In 1750, the citizens of Paris – otherwise a quiescent lot – were suddenly gripped by panic. As historians Arlette Farge and Jacques Revel describe in their book, The Vanishing Children of Paris: Rumour and Politics before the French Revolution, this was on account of new rules passed by the city’s government, empowering police efforts to curb vagrancy. A famine had sent many from rural areas into Paris in search of food, but the authorities – distressed at the evident lack of order – passed a series of laws, including rules to pick up errant children spotted loitering on the streets.

There did occur a couple of incidents when children were actually picked up by the local police and taken away to the outskirts. But the stories fed into a cycle of rumour that escalated into panic and anger against the authorities. Rumour swept through Paris that the police were taking way the children of the poor so to send them to distant colonies, or to provide fresh blood to cure King Louis XV’s disease. Anger erupted amongst the crowds over a couple of days in May 1750 when a posse of policemen was attacked, and an official was killed by a frenetic crowd.

Farge traces this violence alongside other upheavals French society experienced around that time. While there was reasoned debate against the monarchy, and its power to levy taxes, it was also the time for mass movements devoted to the fanciful, even irrational.

This instance from 18th century France shares commonalities with the present. Whether it is the age of monarchs and Enlightenment or a time of internet and WhatsApp, crowd hysteria works in similar ways – when big groups are drawn together by fear, rumour and paranoia, the consequent violence wreaks havoc, often taking lives.

India witnessed this at separate times in the late 20th century in Kashmir, Bengal, and Gujarat, and is seeing this again today. Digital dissemination of information has added to the sinister force of rumour, as evident from the disturbing spate of people lynched by angry crowds in India in the last few months. Since March, 20 people have been killed in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Tripura, Telangana, Assam, as rumours and fears of child kidnapping by a gang of child-lifters have circulated on WhatsApp (India’s most popular social media platform). While these have been proven false – these messages originate from Syria and Pakistan and are digitally and maliciously altered – the victims have ranged from innocent people asking for directions; transgendered people; the poor; and the mentally disturbed.

What is crowd hysteria?

Events, whether from the past or the present, do share similar features. From such instances across many decades, sociologists have pieced together elements of what might trigger “crowd hysteria”. Kathy Stolley’s Basics of Sociology looks at examples of mass hysteria through history to offer a definition – “Mass hysteria occurs as a response to real or imagined events. The event or perceived event triggers a reaction in which people become excited to the point of losing their critical thinking abilities and acting irrationally.” Stolley goes on to suggest that emotion and fear feed such responses in others, and the hysteria spreads.

Instances from history can of course never provide exact analogies of the present, but there are always some enduring patterns. Fear of child-lifting is an old, persistent fear that manifests itself in attacks on strangers and in today’s world subsumes a fear and suspicion of new-fangled, little-understood things.

Consider these examples:

* In 1957, two American women, part of a team of US agricultural scientists, were attacked as they travelled from Rajkot to Ahmedabad. As newspapers of the time report, a kidnapping scare was on and the vehicle the women were in was surrounded after their driver stopped to ask a group of children for directions. In circumstances eerily like the present, this at once aroused ire and suspicion, and the women and their driver were violently struck by an aggressive crowd.

* In May 1982, Calcutta was rife with rumours related to children being kidnapped. That month, 17 members of a religious sect were burnt on suspicions of being child kidnappers. There were instances reported of a monk being attacked near a temple complex, and a beggar was nearly lynched on similar suspicion. As reports went, the police remained nonplussed for no genuine abduction was reported. The Guardian mentioned that the ruling Marxist government of the state attributed the violence to its rival, the Congress, to delay state elections scheduled for later that month.

* In 1985, newspapers reported the lynching of an Australian tourist, John Armstrong, in Kashmir. There had been a previous incident of an attack on a Japanese tourist. There was fear at the time of the rampant trade in human skeletons that was centred in Calcutta. At that time, India was the world’s largest exporter in the bone trade and supplied around 60,000 human skeletons to medical and research institutes worldwide.

Bone traders insisted their supplies came from the bodies that frequently washed up on river banks or those that remained unclaimed in morgues, but Indian newspapers of the time did carry sordid (and unauthenticated) accounts of holy men being paid to kidnap children and “sacrifice” them.

* In 1996, Lawrence Cohen in his book, No Aging in India, which looks at how the elderly cope with a changing India, reported on how old women – usually widows – abandoned by their families and living in Benares were viewed by other citizens. Elderly women who lived, Cohen writes, in “interstitial” spaces (having no relative, and no permanent living space) were at special risk of being called “pagli” – mad. They had no one, behaved eccentrically, cursed and spoke in a language that sounded funny to others, and they were too old and weak to resist bullying.

In the summer of 1996, as child-lifting rumours gathered pace, along with fears of hyena attacks on children and alarm over “organ thieves” who robbed children of kidneys, elderly women, sometimes seen as witches who had cast a spell on children, were pelted, tormented and at times driven to drown themselves in the rivers that abounded Benares – the Ganga, and the Varuna to the city’s north.

Forgotten truth

The present and persistent fears of child abductions miss a wider sobering reality – the numbers of children that do go missing, and the continued inability of authorities and state institutions in tracking them down. This article quotes India’s Ministry of Women and Child Development figures to show that 2,42,938 children disappeared between 2012 and 2017. But these estimations remain on the lower side.

In 2016, the High Court in Delhi, a city with the highest numbers of missing children, likened the issue to be “as bad as terrorism”. The court pulled up the local police for its apathy and disinterest in its failure to trace the missing children – between 2012 and 2017, only 37% had been found.

Other side of the story

To return to the 18th century, it is important to clarify that it was not just a period of reason and rumour, debate and discussion. In another of Arlette Farge’s books, Subversive Words: Public Opinion in Eighteenth Century France, the author notes the rising tide of public opinion. People on the streets, thanks to pamphlets, circulars and leaflets had, like never before, clearer opinions on prices, revolts, executions and they protested and picketed on these issues. Earlier, such voicing of opinions had been dismissed as “unsophisticated” and “inept”, but in the years leading up to the Revolution, public mobilisation did evoke some concern, though it didn’t ruffle the establishment much.

In the present-day, studies on crowd behaviour no longer treat “crowd hysteria” with patronisation. Instead, in an age of democracy, words like “public opinion” and “people power” are seen as more consonant. Groups of people that gather quickly in response to a universally shared emotion – for instance, crowds spontaneously grieving a calamity – need not always act irrationally or chaotically, but that such energy can indeed move spontaneously or be channelled for the greater good.