Farmers, predominantly from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh had been protesting against three farm laws passed by India in September 2020. On August 2020 a tweet was posted by a Veena Malik, a Pakistan citizen with a picture where a Sikh man was holding a pro-Khalistan banner implying that it is a Sikh farmer. It went viral on Indian social media claiming that the picture is from the farmer’s protest. It was later found that the picture was from 2013 during a protest held by Sikh radical organisations in the Golden Temple of Amritsar, Punjab.
The parliament of India passed three farm acts in September 2020. These laws were passed in the middle of the pandemic without adequate consultation. Farmers were apprehensive that these laws will end the ‘mandi’ (government facilitated marketplace) and MSP (minimum support price for procurement given for certain crops) and would leave them at the mercy of the corporates. The government however, rejected these allegations. A large number of protesters were from the North Indian state of Punjab, an agrarian state with a large population of minority Sikh groups. The members of the Sikh diaspora also protested abroad in solidarity.
One of the strategies employed by the government involved portraying the Sikh groups as ‘Khalistani’s. The Sikhs constitute only 2% of the Indian population but are well represented in business and the army. A section of Sikhs wanted a separate state to preserve their language and religion. While Punjab state was formed in response, its population had only 54% of Sikhs. Additionally, Chhattisgarh was declared a union territory to be shared between Punjab and Hariyana. All these grievances gave raised a movement for greater autonomy. In 1984, Indian PM Indira Gandhi launched a military attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest of all Sikh worshipping places, when it was occupied by groups seeking more autonomy. Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards and thousands of Sikhs were killed in retaliation. The Khalistani movement faded away after 1984.
By portraying participating Sikh farmers as Khalistanis, the ruling BJP regime hoped to paint the farmers protest as an anti-national movement. India has also accused Pakistan of supporting the Khalistan movement. While the majority of the Sikh community does not share the Khalistani sentiments, it can’t be denied that there are fringe groups operating from abroad that have continued to be vocal in their demand for a separate nation.
The image of a Sikh activist holding a ‘We want Khalistan’ placard went viral in social media claiming it to be from the ongoing farmer’s protests.
On 15th August 2020, Pakistani actress Veena Malik shared the following image in Twitter. Her tweet is no longer available, but it went viral quickly.
While not hailing from the Sikh community, Veena Malik is known to be a Khalistan sympathiser as indicated by this vidoes from Internet archive
The original URL https://twitter.com/iVeenaKhan/status/1315638944248270848 is currently not available. Veena Malik’s Twitter account is also currently inactive.
This was shared virally in Twitter.
(Image source: Quint)
Sandeep Kumar Jaarar’s account is still active while his tweet is no longer available.
Pradeep Mehta is a member of ABVP, BJP’s youth wing. The caption translates to “Their movement is not the peasant movement, their aim is to make Khalistan. There are Congress and AAP’s-Chameleon somewhere behind it.”
While it is true that the banned US based separatist Sikh for Justice (SFJ) that advocates for Khalistan extended support to farmers protest, the Sikh community at larger and farmers movement has denied any association. SFJ had held a large pro Khalistan rally in London in 2018. However, despite the support from diaspora, Khalistani movement has limited takers in India.
However, this photo added to the larger narrative by Government of India and rightwing supporters to paint farmers as khalistanis. In January 2021, attorney general KK Venugopal claimed to the Supreme Court of India that Khalistanis have infiltrated the movement.
Pakistani actors’ involvement
Disinfolab.eu, a private NGO involved in fact checking claimed that Pakistani enablers were involved in spreading the Khalistan narrative .
“Our analysis establishes that the Khalistani elements abroad and their Pakistani enablers saw the protests as an opportunity to push their agenda. However, while no one in India took them seriously, leave aside farmers, they found a ready audience in the Right-Wingers. Initially, some RW minions started posting about the Khalistani connection to farmers’ protests, taking the Pakistani propaganda as ‘proof’. Very soon, some TV Channels and Journalists also started spreading the false news, further creating noise about the issue. There was still not much discussion about the Khalistan in the context of protests, when the usual suspects such as SFJ, Dal Khalsa etc started adding more oil to fire. Not surprisingly, the ISPR (Inter Services Public Relations) sponsored social media, such as Veena Malik and JEI Youth Leader Abdul Waheed Afridi further pushed the agenda.”
They also analysed some accounts supporting the claim.
As per Disinfo Lab, Khalistani elements soon began to exploit this narrative to show that there was support for their cause in India.
Disinfo Lab has the following observation on Veena Malik’s post
“Despite being fake, the post got further push with 490 retweeted & 46 quoted retweets (at the time of publishing), mostly by Pakistanis handles. It says a lot that most of the handles were also supporters of Imran Khan and his political party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).The network attached below shows the details of the Twitter handles retweeting her:You can view the interactive graph shown in the animation athttps://disinfolab.github.io/veena_malik_rt_network_new.html”
As per Disinfo Lab, Indian right wing took the bait. The lab also did a word count and sentiment analysis of the tweets by rightwing supporters
Veena Malik became further active when Khalistani narrative began to gain traction in India
We decided to verify Disinfo Lab’s claim of connection of Veena Malik with ISPR by media analysis
She also expressed anti India sentiments in 2011.
There has also been a controversy about Malik posing for a photo with ISI tattoo. She defended the tattoo as follows
“In India everything is referred to ISI (Pakistan’s spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence)”, she told Geo TV. “Even if a very small thing happens, they say ISI is behind it. Everybody blames ISI for everything.”
However, she denied being an ISI spy.
In 2017, Malik had strongly critiqued India and Israel, calling them evil nations as well
Due to language barrier, further investigation into Veena Malik’s affiliation could not be conducted
Alt News and othe fact checkers did reverse image search and found that image was present in Getty Images photographed by AFP’s Narinder Nanu.
“According to its description, “Activists from various radical Sikh organizations after prayers at Sri Akal Takht at the Golden Temple in Amritsar stood holding placards in support of Sikh leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and Khalistan on June 06, 2013.” This was on the 29th anniversary of Operation Bluestar. Tribune India also reported about the event.” (source alt news)
Thus the content was proved to be false.
There are evidences of support from ISI related accounts. However, in depth research could not be undertaken due to language barrier.
By November, Indian right wing also started a coordinated campaign labelling farmers protest as ‘khalistani’.
“In some cases, we found the exact same tweet posted on the same day by different accounts. This suggests a coordinated campaign on their part as well. The motive was clear that to demean the farmers and downplay their protests, causing them pain and anguish. Based on our detailed analysis the below table lists several accounts with more than 10,000 followers who tweeted/shared (retweeted) and amplified these tweets calling farmers Khalistanis. There was a total of 625 accounts who shared these tweets”
A section of right-wing media also began to debate the narrative by November.
Disinfo Lab sums up the effect as follows:
It appears that the foreign influencers, Khalistani movement and right wing operators tried to spread a pro Khalistan narrative of farmers protest to serve their own agenda. While this appeared effective for a shorter time, this narrative did not gain traction in the long term and Union government was forced to negotiate with farmers. The larger public sentiment favored farmers despite the spread of disinformation.
Foreign influence (ISPR) and Khalistani groups operating from abroad.
Influence operation: Indian right wing