[ Echo of India (Port Blair) 29 Aug 2012]
I am the only member of my family who has visited Bangladesh, erstwhile East Pakistan, in the last 20 years. I have often thought naively about my mother’s family — why did they migrate during the partition days? After all, East Bengal, as defined by the Radcliffe line, had more than 30 percent minorities and they would not have been a pushover very easily. But still they fled, first in droves and then in an unfaltering stream, sometimes strong, sometimes weak. And still nearly 20 percent of all Bengali minorities are still in East Bengal, not as equal citizens but not constantly persecuted either. Around 1947, many had been personally threatened — the day of the Kojagari Lakshmi Puja in 1946 is forever etched in the collective memory of refugees from Noakhali and their descendants as a day of holocaust. But still, many, many more were not directly threatened. But there was the perception of threat, of unknown fears. There were rumours. People’s social acumen and street-smartness were tested to their limits when they were reduced to second-guessing rumours — rumours of killings, beatings, conversions, rapes, desecrations.
This subcontinent has seen this with unending regularity. Post-partition, rumours and resultant riots have tended to hurt the minorities the hardest. Rumours that have devastated lives, broken fragile peace. With the recent exodus of Nagas, Axomias and Manipuris from large swathes of the Indian Union, the sinister efficacy of new social media and technological innovations have come to the fore. This has led the government to ban bulk SMS. Nothing else has been done on the ground. And, this is where the mis-diagnosis lies. It is a self-absolving view of reality that leads us to think that rumours, or for that matter riots, can be fully dealt with by the non-human enablers like technology or arms. While that is a necessary short-term step, neither SMS nor social media, is responsible for the periodic flare-ups that lead to the scenario when an otherwise absurd hearsay starts gathering characteristics of truth. As the subcontinent has seen in the past, the ‘bush telegraph’ can be as deadly, if not more, than contemporary technology in instilling fear and hatred.
Effective rumours do not start in a vacuum. They need a fertile backdrop. They originate, propagate and gather steam in a certain social context. Social contexts also have a run-up to them. Also, one needs to seriously examine existing political and media culture and their practices to decipher the stunning appeal that rumour often has.
Take the media. In the Indian Union, large sections of the media often is so compromised by political and corporate patronage that it will not even follow the basic tenets of unbiased journalism like attributing claims, not putting claims and screaming headings, report an event from multiple perspectives and then verifying claims and counterclaims. In the most dangerous scenario, it can concoct stories of suppress stories. These things happen too often. This is why people, who may be in the know of a specific event but find things being reported quite differently, develop a deep suspicion of public media.
It is in this atmosphere of justified cynicism, that other kinds of ‘fact’ and ‘news’ sources start competing for the faith of the suspicious. On the face of it, this is not necessarily a bad thing, for it opens up a space for bottom-up citizenry driven media and I don’t mean the ‘citizen journalist’ charade that many media outlets have started peddling of late. But it also opens up the space for manipulators. This manipulation has a more vicious edge in an atomized world where one’s sense or identity is increasingly made less by an organic community but by the confessional and exclusionary messages of supposed persecution. Such messages work up the consumer into a private frenzy. A long cooking period is necessary. It is in this backdrop, that a rumour takes its toll, when the prepared mind decides to act, or flee.
Confessional enmities have a self-perpetuating character. Whether a rumour becomes believable or not largely has to do with the immediate temporal and socio-political context. Hence nothing fights unfounded rumours more than an open and free polity where the powerful are accountable. One can say that today easy communication across large spaces have resulted in confessional solidarities across larger swathes of people. A rumour can start anywhere, even outside a locality, or in a different continent. Part of the deliverance would come from asking questions about claims and not be callous about checking the veracity of especially incendiary ‘news’. The key is to doubt everyone, especially the powerful and doubt everything, especially rumours. What remains after the collective exercise of doubting top-down stories is not less but more real news.