Fact and Fiction

The lynching of two men in Assam shows the power of rumours across India

Before the incident in Karbi Anglong, the bogey of the child snatcher travelled through several states, leaving a trail of violence.

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.
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)
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.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.