The farmers’ protests in India have been a movement of strong dissent against the three farm laws. In the timeline of peaceful protests, events took a violent turn during the Farmers’ Republic Day tractor march. Thus, the government imposed internet shutdowns for the first time on the 26th of January.
The Wire reported that the internet shutdowns extended on January 29th when a group of right-wing activists attacked the sites at the Singhu border. Another ban was imposed on Feb 6th when the farmers organised nation-wide “chakka-jam”(blocking of the road to create a traffic jam) for three hours on the national highway. Their demands were the same i.e. repealing of the three farm laws. The agenda also included the releasing of the arrested farmers, curbing the continuous internet shutdowns, and blocking of agitation spots with barricades. However, the internet was restored at midnight that day.
These internet blackouts made it tough for the protestors to access and spread information. They also were unable to stay in contact with their family members in Punjab, Haryana, and western Uttar Pradesh. This pushed them to come up with several alternatives to try and keep the information flowing.
Gurjant Singh (36), a resident of Bari village in Mohali, had returned to the Singhu protest site on Sunday after spending three days in his village. He shared that his family was relieved after he connected back with them through WhatsApp.
He added “Following the Republic Day violence, it became difficult to stay in touch with my family, who want to know what is happening here. There are so many rumours floating around but we can’t counter them because we don’t even have Internet access. We tried to get a WiFi connection, but internet service providers told us that the authorities were not allowing new connections at Singhu.”
How did the farmers tackle internet shutdowns?
With the mobile internet down, the primary source of credible information was around 5,000 copies of regional newspapers. These were arranged by the organisers. The press conferences by farmer groups were pre-recorded and then aired live on social media platforms. These were uploaded using WiFi hot spots set up by some farmer groups a month ago. It was also seen that several protestors had to travel for a few kilometres to gain access to the internet.
“Some of us have motorcycles, so we travelled to an area where we could get network and access news on the protests. There are a few areas at the protest spot where we could access WiFi that locals residents had opened up for us to use”, said Sukhwinder Singh. He is a 28-year-old farmer from the Roopnagar district in Punjab.
“After collecting the information, we passed the messages on verbally during our evening dialogue sessions, when farmers from various trolleys would gather at our centre,” he added.
Hindustan Times reported that various volunteers are visiting various districts of Punjab. They collected inputs from the villages and educated them verified information related to the protests. These included places like Bhatinda, Patiala, Roopnagar, and Anantpur Sahib.
One of the editors of Trolley Times, a bi-weekly newspaper started by activists to share information on farmers’ protests remarked that mobile internet bans hampered with their work as well.
“Since most of the volunteers stay at the protest sites, it was difficult to coordinate, and our edition was delayed because of the Internet shutdowns. In the absence of other platforms, we too used open-jeeps to circulate information among protesters to counter panic as well”, said Navkiran Natt.
While the situation remained peaceful at the three borders on Sunday, heavy security deployment continued at the agitation spots. “We are continuing our protest peacefully. No untoward incident was witnessed here today. Our fight against the three black farm laws will continue as more people from Punjab and Haryana are expected to join us from tomorrow (Monday),” said Darshan Singh, a farmer leader from Punjab who has been camped at Tikri border.
Several protestors joined farmer leaders Rakesh Tikait, Darshan Pal and Balbir Singh Rajewal for a mahapanchayat in Charkhi Dadri. Thus, this caused a reduction of the crowd in Ghazipur, in comparison to the other days.
This mahapanchayat hence proved to be a landmark moment. Thousand of protestors gathered here and made strong resolutions. The included the repealing of the three farm laws, a legal guarantee for MSP.
Commenting on the Republic Day violence, Rakesh Tikait said “Our young people were misguided and taken to the Red Fort by government agencies.” Thus, the protestors at mahapanchayat also had aims of releasing all the farmers arrested for the violence on 26th January along with the release of their seized vehicles.
The MLA from Charkhi Dadri and Sangwan khap pradhan, Sombir Sangwan, on Saturday had remarked that the ‘mahapanchayat’ would be a ‘turning point’ in the agitation of the farmers against the farm laws. Thus, this proves that the farmers are headstrong about their demands.