Rumours and Riot Production

While it is undeniable that social media platforms have transformed the public sphere, the transformation has not been an entirely positive one. With the circulation of fake news and party propaganda, social media platforms have become terrifying spaces for the transmission of inaccurate information. Social media platforms are being increasingly put under the scanner because of the allegedly unethical circulation of individuals’ databases stored on these platforms. With the Cambridge Analytica scam being uncovered as a permanent threat to privacy—a lost cause, and India being included in the list of countries circulating the private information of its citizens, it is no wonder that the shift from ‘citizen’ to ‘subject’ has already taken place.

Justifications of government dealings or decisions are being promoted in the name of jokes, and the ruling party leader is becoming more of a deity than a human being. Like the ableist category of divyang or ‘divinely-abled’ people for disabled individuals has been created in the interest of appearing ‘progressive’, the leadership cult around the Prime Minister has accorded him divine status in order to secure permanent stay till the next elections, at a minimum. The system of bulldozing over the opposition or any alternative channel holding the government accountable for its actions is not far from authoritarianism. As a result, democracy becomes a positive illusion validating all action and decision-making in the name of choice and representation, when in reality, choice is severely limited by arbitrary state aggression and representation by slowly erasing marginalized voices. However, direct state violence cannot survive without indirect indoctrination. To use Althusser’s concepts, the Repressive State Apparatus needs the Ideological State Apparatus. The Ideological State Apparatus of a Hindutva nation as the pitrubhumi and punyabhumi is not only supported by media campaigning or electioneering—it also relies on how rumours spread like wildfire.

Many researchers have discovered direct connections between rumours and mass movement, be it mass agitation and protest, or overwhelming support for the status quo. This system of information transmission carries the implicit signature of validity, while remaining anonymous. In other words, rumours confuse fact and fiction and define our sense of purposive reality, especially when forming communal opinions. Stereotypes, prejudices and generalizable comments on the nature of groups or social interactions are perpetuated through rumour mongering as one of the systems of information dissemination. For example, the belief that Sikhs are a martial race, or that Marwaris are financially secure because of their cunning nature, are universalizing frameworks we adopt as a result of our socialization. On the other hand, we expect that as a result of contradictory personal experiences with people from different communities and walks of life, these chains would be broken down; that our interactions with diverse individuals would disable these convenient cognitive categories and imbue our thought and opinions with much needed complexity and criticality. In other words, we would learn about the fallacy of generalisations. However, such is the power of a rumour that it becomes difficult to break it down or critique it, and obedience, conformity or compliance are the only behaviours we learn. The irony of the situation is that rumours are perhaps the most unverifiable and untraceable systems of communication, yet the immense influence they have over public opinion is frightening. Rumours can sway moods, choices, and lives.

A series of riots have broken out in the Bihar-West Bengal region, with Asansol being one of the locations of violence. “It was a failure on the part of the state government,” a BJP spokesperson explained. The tussle between the TMC state government of West Bengal and the central BJP government has been understood to be the primary reason for the ‘organization’ of the riot during Ram Navami proceedings, especially in the context of local BJP leaders being found guilty of inciting riots by the police. Even when we accept that polarisation is an extremely beneficial device for securing vote banks for the upcoming elections, how is it so easy to organize riots? How do they merit so much participation? A systemic breakdown of economic, social, and political order in any area is disadvantageous to the whole local community. Does that mean that the rioters are ‘external professionals’? What interests of the locals are being satisfied through the outbreaks of violence? We need to look beyond the affected localities, and focus on the larger picture driving the action behind the scenes. Paying heed to the rumours circulating, tracing them to their source, and apprehending the culprits would require a free and fair investigation. This would assume the presence of a ‘real’ representative democracy securing fundamental rights. Is that too much to ask for?

– Contributed by Tript

Picture Credits: / AFP

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