The Big Story: Killing rumour
In an attempt to clamp down on child lifting rumours that have provoked mobs to murderous frenzy, the ministry of electronics and information technology on Tuesday asked the senior management of WhatsApp to prevent the spread of “explosive messages”. The messaging app, the Centre warned, could not “evade accountability and responsibility” for the rumours that have led to at least 20 deaths in lynchings over the last two months. But the government could be accused of evading responsibility itself. While technology could be blamed for the rapid spread of the messages, the violence over the last few weeks reveals deeper social pathologies as well as a grave law and order problem. Missing all this time is a political voice that rises above the din of social media to calms fear and bolster a flailing administrative machinery.
The spread of the lynchings is frightening – deaths have occurred in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Assam, West Bengal, Tripura, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Telangana, and mob violence causing injury has been reported from other states as well. In most states, the political leadership has been subdued in its response. In Tripura, muddled political intervention only made matters worse: a minister visiting the family of a murdered child gave credence to the rumours of organ harvesting, and when the chief minister later rubbished these reports, it did nothing to allay suspicions. In more than one incident, the police response has been tardy and the administrative machinery has swung into action only after tragedy. In Assam, just a day before two men were lynched in Karbi Anglong district on June 8, there had been two separate incidents of crowds chasing people believed to be child lifters, yet the police were caught unawares. In Maharashtra on July 1, the police took two hours to arrive at the site of violence from a station just 20 kilometres away. The preventive measures taken so far have been inadequate. In Tripura, an attempt at community policing backfired when a man hired to appeal against the rumours was lynched. In states like Tamil Nadu, the police have attempted awareness campaigns against the fake videos and forwards, and warned of stern action against rumour mongers. In Assam, media houses and student groups have joined the effort.
But none of these measures can succeed without sustained support from the political establishment. In many incidents, suspected child lifters were people branded as outsiders to the local community, revealing old paranoias and prejudices. In some cases, the lynchings have occurred in remote areas where the state and reliable news sources are almost absent. These are problems that need to be addressed by more than administrative measures. Governments, both at the Central and the state level, need to take charge of the narrative to counter the descent into chaos. The technology is only the vehicle of deeper fears and failures.
The Big Scroll
- Abhishek Dey reports that as social media provokes mobs, the Indian police struggle to dispel fake news.
- Aarefa Johari pieces together the tragic events at Dhule.
- Arunabh Saikia traces how days of rumour led to the lynchings in Karbi Anglong district.
- In the Indian Express, Satish Deshpande warns that the University Grants Commission has been subservient to government and its successor could be no different.
- In the Hindu, Varghese George argues that, given the transactional nature of United States foreign policy, Indo-American ties could do without grand theories.
- In the Telegraph, Sankarshan Thakur writes that the opposition to the Emergency was far broader and more diverse than the saffron brigade would now acknowledge.
Romila Thapar writes on the man who built Jawaharlal Nehru University and his ideals about the freedom to question and debate:
“GP understood what few vice-chancellors understand these days – that the university is a place for advancing knowledge and not just handing out degrees. The former is done by asking questions, raising doubts about the information given, and by a critical questioning of any subject in an atmosphere of free-thinking and speaking. It is the one institution in every society that has the right to do this. Those in authority have to recognise these rights and nurture them. If they trample on them, they will destroy not only the particular institution but the very idea and function of enquiry as a prelude to knowledge, which is the purpose of a university. The university that many of us helped build – and, if I may say so, build with meticulous care – has been ranked continually as GP wanted, as India’s foremost university. It is now, not surprisingly, being dismantled. But as we learn from history, disallowing the freedom to debate freely, and allowing only authorised ideas, is an indication of authority becoming insecure and perhaps even a little frightened.”