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The Rumour Mill.

Byline: Faizan Usmani

Since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken over the reins, it is neither economic progress nor a diplomatic achievement that marks his term of office; it's a gradual increase in nationwide riots between Hindus and Muslims that rightly characterise any development made in Modi's rule so far.

Mohammad Akhlaq, a 55-year-old man in Uttar Pradesh, was killed by a group of people allegedly over rumours that he had stored and consumed beef at home. Lynched by a mob in the streets of Bisada village in Dadri town, Akhlaq was kicked and stoned to death, while his son was also critically injured in the attack and admitted to hospital. Police later found that it was mutton not beef, which had been stored in Akhlaq's refrigerator. However, they have yet to find out who spread the rumour that resulted in the loss of Akhlaq's life.

According to Sajida, the 18-year old daughter of Mohammad Akhlaq, "a hundred or more villagers had arrived at our home and accused us of keeping beef. They broke down our doors and started beating my father and brother, while my father was dragged outside the house and beaten with bricks. We came to know later that an announcement had been made from the temple about us storing and eating beef."

In another similar incident in Karhal in Mainpuri district, rumours of cow slaughter allegedly by some Muslims triggered communal riots in the area. After the post-mortem of the cow, however, it was found that the animal had not been slaughtered, but had died from a disease. Again, who spread the rumour remains not known.

After a few days of the Karhal incident, Nauman, a 22-year-old Muslim, was allegedly killed by villagers in Sarahan near Saharanpur over accusations of 'smuggling' cattle in a truck from one village to another, while four others were also beaten up. In Udhampur district in Indian-occupied Kashmir, a truck conductor Zahid was critically injured by some people on rumours that he had slaughtered a cow, while his truck was firebombed. He died in a hospital in Delhi after ten days of suffering from serious head injuries.

On numerous occasions, it has been noted that a mere rumour causes Hindu-Muslim riots across the country; they are often initiated by the the Hindus and the pretext is consumption of beef; it occurs mostly in low income rural areas.

As per the psychology of rumours, it tends to be an inevitable and ubiquitous feature of a social environment. It is usually created to attract quick attention, which affects attitudes and actions in a prepared social environment.

Beyond recurring Hindu-Muslim clashes, what makes today's Indian society more vulnerable to such rumour-based communal conflicts is its decreasing tolerance and distrust of those who are different based on their caste, religion, and ethnic backgrounds.

Does an increasing ratio of such incidents suggest deterioration of collective social psychology in India

Says Shiv Visvanathan, an Indian public intellectual and social scientist: "India is a strange country. We seem to be quarrelling all the time. We identify ourselves by the dislike we feel for others or smugness with which we say "we are not them." Our identity is composed of divisions, of the memories of Partition, of linguistic re-ordering, of the populism of small states. Our national game is neither hockey nor cricket, but factionalism. It adds to the perpetual instability of our system."

"The rumours may be new, but the mills have been churning for centuries," says Jamuna Prasad, a renowned psychologist, who has conducted comprehensive research on the psychology of the spread of rumours in India. "Rumours spread the most when anxiety levels are at their peak. As uncertainty and anxiety levels rise, those who find importance in the subject find it difficult to analyse the rumour's credibility. Add internet and instant messaging to that and the rate of transmission increases manifold - rumours used to spread a person at a time, but now it's literally a horde at a time," says Prasad.

Rumours often feed an intolerant mind and provoke it to take actions, whether alone or in association, with like-minded people. "Rumours are a way of both provoking and mastering anxiety in a situation of threat and violence," says Sudhir Kakar, an Indian author and professional psychoanalyst.

"Rumours give meaning to pre-existing anxieties," according to Professor Prashant Bordia, the author of 'Rumour Psychology: Social and Organisational Approaches.' "People may act on the basis of a rumour even if they don't believe it. It is a 'better safe than sorry' approach," says Bordia.

"Rumours that spread the fastest are almost always related to ethnic conflicts and rioting, issues of personal safety or health, and crime, whereas the only way to control or rebut it is to have the rumour denied by a source that is trustworthy to the target audience," he adds.

Vasundhara Sirnate is the chief research coordinator at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy at Chennai, Tamil Nadu. He believes India desperately needs legislation to instil and cultivate a culture of tolerance among the people.

"In recent years, nothing has testified to the breakdown of religious tolerance in society than the various instances of communal and caste clashes. Riots are manufactured in contemporary India and they, more than anything else, tell us that essentially we live in a society where tolerance has a weak societal foundation, evidenced in the easy way mobs are mobilised by political entrepreneurs to engage in killing. While tolerance is a sought after value by many in India, we have been unable to enforce it in society, or even broaden the appeal of being tolerant in society," says Sirnate.

According to Sirnate, "Many people in India do not want to rent homes to Muslims, single women and men and people from the northeast. The logic offered is often that such people may do "bad" things, "immoral" things or may eat food that homeowners don't want to be cooked in the spaces they rent out."

"In essence, a person's perception of what a group represents (single women, Muslims, people from the northeast), allows that person to informally institutionalise his intolerance of such groups," he adds.

In the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious Indian society, a rumour has become a powerful and deadly weapon to assail, attack and assault, and is often committed on racial, religious, political and other grounds.

Particularly, when a rumour relates to a religious matter, it usually results in a disastrous confrontation between different religious groups, causing human losses and economic damages. Thus, a simple rumour may wreak havoc in terms of violence, killings and destructions in a society in no time at all, and that is what is happening in today's India.

The alarms are ringing as Indian society is gradually sliding to fanaticism, which cannot be stamped out easily.
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Publication:South Asia
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Nov 30, 2015
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