In early March, a video circulating in Mewat in Haryana showed an eight-year-old child from Meoli village with symptoms of breathlessness in the district’s government medical college. The child complained that he was injected on his scrotum by an unknown person while he was playing in the jungle.

The video followed other rumours spread through Whatsapp about injections being administered to children that would make them sterile. The videos originated in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, where the government has just conducted a measles-rubella immunisation drive. The messages worried residents of Mewat even though there has been no vaccination campaign planned there.

The rumours scared parents in Mewat enough to pull their children out of school and it has taken a lot of convincing by government health officials, local workers and teachers to bring the children back to school in time to write their exams.

Phool Chand, headmaster of school in Alipore Tigra, said that he and other teachers had been going from door to door trying to persuade children to go back to school. He had assured the parents that if anyone came to the school to administer injections, he would not allow them in.

Said Chand, “They tell me ‘You are from the government. Why should we believe you?’”

School at Alipore Tigra village, Mewat. (Photo: Menaka Rao)

Suspicious of the government

For many villagers, the video of the boy from Meoli bolstered fears of the government’s malintent towards them. “Yeh to real hai,” claimed Khalil Ahmed, from Alipore Tigra village, who saw the video on his smartphone. “Yeh RSS walon ki chaal hai.” This is real. This is a conspiracy of the RSS.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is the parent body of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The lack of trust of government workers in Mewat highlights the larger mistrust of the BJP governments both in Haryana and at the Centre.

Last year in August, a 20-year old woman and her 14-year old cousin in Mewat were reportedly gang-raped by four men who accused them of eating beef. The police however, claimed that there is no evidence to suggest that cow protection groups were involved in the attack. Soon after, in September ahead of Eid, the Haryana government conducted a drive in the district to collect samples of biryani and check them for cow meat. The task force conducting the drive claimed that there were reports of beef biryani being sold in several villages.

“These are anti-Muslim activities,” said Arshad Ayyub, who works as a block coordinator in Punana. “People feel that the accused get away.” This, he added, contributes to their suspicion of the government.

In the past two or three years, there have been many instances of Hindutva leaders making public statements exhorting Hindu couples to produce more children to preserve Hindu cultural heritage. These leaders claim that unless Hindus have more children, they will soon be outnumbered by Muslims, a suggestion that is patently untrue. The rhetoric is making Muslim residents in Mewat suspicious of government schemes.

The simmering resentment has been stoked by other policies.

In November, the government demonetised Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes that hit the poor farmers in the district. A 26-year old man reportedly died after the family could not arrange for medical health in time during the cash crunch.

For the past two months, the district administration has also been pushing people to build toilets in their house, something that the locals are not happy about. Some are poor and do not have the resources to build a toilet, they said.

Why is this “scheme” of injecting children with a medicine that makes them impotent only in Mewat, Rasludan Bano from Audha village wanted to know. Referring to what she feels is a relentless attack, she muttered, “Kabhi notebandi, kabhi nasbandi.”

Lack of literacy

Health officials say that a large part of the district is poor and illiterate. The lack of education made it difficult to convince the parents that the rumours were false and to get them to send their children back to school, said teachers and doctors.

According to the National Family Health Survey 2015-’16, 78% of the men in Mewat and 35.6% of the women are literate, much lower than the literacy rates for the state.

While speaking of the Muslim Meo community, the district officials used the terms lack of education and conservatism interchangeably. “The families are not well educated,” said Dr Kamal Mehra, chief medical officer. “Itna jyada soch nahi hai.” People do not think much.

But a “lack of education” cannot be cited as the only reason why people oppose vaccination programmes. In Chennai and Bengaluru, well-educated parents who sent their children to private schools also opposed the measles rubella vaccination programme vehemently. The experience of the polio eradication campaign run by the government a decade ago also showed that not only Muslims, even Dalits harboured misgivings about a vaccination campaign.

Health activists say the mistrust in government vaccination campaigns can be traced to the failures of the public health system.

The National Family Health Survey 2015-’16 shows health indicators in Mewat are very poor compared to the rest of the state. While more than 60% of children in Haryana have been immunised but only 13% have been immunised in Mewat. About 63% of deliveries in Mewat take place at home, which is more than three times the number across Haryana.

By the administration’s own admission, the district’s health infrastructure is lacking. Officials have admitted that nearly 50% of posts for medical officers are vacant. The vacancies for paramedic staff are as high as 90%, said Mehra.

Officials said a lack of facilities deterred doctors from working in the district. “State transport buses barely run in Mewat,” said Mehra. “There are no restaurants or cinema houses for entertainment. Doctors do not want to come and work here.”

Besides, there are only 15 primary health centres in the entire district, when there should be about 36 centres for the given population as per norms set by the World Health Organisation.

The weak health system has increased mistrust among the people towards health authorities.

“When people are not getting entitlements they are supposed to get, when anganwadis are not functioning, when deliveries are not happening in hospitals, it creates a huge mistrust towards the authorities,” said Dr Vijayprasad Gopichandran, who teaches Community Medicine at Employees’ State Insurance Corporation Medical College, Chennai.

Despite this, officials blame most problems in the community, including lack of immunisation, large family size and childbirth at home, on Muslim conservatism.

Old scars

Ten years ago, during the polio eradication campaign, similar rumours spread in Uttar Pradesh. Qualitative research conducted in 2009-’10 including detailed discussions with people and healthcare providers in Aligarh showed that the coercive family planning programme during the Emergency had scarred people, especially Muslims. The paper also refers to the “fertility politics” in the 1990s where politicians would exploit fears that the Muslim population was growing to outnumber Hindus. People interviewed said that the polio programme was simply a new manifestation of the Family Planning Programme.

In another qualitative study conducted in three districts of Uttar Pradesh during the polio vaccination campaign in 2002, found that that Muslims and lower caste people felt further discriminated by some health functionaries because of their religious affiliations and caste.

“The perceived lack or poor quality of health services is perhaps one of the most tangible and immediate everyday experiences of the state that results in these communities feeling that the public health system cannot be trusted,” the study stated.

The researchers also pointed to a perception that vaccination campaigns tackle diseases that pose risks to larger populations but that health administrations ignore diseases that are locally prevalent.

“The drives for either measles rubella vaccine or for iron-folic acid is probably not perceived as a need by the community,” said Gopichandran. “The gap between the government’s need to vaccinate and the immediate need of the community creates glaring disparities.”

This is the second part in a series on the spread of rumours in Haryana’s Mewat district. Read the first part here.

This reporting project has been made possible partly by funding from New Venture Fund for Communications.