A loudspeaker blared at Dharna chowk of Hyderabad, as leaders and representatives of several farmer associations and cooperatives had gathered to register their protest against three farm laws on Wednesday. There were a little over 50 people at the protest venue, listening in, holding placards, seated under a tent. The Hyderabad police overseeing the bandobast were glued to their phones and looked bored. There was moderate traffic on the road with passersby barely throwing a glance at the protesters.
In Telangana, the protest against the three agricultural Acts passed by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government began on December 14, but farmers say their movement has not yet drawn public support, namely from the urban middle class, the consumers.
âAt the state level, in terms of the normal middle class in urban areas, there is not much awareness about the three new agricultural laws and its impact on farmers and everyone else in the country,â says Mangamma, who heads a cooperative society for about 5,000 women farmers at Yadadri Bhongir district. âThere is a misinformation campaign that is happening in urban areas through social media; itâs relatively less in rural areas, even lesser in areas where farmer cooperatives are active,â observed the farmer.
The farmer associations in Telangana say they are aware of a coordinated effort to misinform the urban crowd about the three Union farm Acts. Social media has been flooded with forwards and propaganda material, an attempt to push the Union government narrative that the Acts are pro-farmer.
'A social media misinformation campaign'
Hours before the farmer-led nationwide Bharat Bandh on December 8, several propaganda materials supportive of the Union governmentâs stand flooded social media. TNM had received and is in possession of one such document released by officials of the Union government associated with the Ministry of Home Affairs. The document contained texts and pictures aimed at gaining support for three agricultural bills and was asked to be shared over social media, namely, Twitter and WhatsApp.
When the Acts were passed, Telangana farmers translated the Acts to Telugu, printed them on pamphlets with the aim of creating awareness. âThe woman farmers in my cooperative society are small and marginal farmers, they are well aware of the issues surrounding the Acts. We took systematic efforts to spread awareness and its because of those efforts that am protesting here today,â says Mangamma, who adds that there is local support for farmers outside urban areas, cutting across class and caste.
Over the course of the day, the protestors burnt copies of the three Acts and released two posters and a document titled, âPropaganda vs Truth,â an attempt to counter misinformation on social media. The aim is to circulate the content over social media, however, the farmer associations are well aware of their limitations in reach and scale.
For comparison, the file in possession with TNM, containing content supportive of the Union farm laws for propaganda use, was just one of 90 such documents, and the content was also generated in Telugu. They were sent to select persons who are reportedly sympathetic to the BJP, said a Union government official who didnât wish for their department to be identified.
Politics muddy the water?
Naveen Ramishetti, a member of All India Kisan Sangarsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), says earlier it did not matter to people that he worked with farmers. âBut things are different now. There is a change in public perception of farmers, a viewpoint being pushed that farmers are pampered with subsidies, free electricity, etc. Taking a pro-farmer stand now means you are pro-left or pro-Congress and anti-BJP. Itâs being portrayed as everyone else vs the BJP. The real issues faced by the farmers are getting drowned in politics,â he said.
Seated at the dais among the speakers, was a leader from the Telangana Congress, who after a speech to the protestors, addressed the media and left. âWe had not invited him, he just came and sat there. This is a farmer protest and not a political movement,â said one of the protest organisers. âWe are happy about the TRS government voicing support for the farmer protests, though it is only lip service. We also thankful that the Left groups did not bring their communist flags today to the protest.â the organiser added.
In the ongoing protest by farmers at Delhi, the farmers had pulled up several media houses for their news coverage showing farmers in poor light. Members of AIKSCC allege there is scant interest from the English media houses on the indefinite protests.
âWe hope that the media understands why we farmers are protesting and stand with us,â said Mangamma. âThis is peak harvesting season and we have left all that to protest against these Acts. It is a moral decision that media has to make and trust farmers,â said the farmer, while adding that if the Union government was really interested in doubling farmer income, then it should make arrangements for better procurement and expand commodities under the MSP basket to include millets and pulses.
âThe urban consumer must stand upâ
Usha Seethalakshmi, a researcher with Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch (MAKKAM), a forum for women farmers, said, âThe urban crowd must come out and interact with farmers, than just consuming, reproducing and reinforcing social media content thatâs being pushed to them. This is a civilisational crisis, people need to be made aware of the amendments made to the Essential Commodities Act and how adversely it impacts them. Those at the bottom, dependant on Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme and Public Distribution System (PDS) system will be far more adversely affected,â said the researcher, adding that the urban consumers should extend support to farmers by not buying farm produce from big supermarket chains and instead support local vendors.