What I Learnt From Conversations with a 13-Year-Old in Modi’s India

The utter confidence with which the young student “dissed” (disparaged) the farmers’ historic protest at Delhi’s borders was startling! With a smug smile, he said, “They weren’t farmers. They were Khalistanis.”

Somehow, the topic of the year-long kisan andolan had come up in the middle of a workshop with students of Class 8 in one of Delhi’s private schools. We had been talking about inequality in India, and the importance of not wasting food.

“Are you sure?” I asked the boy in front of the rest of his class.

“Absolutely!” he responded.

“Were you there?” I asked him. 

“No, but I saw it on TV. They weren’t farmers. They were terrorists.”

“But I was there,” I said. “They weren’t terrorists, they were farmers. In fact, I was there at the borders for 150 days, documenting the protest. I interviewed hundreds of farmers and even set up a YouTube channel featuring those interviews.”

But it was as though the 13-year-old hadn’t heard a word of what I had just said. So I repeated what I had just told him slowly and deliberately, not once or twice, but three times!

The rest of the class had, by now, started giggling at the exchange.

Once again, the boy said with supreme confidence, “But I saw it on TV, na!”

“Did it ever occur to you that TV has been lying to you?”

This was clearly a new thought and one that hadn’t crossed his mind. 

“That’s not possible!” the boy said, now getting a bit agitated.

I turned to the class teacher and asked her permission to show them some photos and videos of the protest.

The class teacher who also happened to be their social science teacher, had, in fact, spent a good amount of time during the academic year talking to them in depth about democracy and people’s movements, even though the government-mandated school syllabus no longer officially requires schools to do so.

I ‘set the stage’ by showing the class a (pre-Adani) NDTV news clip from November 2020 showing the farmers trying to enter Delhi and being attacked by the police. And then, through the photos I had taken, I introduced them to the various amazing people I had met at the different borders. 

Photo: Rohit Kumar

I showed them footage of the farmers serving langar to the public (including to the policemen who had beaten them earlier), footage of the contraptions farmers used to heat water in winter, and footage of them singing their own version of Gandhi’s favourite Ram bhajan

“Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram
Patita Pavan Sita Ram
Ishwar Allah Tero Naam
Modi ko Sadbudhhi de, Bhagwaan!” (‘Please give sense and wisdom to Modi, dear God’) 

I told them how some young people at the protest had started the farmers’ very own newspaper, Trolley Times, how they also set up reading libraries at the various protest sites for the farmers. I also showed them photos of the one night I spent at the Tikri border protest site, the charpai I slept on and the makki ki roti meal I ate that night. 

We then talked about the farmers’ abysmal economic condition and how several lakhs of them died by suicide because of a deeply flawed economic design that has driven them off rural land and into cities as cheap labour. 

And then one particular photo popped up, showing a protest poster saying, “We are farmers. Stop showing us as terrorists.”

protesting farmers

Farmers from Talwara town of Hoshiarpur district carrying banners, mentioning – ‘We are farmers, not terrorists’ at Singhu border in Delhi. Photo: Kusum Arora.

At this point, the entire class turned around to look gleefully at a now sheepish-looking boy who had insisted they were terrorists. Some of the kids pretended to take his photo and one of his classmates, imitating an Indian ‘journalist’, stuck an imaginary microphone in his face and said, “Aapko iss vakt kaisa lag raha hai?” (How are you feeling at this point in time?)

The teasing was good-natured and much mirth ensued. 

Also Read: Forget Yellow Journalism, India Is Now Fertile Ground for Saffron Journalism

The boy, who we will call Akshay, had the humility and good sense to say, “I guess I was wrong.”

I said to him jokingly, “Ab tumhe jhootthh maanane ka prayashchit karnaa hoga. (You will have to do ‘penance’ for believing a lie.)”

In all seriousness, he replied, “I will. I will tell 100 hundred people starting with my own family that these were good people fighting for a good cause.”

The class teacher standing next to me said sotto voce, “This should be interesting. His family are diehard Modi supporters.”

The damage that the mainstream media in Modi’s India has done is possibly incalculable. People believe what they repeatedly behold and a lie that is told again and again becomes the ‘truth’, as it had for Akshay. It took facts, figures, photos, videos and personal testimony to convince him otherwise.

The road back to a better-informed India is going to be a long one. We do well to start taking baby steps on this journey, each of us.

Rohit Kumar is an educator with a background in positive psychology and psychometrics. He can be reached at [email protected]

This article was first published on The Wire.