Sangeeta Bhosale weeps after mob kills her family members as child abductors in Maharashtra(HT Photo

 NEW DELHI: Assam 1983. We were standing, as if adrift, in the middle of a road with swarms of villagers armed with spears and poles and knives rushing past us to attack another village just a little distance away. These were scenes straight from a movie on medieval times. They were not interested in us, three or four reporters trying to report the civil war that had overtaken the state, but in stopping the next village from attacking them. And in the process becoming the aggressors on the basis of little else but rumours as the village they attacked and killed all those they found, had no intention of attacking them. And had no idea that this rumour had been spread. Two weeks of utter horror, any number of massacres, thousands killed with the peak being the Nellie massacre that bore the ferocity of men gone mad.

New Delhi 1984. Three days and nights of sheer horror as Delhi turned into a burning graveyard for Sikhs. Government and police disappeared from view as the mobs took hold of India’s capital, burning property, vehicles and human beings in their anger provoked by rumours, and lies and falsehoods. A rumour that Hindus were being killed on trains coming from Punjab—that spread like wildfire—had mobs collecting on the outskirts of Delhi to stop the trains, pull out the Sikhs and kill them. Hearing the rumour first, I rushed to the New Delhi railway station to check out the horrific news. And found that not a single Hindu had been killed. But counted 200 bodies of Sikhs who had been murdered on the basis of this single rumour as their bodies were taken off the trains at the station.

This was before television, and before the internet. And most certainly before WhatsApp. The rumours were no less vicious, and the results as gruesome in intensity and scale, if not more. Every single communal violence I have covered through the 1980’ onwards after joining the profession has been based on vicious, hate filled lies with the rumours spreading by word of mouth and making the targeted communities defensive or aggressive, but certainly very suspicious and uneasy and literally on tenterhooks.

Take one of the many riots in Aligarh, again in the 1980’s. For the record a dispute between a stall owner selling food, and a customer over the portion triggered the bloody riots between Hindus and Muslims. But investigation revealed that rumours had been spread deliberately and systematically in the mohallas where the communities lived.. A girl of one community has been raped, a boy of the other found murdered….to a point where neither side knew what was the lie and what the truth. And finally believed the lie with passions running high on both sides. So much so that a small argument turned ignited the riot waiting to happen and left homes on both sides and the city itself destroyed.

WhatsApp is not the criminal. The criminals are those who have used the application and more to spread the rumours. And those —state governments, political parties, administration—that ignore the rumours and allow the violence knowing fully well that they will not be able to deal with the consequences in any effective manner. Rumours have been used to instigate violence each and every time. Word of mouth still remains a major conduit in India’s village and remote areas that have born the brunt of communal violence, but of course the internet is also being used to flash the rumours and spread these with perhaps higher speed than was possible before. But even so in recent violence too—such as the ongoing child abduction— an excellent investigation by the Indian Express today clearly confirms what many had known all along. That in each area where mobs collected to lynch the helpless and the innocent, there had been a systematic rumour campaign over the preceding days, if not weeks. And jumpy, panicky, villagers probably instigated by key persons on the ground reacted against the first outsiders who ventured into their terrain as it were to kill with impunity. And with sheer brutality.

The letter by the government to WhatsApp is thus, little more than diversionary tactics. It is not for the application to control the people who are using the facility for such hate speech and viciousness but for the government of India to trace these people, and to unearth what is clearly a conspiracy for reasons that too need to be identified. That the rumours are being spread deliberately—-as were the braid chopping earlier—is clear. That some persons, or groups, or organisations are at work is very possible and it is not difficult for the government to trace the accounts, and to go to the roots of those responsible. Be it one agency or multiple agencies, one ‘miscreant’ as sections of the media describe the killers, or a multitude of these can be easily found by a government armed with all tools of surveillance and more.

Who is spreading the rumours? Who are these people? Why is this being done? Who is responsible? What is being achieved? Are the questions that the government needs to answer. WhatsApp cannot answer these questions and even if it brings in checks —as seems to eb the intention—it will not be able to take India any closer to the answers that are fundamental to stopping this spread of rumours that turns people into mobs that then become killers of the worst kind. To the point where after the innocent are dead, they are not satisfied as the IE investigation shows in some cases. And are also empowered enough to ignore and even attack the police.

Word by mouth remains effective even today for rumours to spread. The internet and various applications are being used to float videos of lynchings and rape, intended to vitiate the environment and make the populace more susceptible to lies and rumours. This knee jerk response to write a letter to WhatsApp is childish and diversionary tactics by the government that needs to use its resources and those of the agencies at its command to crack the case by finding out the persons using the internet to create and spread rumours that have taken a very heavy toll of innocent lives.