By Keya Shirali
At the time I began synthesizing my research for writing up this article about some of the media attention and government retaliation the Indian farmers’ protest movement has garnered, it was still mid-December 2020. Now in the midst of February 2021, there has been an influx of rapidly developing information and updates. From international public figures like Rihanna and Meena Harris tweeting in support of the movement to several Indian celebrities rushing to defend their government’s inexcusable actions in the false guise of patriotism – many have fuelled what is now being dubbed a proverbial “Twitter war”. The following article further addresses the extent of the Indian government’s censorship and penalization of its citizens that use their voices to speak out against the ongoing injustices. That being said, one such voice is that of Disha Ravi, the 22-year-old climate activist who was arrested recently for merely “sharing a document intended to help farmers protest against new agriculture reform laws”. This document is the same protest toolkit that led the Delhi Police to file an FIR against its creators when Greta Thunberg tweeted about it earlier this month and arguably amplified the discourse about this topic in Western mass media.
In the month of December 2020, when a swarm of protesters gathered outside the Vancouver offices of Facebook, it was not to dispute the typical policy or privacy-related controversies that the company has often faced lawsuits for. This specific protest was motivated by an act of censorship, a recurrent theme surrounding Facebook’s censorial practices, and a topic oft-debated amongst citizens and government officials alike. The cause that the protesters were fighting for in this instance was to bring the corporation to hold accountability for censoring posts that show support for, demand change, and bring light to the ongoing farmers’ protests in India that have begun to expand globally in their influence.
This movement is also a real-time study of the shape that alternative media and social activism take in the current era, and how some of the protest strategies used by this cause resonate strongly with past and other ongoing social and political movements. Balpreet Singh, who is legal counsel for the World Sikh Organization stated that “individuals using hashtags such as #ISupportFarmers or #Sikh have been finding that their posts have been either removed from those platforms or censored [and that] this isn’t the first time that the hashtag #Sikh has been clocked on Instagram and Facebook”.
Governmental counterattacks have been executed with verbal charges, with ministers labeling said farmers as “leftist” and “Maoist elements”, as well as “goons” and “anti-nationals”. However, slandering the farmers is not the only tactic used by politicians; there is also a great deal of physical assault and police brutality hurled upon protesters under several circumstances. As evidenced in countless images at the protest sites, while in one instance, armed services have “fired tear gas shells and used water cannons”; another image published by the BBC depicts a paramilitary policeman swinging his baton at an elderly Sikh man who appears to be unarmed.
Consequently, Facebook’s censorial actions create another avenue that allows the Indian government to further oppress the voices of its citizens. In relation to the Tahrir Square protests in Cairo, Egypt, an article featured in Wired mentions that even in states where governments are unable to employ physically violent strategies, in the digitized world they have adapted and have “learned to control the networked public sphere through a set of policies more suited to the new era”. When a militarized response incites further concerns regarding safety and possibly implicates a government in serious human rights breaches, that government then finds other means of limiting the channels through which the public can voice their agitation. When combined, Facebook’s disputed censorship policies and the force of the Indian government work against its famer communities and citizen protesters. Hence, this is a demonstration of how state and corporate actors in this instance are antagonistic forces attempting to subvert the movement’s narrative, by defaming, downplaying, or destroying its objectives.
To the movement’s benefit, the expression of this cause is not limited to social media, and it extends itself to the concrete world using in-person, bodily protesting styles as well. In discussing the limitations of technology during protests, Malcolm Gladwell engages with issues surrounding racial injustice in the United States in the 20th century, mentioning that the “Montgomery bus boycott required the participation of tens of thousands of people who depended on public transit to get to and from work each day”. This is prevalent throughout the farmers’ protestations, for Foreign Policy’s recent reporting on the subject conjures up a similar visual, with the article stating that since “late November, tens of thousands of Indian farmers have marched to New Delhi and blocked the highways leading into the city” as a means to speaking out against the passing of the bills in Parliament, all of which drastically affect their livelihoods.
