The farmers’ movement in Madhya Pradesh spread rapidly from one district to another, despite the lack of a central leadership, through the canny use of photos, videos and texts on social media platforms.
One hand on the tractor wheel and the other on the phone ready to tweet. That was the instruction given to the protesters, many of them youngsters who defy the stereotypical image of the traditional Indian farmer.
They are tech savvy, own smartphones and used Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp to spread information and gather people for the protests.
According to police officials in Mandsaur, the centre of the protests, around 80 per cent of the protesters fall in the 16-30 age group.
“This is the first time in the history of the state that a movement like this was built through these internet tools.
We had appealed to farmers to reach out to the masses using such platforms,” said Kedar Sirohi, leader of the Aam Kisan Union, a farmer organisation.
“Our message to farmers was to keep one hand on the tractor steering wheel and the other on the phone to send tweets,” he said.
The lack of a central leadership left the government in a fix as they did not know exactly who to negotiate with.
The June 4 meeting between Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and the RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) and another farmer body, the Kisan Sena, was a case in point.
After Chouhan announced sops for farmers, the two organisations declared that they would withdraw the stir.
However, the protests by the farmers, who are demanding a loan waiver and satisfactory prices for their produce, raged on.
The movement turned violent two days later when five persons died in police firing on June 6 in Mandsaur. One more farmer died on June 8 with villagers alleging that he was beaten up in police custody.
The Mandsaur-Neemuch region, about 300 km from the state capital Bhopal, became the nerve centre of the gathering storm of farmer distress. Later, protests spread to some other parts of the state.
The farmers had first declared that the protests would last from June 1 to June 10. “But after the deaths, we are not going to set any end date for it,” Sirohi said.
The police, faced with what they say is a veritable barrage of fake news, rumours and unconfirmed reports, have suspended internet services in five districts — Mandsaur, Ujjain, Ratlam, Neemuch and Dhar.
According to IG (Law and Order) Makarand Deuskar, the proliferation of fake and inflammatory news fanned the violence in the state.
“This is why we have, till further orders, suspended internet services. We are in touch with the administrations of the five districts to keep tabs on the on-ground situation. We will take further steps after assessing the situation,” he said.
The IG also said that action would be taken against those will take action against those posting provocative content on social media.