In March 2018, the Jogulamba Gadwal district of Telangana fell prey to viral WhatsApp forwards that purportedly warned of organ harvesters kidnapping children. The videos, dubbed in Telugu, advised people to hide at sundown and lock their doors to escape a band of rogues. Panic-stricken villagers imposed curfews and streets fell silent after dark. As the fog of hysteria swirled through the district, several innocents suspected of being abductors were mobbed and assaulted.
Amidst the panic, one police officer with a decade-long career, Rema Rajeshwari, mobilised her deputies with the aim of combating fake news. On her instruction, constables educated villagers about misinformation. Warnings were sounded against disseminating falsehoods. “Our focus was to teach them self-regulation,” said Rajeshwari.
One cultural practice that helped Rajeshwari spread the word was Janapadam. An ancient form of storytelling, Janapadam has its roots in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, says Srinivas Denchanala, the founder director of Janapadam Travelling Modern Theatre Repertory in Telangana.“The word Janapadam translates to people’s path – many believe [that it means] the people’s song or word of the people,” said Denchanala. “In common parlance and understanding, Janapadam signifies the art of folklore.”
This form of storytelling, explains Denchanala, involved short skits in which certain communities – primarily the lowers castes – shared religious tales and important news. The typical skit featured one man and two women – they would sit together and narrate a story. One of them would also play the tambura as the story was being told. “Nowadays, small troupes go across the states, narrating ancient religious stories, along with others [that feature] more contemporary topics,” said Denchanala. The length of the skits range from a few minutes to a few hours (if they involve narrations from the Ramayana or Mahabharata).
Scroll.in spoke to Rajeshwari about fake news, her initiatives and Janapadam. Edited excerpts:
When did you first realise that fake news could have such an impact on our lives?
Even though I developed an academic interest in the issue of fake news around the time [of the] US elections, I didn’t have any actual experience of dealing with its ill-effects until March 2018.
In the last week of March, one of my village police officers told me that he noticed something unusual in the villages that he visited as part of our community outreach campaign. None of the villagers were sleeping outside their homes. Summers in this region are extremely hot, and people in rural areas mostly sleep outside. I asked him to go back and find out what was wrong. I sent 20 other constables to various parts of the district to check if it was happening elsewhere.
They came back and told me that the villagers were receiving certain videos and images through WhatsApp. They were graphic, and warned of inter-state child-lifting gangs.
These rumours on inter-state Parthi gangs [from Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh] made the villagers anxious and they created patrols to be on the lookout for anyone they did not recognise. Strangers were restrained and questioned. Since these [forwards came from] their trusted friends and families, the villagers [took them at] face value. This became a huge security concern for us.
So I called for an urgent training session for all the police officers. I taught them how to educate people about fake news and rumours on social media, and how to identify morphed images and unverified content. We started a door-to-door intensive educative campaign and appealed to [the villagers] to not forward these videos.
I strongly feel that social media is exploiting some deeply-held societal prejudices in India. The people who got lynched belonged to marginalised communities, low-income groups, nomadic tribes or [were] migrants. A transgender person was lynched in Hyderabad. So I realised we are dealing with an issue where rationality rarely wins over belief. The only way we can tackle this is by repeatedly educating them about fake social media rumours.
How have you changed the way the people’s attitudes?
Purely by educating them. Until we reached out to tell them that a mere forward had the potential to kill someone, they did not know about the flipside of technology. Through [these] sustained educative campaigns, we [have] created awareness, even in remote tribal hamlets. It is a continuous process. At least now they are aware of the legal consequences of spreading misinformation through social media. Our focus was to teach them self-regulation.
How did you come up with the idea of using Janapadam to spread awareness? And what did the play portray?
Since 2012, I have been extensively using storytelling as part of my community outreach campaigns. The combination of storytelling and enforcement has the potential to have a powerful impact in terms of educating the rural masses. [As] Janapadam [is] very popular locally, it [was] an obvious choice for me to use it as a localised solution to a larger problem.
How effective was an age-old tradition like Janapadam against something so modern as social media and WhatsApp?
When we deal with [people who are] illiterate and also digitally illiterate, but have unlimited access to technology, using traditional methods like Janapadam is definitely effective. This [proved to be] the best tool to teach them to be thoughtful about the malicious content being shared on social media, to reflect on the need to be part of the electoral process and to stay away from social vices. I look at it as a humanising approach to policing as people identify better with the message when it’s told through Janapadam. Rather than merely telling them about legal repercussions, we have a responsibility to educate them as well.
Who do you feel is the culprit behind most of the viral fake news in rural areas?
We cannot point fingers at one particular individual or a group. Any social media user who is not sufficiently digitally literate tends to spread viral information.
Do you feel more can be done to combat such irresponsible fear-mongering?
Absolutely. I started the educative campaign much before mob lynching was reported in other parts of the state and the country. The first round was started in the last week of March.
The campaign was divided into three distinct phases over a span of 45 days. In the first phase, I trained the village police officers on how to spot fake messages, and go out into the community and educate [the villagers]. For two weeks my team went to villages and tribal hamlets and appealed to the residents to not to believe in these rumours.
In the second phase, we trained the local drummers, known as dappu or small drum artists, to convey the message on behalf of the police, with an aim to make it more interesting. They used to accompany the police officers, and would beat the drums to gather people around them. Then the [minute-long] message would be conveyed.
I conducted a training session for all the village sarpanches, Mandal Parishad Territorial Constituencies, Zilla Parishad Territorial Constituencies and upa sarpanches in the districts of Jogulamba and Wanaparthy. I was limited by inadequate manpower, so collaboration with different stakeholders was the need of the hour.
In the third phase, we wrote songs on fake news and misinformation, and used local folk artists to educate the people. These folk songs were written in a manner that would reflect the local culture. This was a huge hit. Since people living in rural Telangana respond better to these cultural programmes I decided to use the same to fight fake news and fake social media rumours as well.
What are the main challenges that Janapadam faces?
None. They have been so popular in my district because they reach out to every village.