On May 16, Ismail Hussain, the diminutive headmaster of Hemanta Barua Vidyapeeth Middle English School, had an unusually busy morning. It was not academic and administrative work that kept him occupied, though. In fact, there was hardly any academic activity in the school that morning: only 60 of the 365 students had turned up.

Hussain was attending to a battery of journalists who had set up camp at this nondescript government school in the Muslim-dominated locality of Hatigaon in Assam’s Guwahati.

Hussain’s school, along with Natboma Primary School and Hemanta Barua Vidyapeeth High School in the same neighbourhood, were the first casualties of a rumour that reached the state capital this week. On its way, it had already caused panic in the rural parts of Barpeta, Nalbari and Kamrup districts, keeping students out of school for days. Children in government-run schools, it was rumoured, were being administered a vaccine that could lead to infertility.

Gripped by fear

According to Hussain, the previous day had started as usual. He had arrived at his office at 8.30 am and presided over the morning assembly at nine. “All of a sudden, a few guardians came, then some more, and the number just kept growing,” Hussain said. “My office was flooded with parents. They kept saying they had heard of an injection being given in schools to children that would kill them or make them infertile.”

Hussain tried explaining that no vaccination programme was scheduled in the school. “But they just would not listen,” he said. “I was at my wits’ end, I did not know what to do.”

Manoj Senapati of Hemanta Barua Vidyapeeth High School recounted a similar tale. “We tried reasoning with the parents that they would be consulted if the children were given any injection but they would have none of it,” he said. “Things got heated after a while. We had to call the police.” Senapati said the police managed to disperse the parents for some time, but they soon regrouped.

Anjali Deka, a teacher at Natboma Primary School, said it was not just the parents; the students too insisted that they did not want to be in school. “One kid just scaled the wall and left,” she said. “He kept saying ‘I won’t die, I value my life’. The mothers kept saying they had received calls from relatives in other parts of the state, warning them of an injection that made Muslim children impotent.”

The parents were adamant on taking their children away, Deka said, and nothing that the teachers tried to persuade them otherwise worked, neither emotional appeals nor cold logic.

Attendance in the three Guwahati schools on May 17 bore that out. Only 40 of the 710 students turned up at Natboma Primary School and just six of the 124 showed up at the high school.

So, what was the source of the rumour? “All of us heard that our children would be given the injection in school,” said Sehra Begum, mother of two children who go to Natboma Primary school. “It had come in the news, my friend told me.”

Sehra Begum with her children.
Sehra Begum with her children.

Sehra Begum’s friend Nooressa Begum, who has six children enrolled in the three affected schools, claimed she had seen it in the “news”. “It said they were targeting Muslim children,” she added.

‘WhatsApp news’

It turns out that the “news” Nooressa Begum watched was a video clip circulated via WhatsApp. “I received this video about an RSS injection on a WhatsApp group,” said Samsul Haq, a resident of Hatigaon who works as a driver with an online cab service, referring to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

Haq claimed that everyone he knew had received the same video. “My neighbour’s two girls have stopped going to school because the parents are scared,” he added.

Nooressa Begum with her children.
Nooressa Begum with her children.

Haq pulled out his phone to play the video. It carried the familiar logo of ABP News channel in one corner. It was the same video that had been circulated in Haryana’s Mewat earlier, triggering panic there and driving school attendance down to 5%.

The clip was run by the TV channel as part of a show to dispel similar rumours in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in the wake of a measles-rubella vaccination drive.

The first half of the show summarised the rumours, while the latter part was devoted to doctors and health officials calling them out. The clip making the rounds on WhatsApp is from the first half of the show.

Communal bogey

In Nalbari, Barpeta and Kamrup, too, the same video clip was the main reason for the scare, confirmed Hafiz Ahmed, a social activist and academic who works among the Muslims living on sand bars in the Brahmaputra river known as Chars. Schools on the Chars of these three districts have seen little attendance in the last few days. “Apart from that, a leaflet distributed by the Hindu Yuva Chhatra Parishad, Asom, which called for forced population control of Muslims, seems to have added to people’s fear,” Hafiz Ahmed said.

Balen Baishya, president of the Assam chapter of the Hindu Yuva Chhatra Parishad, confirmed to Scroll.in that the leaflet was indeed issued by his organisation. It was not a new one, however. “We had issued it in 2014,” Baishya said. “But the reactions are starting to come in only now.”

The Chars, which are densely populated, have a fertility rate higher than the state average, according to a recent survey. The total population on the Chars increased by 55.63% from 1991 to 2001 as against 18.85% in the rest of Assam. Data suggests that the primary reason for the population explosion is lack of access to proper medical care. The under-five mortality rate on the Chars is 136.9, more than double the state average of 56.

Joining the dots

According to Minnatul Islam, president of the All Assam Minorities Students Union’s Kamrup (Metro) chapter, which includes Guwahati, the scare was the outcome of the state government’s new population policy draft.

The draft, which suggests punitive measures for parents with more than two children, has been criticised for being apparently anti-minority. “In the absence of a proper publicity drive,” Islam said, “socio-economically disadvantaged Muslims seemed to have joined some dots and assumed that the vaccination is an extension of the policy.”

The state health department, however, claimed that it did put out advertisements “from time to time in the electronic media” sanitising people about its vaccination drives. Samir Kumar Sinha, head of the state’s health and family welfare department, said a Japanese Encephalitis inoculation drive was currently underway in four districts of the state. These districts do not include Kamrup (Metro), however, and the vaccination was for people in the 15-65 age group, he added. “It was a rumour,” Sinha said. “Things are settling down now, thanks to the media and many organisations that have kindly stepped in.”

M Angamuthu, deputy commissioner of Kamrup (Metro) downplayed the rumour, saying it only affected “a few schools in a few pockets”. “We will discuss this with the parents if need be,” he added.

Meanwhile, the three schools in Hatigaon have arranged for a public meeting with the residents on May 20. But Nooressa Begum is not convinced: “I will only send my children to school if all the other kids go as well.”

A notice board at one of the Hatigaon schools announces the public meeting.
A notice board at one of the Hatigaon schools announces the public meeting.