Centre for Internet & Society

Strap: Administration says it was done to prevent rumours from spreading, protesters insist they needed internet to fight it.

In Sikar district, about 15,000 farmers had staged a protest at Krishi Upaj Mandi on 1 September 2017 under the banner of All India Kisan Sabha. Their major demands were farm loan waiver, pension for farmers and implementation of the recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission. The protest had the support of students, traders' associations, anganwadi workers, transport unions and a few other organisations. About 100,000 people joined farmers in a solidarity march during the next 13 days.

The demonstrations continued and when talks with the government failed, thousands of farmers set out to lay siege to the district collector's office and block highways on September 11.

Accordingly, the district administration clamped prohibitory orders under Section 144 of Criminal Procedure Code, restricting assembly of five or more people, and blocked mobile internet in the district.

Rajasthan Farmers Protest

Rajasthan Farmers Protest

Kishan Pareek, district secretary of Communist Party of India (Marxist) which took part in the protest, contended that though the government says the ban was enforced to check the spread of violence, the actual motive was something else. He says the administration was vying to stifle their movement but couldn’t use force as the protesters were peaceful.

"So, they resorted to spreading rumours to provoke us to commit any violent activity. If internet was working that time, we could have easily denied those [rumours],” he says.

According to Pareek, the rumours that circulated that day included: the protest has turned violent at some location, police have fired bullets/charged baton at the protesters, additional force has been called in from Jaipur etc. As broadband was operational, the organisers managed to counter falsehood with facts and the misinformation didn't spread outside Sikar. Pareek says whichever protest-spot the rumours portrayed as violence-ridden, their social media team shared videos from there on Facebook to counter them.

Pictures above: Thousands of farmers held a protest at Krishi Upaj Mandi, Sikar in September 2017.

Nevertheless, in the absence of mobile internet, farmers’ teams that had gathered at various highways to block roads had difficulty processing the false information that was trickling in. Though it created much confusion among them, it failed to instigate them.

Rajpal Singh, a Sikar-based member of CPI(M)'s social media wing, informed that the mainstream media didn't give much attention to the protest. He says it were local websites and newspapers that covered the event, which is why the administration banned internet, hoping restriction on the flow of information would throw a spanner in the works. Apart from local news websites, local Facebook pages -- Sikar Aapno, Sikar Sandesh, We love CPIM- Dhod and CPIM Sikar, etc. -- were giving minute-by-minute updates of the farmers' protest.

The internet services were resumed in Sikar a day later as the protest did not get violent and the protesters were not found circulating any provocative content.

A former CPI(M) MLA, president of All India Kisan Sabha and leader of the farmers' agitation, Amara Ram, told 101Reporters that one of the very reasons their movement enjoyed humongous public support was its peaceful nature. He says as their movement unfolded, people from Sikar and outside realised this protest would not turn violent and it’s a cause that needed support.

As cautious as the government might have been about the September 11 protest, police presence indicated that the law-enforcement agency did not perceive it as a threat. One of the protesters, Nemichand, says only 50-odd policemen had been deputed for the protest march of 15,000+ farmers to the district collectorate. He claimed that the number of men in khaki dwindled to 20 by the afternoon.

He alleged that the real reason for internet shutdown was stopping the dissemination of news about their protest as it exposes the Modi government's inconsiderate approach towards farmers.

“Everybody in Sikar was talking about the internet ban. Since there was no legitimate reason for the ban, the government couldn’t continue with it, fearing how they will justify,” he says.

Rajasthan Farmers Protest

The administration confirmed that the ban was imposed fearing threat to law and order in the district due to the gathering of thousands. “Though they were protesting peacefully the initial ten days at the mahapadav, they had planned to block the district collectorate on September 11 in thousands. To restrict their movement, internet was suspended in Sikar. During such situations, no one writes positive about the administration. We didn’t want to provide them a platform for spreading rumours that could have made the protestors violent. If there had been no internet ban that day, something big would have happened,” Jai Prakash Narayan, additional district collector and additional district magistrate, told 101reporters.

“Broadband was made working during the internet ban so that the private and government offices were not affected. While giving order for internet ban, it is made sure that normal call and broadband facilities are not debarred. General masses are affected but internet shutdown is the only option we have,” he added. “While their blockade continued for three days, we restricted internet services only for first 24 hours as the protest had gained stability till then.”

Even three months after the high-powered ministerial committee was formed to look into the farmers’ demand, nothing has been done. Now, they plan to stage a protest in February 2018 when the state assembly will be in function.

Former CPI(M) MLA Pema Ram says, “Preparation for February protest has already begun. Kisan Sansads are being organised in Sikar, where active farmers from each village participate to raise demands regarding implementation of the recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission report, a solution to the menace of stray cattle, complete farm loan waiver and pension for farmers. They then discuss it with other farmers in their villages.”


Pictures above:  Apart from local news websites, local Facebook pages - Sikar Aapno, Sikar Sandesh, We love CPIM- Dhod and CPIM Sikar, etc. - were giving minute-by-minute updates of the farmers' protest. Pictures courtesy: Shruti Jain

(Shruti Jain is a Jaipur-based journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

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