Schoolchildren from former British colonies may know a game called “Chinese Whispers”. The players sit in a circle. The first player whispers a message to the next, who then whispers it to the next and so on until the message reaches the last player, who will say it out loud. Most often, it is wildly different from the original. Hilarity ensues.

“Chinese Whispers” is often played in Indian schools, as if children are rehearsing the dramas of the adult world. But outside children’s games, rumours have often had a violent history in India.

On June 8, two young men, Nilotpal Das and Abhijeet Nath, were beaten to death in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district. According to reports, rumours about child snatchers being on the prowl were doing the rounds on social media and that evening, word spread that the men had a child in their car. As he died, Das pleaded to his attackers not to kill him, he was Assamese. He had long dreadlocks, and this reportedly marked him out as doubly dangerous. The murderous crowd battered the two men – who had driven to a picnic spot in the area from Guwahati – for an hour and no police arrived there.

The route to Karbi Anglong

Of course, their deaths are underpinned by tensions specific to Karbi Anglong, one of the most backward districts in Assam. The vast gulf between the urban pleasure seekers from Guwahati and the inhabitants of Karbi Anglong, where the state seldom reaches. Old ethnic divisions between Asomiyas and the Karbis, who have their own demand for a separate state. Assam’s fear of outsiders and “infiltrators” from across the border, which may have prompted Das to plead that he was Assamese and therefore indigenous, hoping they might spare him.

As the state updates its National Register of Citizens in a bid to weed out so-called illegal immigrants and discussions around the Citizenship Bill gather pace, these fears have been fanned again. In neighbouring Nagaland, where there are similar anxieties about indigeneity and being swamped by outsiders, rumours had also been spreading on social media.

Videos circulated on WhatsApp over the last week apparently showed non-Nagas who had been arrested for attempted abductions and organ snatching. On June 8, a police press release from Mon district reportedly said two fortune tellers had been asked to leave the area, “in the interest of their safety and public peace”. The two individuals were “reported to be members of a wandering tribe of Andhra Pradesh” and one of them was thought to be transgender. They were investigated after social media rumours branded them as child lifters and organ snatchers. The police had found these charges baseless, but asked them to leave anyway.

It is worth noting that Karbi Anglong is on the border with Nagaland and, just before they were killed, Das and Nath had taken a detour from National Highway 36, connecting Nagaland’s commercial hub Dimapur to Nagaon district in the heart of Assam. But geographical proximity alone does not explain the contagion.

Abhijeet Nath (Left) and Nilotpal Das were lynched in Assam's Karbi Anglong district on June 8 on suspicion of being child lifters.

In Jharkhand last year, rumours about child snatchers claimed the lives of seven persons. Last month, a woman in Tamil Nadu was beaten to death after she offered chocolates to children. The rumours then wound through Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Telangana and Uttar Pradesh, leaving a trail of violence.

Rumour mills

What exactly is a rumour and why does it have such a hold on societies across India? Theorists of rumour point out that it is difficult to define. Often, the word is a synonym for falsehood. When information is labelled as rumour, it calls into question the sources from which it springs and the “facticity” of it. But these distinctions have often been used by state organisations to separate that which is officially sanctioned truth from that which is not, between acceptable and unacceptable discourse, argues Greg Dalziel. Tamotsu Shibutani’s influential theory of rumour also suggests it is a form of “improvised news”, a kind of informal communication where men in ambiguous situations and without access to formal channels of news pool together intellectual resources to make sense of it.

The colonial state feared rumour as it could be used to trigger insurrection, anthropologists point out. The soldiers’ rebellion of 1857, for instance, was catalysed by rumours about cartridges coated with pig and cow fat. Though dismissed by the British administration as the “lies of the bazaar”, these oral means of transmission acquired their own truth and the power to mobilise political action. Even printed news could be shot through with rumour, blurring the lines between the official and the informal.

During Partition, these habits of rumour would come back to haunt, this time feeding the cycle of violence with stories of massacres that had never taken place. Apocrypha transmitted by word of mouth, idle suspicions and half truths have returned again and again during communal riots: in Delhi 1984, in Mumbai 1992-1993, in Gujarat 2002.

But over the last decade, rumours have been accelerated and amplified by the internet and the cellphone. In 2012, the flight of north-eastern migrants in Bengaluru was spurred by videos and text messages that warned of violence. In 2013, a then two-year-old video of a lynching in Pakistan was circulated on WhatsApp and helped fan the communal violence in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh.

A single Facebook post may be shared and viewed thousands of times while, as of May 2017, India was WhatsApp’s largest market with 160 million users. The country is the second largest producer of cellphones in the world. The spread of such technology has meant a new democratisation of news beyond the traditional channels, with more people reading and producing information than ever before. As social scientist Ravi Sundaram writes, the conflagrations sign post “the arrival of a new form of authority, the phone screen”.

In the hamlets of Karbi Anglong, where newspapers and electricity seldom reach, messages passed around through cellphones were the only information residents could rely on. Even as the regional and national media reported that one of the victims was a musician and another a businessman, the residents have not completely discarded the rumours yet.

In 2012, the flight of north-eastern migrants in Bengaluru was spurred by videos and text messages that warned of violence. (Photo credit: PTI)

The bogeyman

But this round of rumours also gained strength from the fact that it tapped into old beliefs and superstitions, reinforced stereotypes embedded deep in a community’s psyche. Perhaps it is always so with stories that enable violence: such and such community is violent and lustful, women who look and act a certain way practise sorcery, people from a particular caste are prone to drinking and immorality.

But the child snatcher myth reaches deeper, into social and individual wells of fear about strangers and oblivion. The bogeyman is deployed across communities, usually to prevent children from straying or to police them into behaving. In other words: stay within social boundaries, both geographical and behavioural, or you will pay.

This bogeyman is an established part of various folklores, evident from the fact that each community has its own word for him – and it is usually a man. The Tamil “Poochandi” is a monstrous creature who will whisk you away if you do not finish your rice. The Asomiya “xopadhora” has long hair and wanders around with a bag to stuff you into. The Karbi “phankodong” is often a man dressed as a woman.

In the North East, regional anxieties usually mean that the child snatcher is an outsider. In Kolkata, the myth of the “chele dhora” segues into urban dystopia. Children kidnapped by him will be forced into beggary or thieving rings, forever banished from comfortable homes and loving parents.

These myths, of course, draw strength from real life nightmares: hundreds of children missing every year, lost or abducted, sold into slavery or sex trade. The pictures of lost children fill up newspaper columns, lonely children sleep on the railway platforms of big cities. In Delhi alone, 16 children are said to go missing every day.

The old habit of rumours and new forms of technology, childhood tales and lived reality have combined to ensure that the “Chinese Whispers” of the adult world has hellish consequences.