In the same article, Gladwell critiques social media activism, particularly in relation to Facebook, by stating that an online post “succeeds not by motivating people make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice”. Gladwell does proceed to explain that the value of weaker ties in social media activism is beneficial in obtaining and dispersing information to and from larger contexts, in that engaging with platforms that mass communicate resources and messages regarding social issues could be deemed more productive as opposed to a closer network where personal acquaintances might be potentially uninformed about the issue at hand.
As for Gladwell’s point regarding sacrifice, it is said that at least “five farmer died in accidents on their way to join the protests”, with an additional 25 dying due to the harsh cold, one by suicide, as well as “at least 10 people [who] died in separate road accidents as their travelled from Punjab and Delhi states to participate in the protests”. Despite the efforts of corporations and governments to censor the voices of the public over the Internet, the cause has managed to garner the attention that it has because of the visceral sacrifices of the farmers, most of which are leading to not just the loss of their livelihoods, but also their lives eventually.
The reason why the bodily presence of the farmers at protest sites ultimately trumps the level of impact caused potentially caused by social media outreach is that resistance that is created via the occupation of public spaces has profound effects on its delivery. The Habib Borguiba street (Tunis), Central Hong Kong, and Tahrir Squares (Egypt) marches bear testament to the collective power created by the people’s unity, which allows people to forge themselves into the political sphere and in the public eye.
Of course, social media arms the public with the ability to occupy the online public space, however, “[b]odies and their visibility to public are central in the struggles for power [and by] occupying public spaces with visible bodies, social movement presents itself vis-à-vis the power it seeks to challenge, symbolically and corporeally”. Therefore, the Indian farmers’ protest movement is not simply an entity that exists somewhere in the cloud of digital systems; it is a visceral experience that will be marked by the physical displacement, fatal deaths, and economic strifes faced by the agricultural community as a result of the government’s oversight. Hence, alongside the current wave of social media activism and public awareness initiatives, the message of the cause was delivered through a poignant use of bodily spaces that helped the movement garner public visibility.
In terms of media initiatives, the farmers’ movement is retaliating against skewed and false mainstream media representations through their own digital efforts as well. Reporters and media outlets have painted them with propagandistic depictions, and an individual named Vimal Kumar Sharma expresses that idea in a statement that the “use of words and phrasing likening protesters to terrorists is, simply put, a way of diminishing [the farmers’] protest. It’s a way of bringing [their] fight down”.
However, the farmers are resilient to the slander and have consequently initiated media campaigns that will aid them in owning their narrative. “Tractor to Twitter” is one such farmers’ initiative with severe guidelines so as to avoid publishing online content that might garner controversies. Additionally, a recently created farmers’ collective social media cell introduced a web conference to discuss the three farm bills and the protest against them, and declared that it would be hosted on the web-conferencing platform Zoom and would “be open for the first “10,000 people” registering on the link [and those] who cannot make it to the first 10,000 can watch the webinar on social media platforms”, making the updates widely accessibly and opening a channel for collective engagement.
Despite efforts to create disengagement from both corporate and state actors, as well as propagandized mainstream media portrayals, the farmers and other protesters in support of the cause continue to voice their struggles via claiming visible spaces with bodies through in-person protesting. However, they have also adapted to the digital sphere by adopting numerous media channels such as social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, as well as web conference through Zoom to claim control over their own narrative. All of these factors have aided the movement to become what may possibly be the “largest protest in human history” so far.
Keya Shirali (@KeyaShirali )is a fourth-year student pursuing a Combined Honours Bachelor’s degree, double majoring in Communication & Media Studies and Film Studies at Carleton University. She is currently the Chief Executive Officer of the Carleton Film Society, publishes regularly on her Medium blog garnering thousands of monthly views, and has bylines in multiple publications such as Carleton’s official newspaper The Charlatan, Her Campus Carleton, Literary Heist, Obscur Magazine, The Times of India Official and Readers’ Blog, and Carleton Awards and Financial Aid Office’s CU Money Blog. She aspires to forge a career path in film production, especially in screenwriting.