A report by the DisinfoLab, a research organisation on fake news and propaganda, finds that the Khalistan connection to the ongoing farmers’ protest was conspired by Pakistani elements and was unquestioningly picked up by Indian social media users and certain mainstream media organisations.
The claim was also put forth in the Supreme Court on 12 January by Attorney General KK Venugopal, who claimed that “Khalistanis have infiltrated” the farmers’ protests. He also assured the bench that the government would be submitting an affidavit based on inputs from the Intelligence Bureau.
The protesting farmer unions have retorted that ‘this is nothing but an attempt to malign the protests,’ accusing the Centre of harassing those supporting the protest with the help of the National Investigative Agency.
But where did the Khalistani connection to the farmers protest come from?
Sowing the Seeds of Conspiracy
According to DisinfoLab’s report, this narrative was built by Pakistan and pushed by social media ‘influencers’ affiliated to the Inter Services Public Relations, the media and PR wing of Pakistan Armed Forces.
On 15 August 2020, Veena Malik, “a major ISPR influencer,” according to the report, posted a picture of a man holding up a pro-Khalistan banner, while referring to ‘Sikh Farmers.’
Despite the fact that the image was old and unrelated to the farmers’ protest, the report finds that Malik’s tweet was shared mostly by Twitter handles supporting Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and his political party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
It was then picked up by Indian social media users and went viral in December, with the false claim that it is from the ongoing farmers’ protest.
The Quint’s WebQoof team found that the image was actually from 2013, when radical activists from Sikh organisations had gathered at Amritsar’s Golden Temple, holding placards in support of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale for the 29th anniversary of Operation Bluestar.
Indian Social Media Users Fall for False Narrative
Several such videos and images of pro-Khalistani groups in the United States and United Kingdom were revived on social media, falsely linking them to the farmers’ protest.
The image below was shared as a farmer insulting the national flag, but the image could be traced back to 2013 on a blog, run by the pro-Khalistan group, Dal Khalsa (UK), which claimed that the image showed Manmohan Singh Khalsa, the founder of the group protesting against “Indian Oppression and Occupation.”
The DisinfoLab report analysed the tweets from as early as September and found that the accounts which initially started raising alarm over Khalistani infiltration of the farmers protest, were found to be “right-wing supporters.”
BJP Leaders Push Khalistani Narrative
On 27 November, a day after the farmers had camped at the Delhi borders, Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga, a spokesperson of the BJP, tweeted that pro-Khalistani slogans were raised at the protest, and concluded that the farmers’ protest had been hijacked. The tweet had over 43,000 likes and 8,200 retweets at the time of writing this article.
On the same day, another BJP spokesperson and IT cell chief, Amit Malviya, tweeted a video of a Sikh man who can be heard saying, ‘Indra thok di, ‘ prompting mainstream media like ZeeNews to run a segment debating whether Khalistani sympathisers had taken over the protest.
Social media users also targeted Muslims for ‘hijacking’ the farmers protest. Among many, members of the BJP, like Abhimanyu Tyagi, State Secretary BJP Delhi (Youth) BJYM, Shalabh Mani Tripathi, the information advisor to UP CM Yogi Adityanath and BJP MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar tweeted an image of Nazeer Mohammed, an electrician in Punjab, falsely accusing him of disguising as a Sikh to take part in the protest.
The claim was also debunked by fact-checking website, BOOM, who found that Nazeer had not been a part of the protests and wore a turban because wearing a helmet while working hindered his vision.
The report also found that ‘prominent RW handles’ to call the protests ‘Khalistani’ without any evidence include Zeenat Rana, State Executive Member of BJP Chandigarh IT Cell, Harshad Prajapati, in-charge of the IT & Social Media of BJP, Mehsan and Swapnil Kamal Rani Varun, former Cabinet Minister in UP (account is operated by family).
Not just on social media, BJP party leaders contributed to the narrative in the mainstream media. Haryana’s Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar claimed on 28 November that he had inputs of Khalistani elements in the protest.
BJP national general secretary and Uttarakhand state unit in-charge Dushyant Kumar Gautam also made a similar claim the next day, citing videos doing the rounds on social media as ‘proof,’ the Hindustan Times reported.
Malviya again stepped in on 30 November, accusing Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal of wanting to “burn down Delhi,” now that “Khalistanis and Maoists have stepped in to oppose” the farm laws.
However, Home Minister Amit Shah maintains that the farmers protest are not ‘political’ and he would ‘never say it.’ Similarly, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had also disapproved of those calling the farmers ‘Naxals’ or ‘Khalistani,’ when asked that members of his own party were making such allegations.
Digging-In to The Past
Prominent actors like Deep Sidhu and Diljit Singh Dosanjh had expressed their support to the farmers protest.
Sidhu became involved with one of the most important protest sites at Shambhu Barrier in Punjab's Patiala district. While his political ambitions are not as clear, he has maintained an independent view arguing that “concessions are not enough, the power equation has to change.”
However, the actors have refuted these allegations.
In a report by The Print, Sidhu stated that “Nobody is talking about Khalistan in this protest. Yes, this issue cropped up and it keeps cropping up in Punjab.” He went on to say that he had to “handle the situation,” when some Khalistan supporters raised slogans at the Shambhu border.
Dosanjh had also stated that he is an Indian taxpayer, “who has always stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the country and Punjab in time of need ” when a Congress MP had demanded a FIR against the actor and singer, in June 2020 for supporting Khalistan.
The mainstream media has been party to sowing the seeds of doubt.
Zee News has repeatedly claimed that Khalistan supporters have hijacked the protests. Aaj Tak and India Today have also put forth similar claims, while Republic Bharat and Times Now reported on protests in the US in support of farmers as proof of ‘Khalistani infiltration.’
What began as a conspiracy theory by Pakistani ‘influencers’ like Veena Malik and Gurpatwant Singh Pannu, trickled into the Indian social media, fanned by BJP leaders and was consequently picked up by mainstream media channels in India.
In the most recent development, the National Investigative Agency has summoned around 40 persons including Punjabi actor Deep Sidhu, farmers’ leader Baldev Singh Sirsa and UK-based journalist Jasveer Singh Muktsar, to be examined as ‘witnesses’ in a case related to the banned outfit Sikhs for Justice.