In a standoff between farmers and the government that has convulsed the country, the farmers have a 21st-century ally: a handful of supporters scattered around the world running a Twitter handle.
The farmers have paralysed some traffic in and out of New Delhi, protesting recent agriculture laws that they fear could eventually eliminate government-guaranteed minimum prices for their crops.
But the demonstrators, many of them from the Sikh religious minority, say they are also battling a social media campaign by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The BJP brands some of the protesters as separatists from the giant multi-ethnic nation, a charge the demonstrators call disinformation.
Bhavjit Singh became energised for the battle in November from his bedroom in Ludhiana in the agricultural heartland state of Punjab, where he watched with dismay the online attacks on the farmers.
With a few friends, the information technology professional launched the @Tractor2twitr Twitter account in late November. The following month he journeyed to the focal protest site on a main highway connecting Haryana state and Delhi, the territory that includes the capital.
Thousands there have jammed the road for kilometres with tractors, trailers and tents, sleeping in makeshift hovels and cooking in ramshackle kitchens.
Singh, 38, joined the protesters with two smartphones.
“We will intensify our campaign because we are getting organised and getting more support now,” Singh told Reuters, speaking near the noisy protest site where open kitchens dished out midmorning snacks. “Our war of perception, the war of messaging is going in the right direction.”
The account, with more than 23,000 followers, promotes its message by pushing one hashtag a day. One day recently, #FarmersDyingModiEnjoying, pushed by @Tractor2twitr, was among the top hashtags on Indian Twitter – battling #ModiWithFarmers.
Thirteen thousand kilometres (8,000 miles) away in Houston, Texas, Baljinder Singh is part of the core group that helps run the account.
The BJP “were targeting us, so we felt we had to answer them back,” the owner of a couple of 7-Eleven stores in the United States told Reuters. “We are all the sons and daughters of farmers.”
Baljinder and Bhavjit Singh, who share a common Sikh family name, are not related.
@Tractor2twitr has been joined in recent weeks by a union group called the Farmers Unity Front (Kisan Ekta Morcha), setting up accounts on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp and Snapchat, staffed by 50 volunteers, that have surged to hundreds of thousands of followers.
The farmers demand Modi repeal the three farm laws, enacted in September, which they say could make them vulnerable to retail giants like Walmart Inc and Reliance Industries.
The government says the laws, which let growers bypass government-regulated wholesale markets and sell directly to buyers, are a reform that gives farmers more options. It has sought to assure the farmers that the guaranteed-pricing system will not be dismantled.
As the farmers were trooping toward Delhi late in 2020, a wave of misinformation began spreading online, said Rajneil Kamath, publisher of fact-checking website Newschecker. Old, unrelated images and videos – including some from demonstrations outside India calling for an independent Sikh homeland – were passed off as representing the farmers, Kamath said.
In December, Twitter flagged a tweet by the head of the BJP’s vast social media team, Amit Malviya, as “manipulated media,” saying a video he posted showing an elderly protestor narrowly avoiding a police beating had been misleadingly edited.
BJP spokesman Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga says the party has been legitimately highlighting that people other than farmers, including Sikh separatists, had potentially infiltrated the protests. “We believe some people are trying to hijack the movement,” Bagga said.
At the protest site, Ammy Gill, a 25-year-old lyricist from Punjab, divides his time helping out at community kitchens and chronicling the protests on social media. “The objective of our social media messages is to counter the trolls and the campaign against farmers,” Gill said.
“We are not here for a picnic.”