“People, especially the elders, are upset over certain section of the TV news channels asking putthe siddhe questions”—silly, twisted questions—Satnam Singh, a member of the farmer organisation Kirti Kisan Union, said at around 3 pm on 28 November. Satnam was speaking from a stage set up at Haryana’s Kundli, on Delhi’s outskirts, which was filled by farmers protesting three new farm laws. He was referring to several instances of the media misrepresenting the reasons behind the protests. He appealed to the youth at the site “to keep an eye over the media” and communicate the farmers’ cause properly. After this, some youth went to a barricade where a few TV crews were standing. As some of the crews made their way to the protesters, the youth denied entry to the television news channels ZEE News and Republic TV.
The farmers present at the Kundli border were a part of the “Delhi Chalo” march, which has the support of over three hundred farmers’ organisations from states including Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana. The protest called for farmers from across the country to reach the national capital on 26 and 27 November for an indefinite protest against the controversial farm laws. But security forces responded to their march by barricading Delhi’s borders, shelling teargas and firing water cannons. Since 26 November, protesters from Haryana and Punjab had been at the Kundli border. Several farmers present at the spot were telling off TV reporters who they deemed to be a part of “godi media”—media which acts as a lapdog of the central government instead of doing its job.
The media, particularly television news channels, have been casting aspersions on the protest march. Republic TV has run programmes insinuating that political players are “provoking” and “instigating” the farmers to protest. CNN-News18 and ABP news aired programmes asking who is “misleading” farmers, and Times Now suggested that farmers are being used as “political props.” On top of this, there appears to be a concerted effort to vilify the protests by connecting it with Khalistan—the word has been trending consistently on Twitter since the protests began. On 29 November, the journalist Barkha Dutt interviewed Deep Sidhu, an actor who has been participating in the protests. In an interview about farm laws, Dutt chose to ask Sidhu about the Sikh militant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Sidhu refused to call him a terrorist during the interview, leading to a further shift in media focus from the farm laws.
I have been reporting on the protests for over ten days—neither have I come across any political connect or a Khalistan connect on the ground. The media coverage appears to be eerily similar to the doubts raised about the women’s sit-in protest at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act last year. On 28 November, farmers from Haryana and Punjab told me that they were concerned about the misrepresentation of the protests by “mainstream channels,” and considered NDTV 24x7 to be an exception.
Sometime during the day, I saw that around twenty protesters had formed a crowd around a cameraman from Republic TV at the protest site. Most of them were from villages in Haryana’s Jind district and Punjab’s Patiala district. They were visibly disturbed and angry. They asked the cameraperson to show proof that the interviews he had been recording had been aired on TV. “Kithe hai live, dikha online apne phone to? Nahi ta asi jaan nahi dena tainu.”—Show us online on your phone if you are actually live on air, otherwise we won’t let you go from here—Amardeep Singh, a young protester from Bahawalpur village in Patiala, said.
That day, Republic TV had reported on a “sensational claim” by Manohar Lal Khattar, that there were “reports” of Khalistani elements in the farm protests. Sandeep, a protester from Jind, said, “Tum inhe Khalistani bataate ho. Raat bhar tumhara tamasha dekhte rahe hum, subah chaar baje tak. Hadd ho gayi.”—You call them Khalistanis. We kept watching your drama through the night, till 4 am. You have crossed all limits.
As a fellow journalist, I chimed in to defuse the tension and told the men that the cameraman must be just following editorial orders. “We respect the media, but why do they do negative reporting,” Sandeep, who must be in his early twenties, replied. The men around him agreed. “Yeh Republic wale to pitenge ek din”—Journalists from Republic TV will get bashed up one day—Sandeep continued. Someone from the crowd added, “Zee wale kaunsa kam hai”—Journalists from the Zee News are no less. “They label us terrorists or Naxalites,” another person in the crowd chimed in. Zee News recently reported on a comment supposedly made by a protester referring to Indira Gandhi’s death, and claimed that it reflected Khalistani presence in the protest. #AandolanMeinKhalistan flashed on the screen.
Seeing a camera around my neck, one of the men from the crowd asked me, “Tusi kede adaare to ho ji?”—You are from which journalistic organisation?” The man was polite. Amid all this, a woman reporter who accompanied the cameraman briskly walked away.
A few hours later, I saw four young men with big posters in hands, posing before TV channel crews near a barricade. The posters read, “We are farmers, not a terrorist”; “FARMERS: We feed the world”; “Kaale kanoon wapis lo”—Withdraw the black laws. Inderjit Singh, a member of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, told me, “We have noticed the farmers’ annoyance here.” Referring to the media probing the protesters about Khalistan, Inderjit said, “Those fully aware of the issues can respond properly, but the common people from villages do not understand these kind of controversial questions.”
“The channels are playing on a wrong footing,” Gurpreet Singh Nibber, a senior journalist from Hindustan Times in Chandigarh, told me. “How can a common agriculturist who leads simple life struggling with pressures, like huge financial debt be termed as a Khalistani? This is no editorial line.”
Davi Davinder Kaur, a veteran journalist from Chandigarh, told me she got very upset upon seeing that a Twitter user had said that “these farmers, instead of water cannons, deserved tear gas because they send smoke to pollute Delhi’s skyline.” It is possible that she was referring to a tweet by Rahul Roushan, the founder of OpIndia, a right-wing website which is infamous for spreading fake news.
At around 4–4.30 pm that day, I saw an old farmer, who looked around sixty years old, ask a TV reporter, “Look at the smoke over there. Why don’t you report that and tell Modi, who has imposed Rs 1 crore penalty on us?” The farmer was pointing towards the thick black smoke in the sky, emitting from a power plant located nearby, in Bawana. He was referring to a new ordinance brought by the central government to set up a permanent commission to tackle air pollution in Delhi-National Capital Region—violation of its orders can lead to a five-year jail term or a fine which may extend up to one crore rupees, or both.
Around midnight the previous day, I was taking pictures of the farmers sleeping under the shelter of a tractor trolley at a petrol pump station. Even then I could sense their annoyance with the media: one of the farmers told me, “Sahi sahi khabraa dea karo, sahi sahi likhyo, bhaji”—Give accurate news, write accurately, brother.