Canada."

"We are also seeing a lot of videos or photos that were actually from the previous farmers' protest, not from the current one. Also, some people are attempting to claim that they are not genuine farmers but impostors. There are also claims suggesting that they are radical Muslims posing as Sikh farmers. We've also come across instances where it is portrayed that the farmers are well-prepared for war. For example, we saw a modified tractor from Turkey being misrepresented as the type of preparation the farmers have made. Most of these attempts aim to portray these farmers in a bad light," he added.

As Balkrishna pointed out, social media users and several media personalities have asserted that those participating in the protests are 'affluent individuals flaunting luxury cars.' Logically Facts has debunked several such viral claims that used unrelated or even AI-generated images to undermine the farmers' credibility by raising questions about their finances.

This narrative mimics the one seen during the 2020-21 protests when an image of Sikh men seated on a jeep with a Mercedes Benz logo was used to question the motives of the protesting farmers. Despite fact-checking organizations debunking the visual, it is now being shared again with the same claim.

Screenshots of the viral posts.(Source: X/Screenshot/Modified by Logically Facts)

Unrelated visuals linked to farmers' protest

In addition to the above claims, there were instances when visuals from unrelated, non-Indian events were linked to the protests. As Balkrishna noted, in November 2021, The Quint's WebQoof analyzed misinformation seen during the 2020-21 protests and found that the second-most common kind of misinformation used unrelated photos or videos to support or oppose the protest.

At the time, for example, a 2019 photo of a laborers' rally in West Bengal was falsely connected to the farmers' protest; an unrelated image was shared as a police action against protesting farmers; and an old photo from a Congress rally had been shared as visuals of the protest.

Screenshots of the viral posts.(Source:X/Facebook/Screenshot/Modified by Logically Facts)

This trend also continues amid the ongoing agitation, with Logically Facts debunking several such visuals from unrelated events shared in support or opposition to the protest.

Screenshots of the viral posts.(Source: X/Screenshot/Modified by Logically Facts)

Communal hatred has also infiltrated the misinformation associated with the 2024 protests. During these protests, an unrelated video was shared with the false claim that Muslim men were disguising themselves as Sikh farmers to infiltrate the demonstrations. Similarly, in the 2020-21 protests, an old photograph of a Sikh man praying in a mosque was linked to the farmers' protests.

Balkrishna noted similarities in the narratives seen across the two protests as their nature is also quite similar. "Claims suggesting that some of these people are not genuine farmers but impostors, such as Muslims posing as Sikh farmers, are being circulated once again. Those spreading these claims are provoking violence," he said. 

"We observed similar occurrences during the previous protests. Some videos we've seen are not fake; they are from previous protests and are being recycled to falsely show ongoing events. Any clash or violence involving predominantly Sikhs is being recycled to suggest that it's happening again," he added.

Who is behind the misinformation?

During the previous protest, political figures and parties, including notable individuals such as Amit Malviya and Sambit Patra from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), representatives from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), and Congress leader Randeep Surjewala, were seen to be spreading false or manipulated content to further their agendas.

Logically Facts found that in the context of the 2024 protests, the BJP-linked user 'Priti Gandhi,' who has been often called out for spreading misinformation, shared the narrative on X  (formerly Twitter) about farmers being affluent individuals, while another pro-BJP user 'Minni Razdan' shared an old video of a tractor sale in an attempt to discredit the protest.

Meanwhile, right-wing account 'Vivek Pandey' shared footage of an effigy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi tied to a tractor from an unrelated incident that took place in the U.S.

Screenshots of the viral posts. (Source: X/Screenshot/Modified by Logically Facts)

Similarly, a verified X user named 'Izlamic Terrorist' — an account with over 36,300 followers that regularly posts Islamophobic content — falsely alleged that "Khalistani terrorists" crushed a police officer with a tractor. The same claim was widely shared by pro-BJP accounts like 'The Jaipur Dialogues,' 'SanatanWays,' and 'Kanimozhi,' which routinely condemn the protests using false narratives and propaganda. The 'Izlamic Terrorist' account and the right-wing account' Amitabh Chaudhary' have also shared another unrelated video as footage of farmers attacking police with swords.

Meanwhile, Logically Facts noted instances of a couple of Congress-linked accounts and one user linked to the Students' Federation of India (SFI) spreading misinformation about the protests.

Misinformation battles with information gaps

In this climate of heightened misinformation, platforms like X (formerly Twitter) find themselves at the intersection of free speech and regulatory compliance. Amid the flood of falsehoods surrounding the protests, X announced it was withholding certain accounts and posts in India, following orders from the Indian government. As reported by the Global Government Affairs account of the X platform, this move was in response to executive orders with stringent penalties for non-compliance, including imprisonment.

(Source: X)

The repercussions of government actions are evident in the experiences of journalists such as Mandeep Punia and Sandeep Singh and the independent news website Gaon Savera, whose accounts have been restricted in India. These limitations on reporting directly from the scene in Punjab during such a critical period exacerbate the challenges of combating misinformation.

But what is the necessary response as the protests evolve amid a deluge of misinformation?

Balkrishna says that in addition to fact-checking, providing context is crucial. "We must put things in context, as that is the best approach. The farmers' protest and the demands being made are not a black-and-white thing. Many people protesting or expressing opposition to the farmers' cause may not fully understand the demands. Similarly, some people incorrectly believe that the government is not taking any action despite efforts being made. Whether these efforts are sufficient is subjective, but it's important to note that the government has proposed solutions, although the farmers may not have accepted them, seeking more. This underscores the need for context, as it's not a matter of simply labeling one side as wrong."

He added, "Some people question why farmers from other parts of the country are not participating in the protests, considering that primarily farmers from Punjab and Haryana, and to some extent Uttar Pradesh, stand to benefit from the proposed changes. This is where contextualizing the situation becomes essential."

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We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before