No net, no problem: How farmers at Delhi borders worked their way around internet shutdowns
New Delhi: A day after farmers organised a nationwide “chakka jam” for three hours on national highways demanding the repeal of the three new farm laws and protesting the arrests of farmers, frequent internet shutdowns and barricading at the agitation spots, farmers at Singhu, Tikri, and Ghazipur said network connectivity had improved on Sunday. However, the Internet blackouts made it difficult for protesters to access and disseminate information, and stay in touch with their families across Punjab, Haryana, and western Uttar Pradesh, forcing agitators to devise workarounds to ensure information flowed unrestricted.
Internet services at Delhi’s borders were suspended following the violence that ensued during the tractor parade on January 26. Following this, internet connectivity at agitation spots remained poor. Another set of orders were passed to snap the services between 11pm on January 29 (when a group of persons claiming to be locals had entered the protest area and clashed with locals) till February 2. Another ban was imposed on February 6, when farmers undertook their chakka jam, but Internet services were restored at midnight that day.
Gurjant Singh (36), a resident of Bari village in Mohali, who returned to the Singhu protest site on Sunday after spending three days in his village said his family was relieved after he shared messages on WhatsApp with them.
“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,” he said.
In the absence of mobile internet, the only source of current information was around 5,000 copies of regional newspapers, which were paid for by the organisers. Even the press conferences by farmer groups that were broadcast live on social media platforms, had to be first recorded and then uploaded later using WiFi hot spots set up by some farmer groups nearly a month ago. Several volunteers at the protest site travelled a few kilometres away from the protest spot to get connectivity and access news of the day using social media.
Sukhwinder Singh, 28, a farmer from Roopnagar district in Punjab who volunteers at the library-cum-cultural centre at Singhu border, said, “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.”
“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.
Volunteers from their team are also visiting various districts of Punjab, including Bhatinda, Patiala, Roopnagar, and Anantpur Sahib to get inputs from the villages, and to provide them verified information related to the protests.
Sukhwinder also said that the farmers largely relied on social media platforms for verified information after several instances of alleged “biased coverage by media outlets” during the past two months.
“Social media has been the only way for these families to get correct information. The more the government tries to suppress us, the more ways we will find to keep the movement alive,” he said.
Jatinder Pal Singh, 27, a resident of Mohali who is a security volunteer at Singhu, said, “We have arranged for tractors and other vehicles with loudspeakers that share information with the other protesters towards the end of the day as not all farmers come to the stage area daily.
Showing his notebook which carried names of international celebrities who recently led support to the farmers’ movement on social media, Singh said, “We had to devise alternative techniques to raise awareness, spread information, and quell rumours in the absence of the internet, which had so far empowered farmers to stay updated on their own.”
Navkiran Natt, 29, a student-activist at Tikri border and also one of the editors of Trolley Times (a bi-weekly newspaper started by activists to share information on farmers’ protests) said the mobile internet ban had affected 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.”
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.
The crowd at Ghazipur, however, was thinner in comparison to the previous days, as several protesters had accompanied farmer leader Rakesh Tikait who was in Charkhi Dadri for a mahapanchayat along with farmer leaders Darshan Pal and Balbir Singh Rajewal.
Thousands had gathered at the mahapanchayat where farmer leaders passed five resolutions including demands of repealing the three farm laws, a legal guarantee of MSP, and releasing farmers arrested following January 26 violence and vehicles seized after the incident.
(With inputs from Ashish Mishra and Anvit Srivastava)