Rumours can light fires, which then spread rapidly

  • Mark Tully, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Oct 10, 2015 22:11 IST
Family members mourn over the death of Ikhlaq after he was killed on Monday by a mob over an allegation of cow slaughtering at Bisada village. (HT Photo)

The brutal lynching of Mohammed Ikhlaq and the severe injury caused to his son were instigated by a rumour, one of the most powerful weapons in the hands of those who want to provoke hatred between communities. A PM who has cultivated so assiduously the friendship of world leaders must be aware of the threat to his reputation that rumour-mongering poses.

MP Yogi Adityanath is a prime example. He misses no opportunity to spread rumours that the census demonstrates the Muslim population is growing so rapidly it represents ‘a threat to Hindus’. This is a rumour that has no statistical justification. Yet this rumour is also being spread in the BJP election campaign in Bihar. It must have been acutely embarrassing for the PM that the Bisada outrage was all over the media while German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of the world’s most influential leaders, was his guest.

One of the roles of rumours in inciting communal violence is to gather crowds. This used to be done highly effectively by word of mouth. Now the rumour-mongers have an infinitely more powerful medium for spreading their inflammatory false information and for attracting crowds — the social media. They have usurped the Bush Telegraph and the press as the most influential media for spreading rumours and gathering crowds. But at the same time, it can be used to counter rumours. However, it will be effective only if the government from the PM downwards has credibility.

There is much discussion these days about the influence of the Court of Public Opinion on the credibility of governments. It is a crucial court in which public opinion is formed, and governments, the corporate sector and private individuals try to protect their reputations. In that court PR men and women are the lawyers trying to influence the jury, the general public.

The government has a disadvantage in the Court of Public Opinion. Bruce Schneier, the author of a book called Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust Society Needs to Survive, has said: “Despite 24 Hour PR firms and incident response plans, the Court of Public Opinion is a court where corporations and governments are at an inherent disadvantage. And because the weak will continue to run ahead of the powerful, those in power will prefer to use the more traditional mechanisms of government, police, courts, and laws.”

When it comes to rumour-mongering and provoking hatred, the police, the courts and the law can make the case for a government’s commitment to secularism in the Court of Public Opinion by taking strong, fair and rapid action against the perpetrators. But in India the police lack that crucial quality of credibility.

In the case of Mohammed Ikhlaq members of the BJP have undermined what little credibility the police might have by their Pavlovian response, as usual trying to defend the perpetrators by creating doubt about the arrests that have been made. BJP legislator Sangeet Som, for instance, has threatened there will be a “befitting reply if innocents are framed”. Som was accused of making inflammatory speeches during the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013.

In an attempt to establish the government’s credibility in the case of Mohammed Ikhlaq, to make the public believe it is determined to defend minorities and to take action against the perpetrators of this brutal act, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has said: “Be it the state government or the central government the strongest possible action will be taken against those who try to break communal harmony in the country.” The home ministry has asked states to “show zero tolerance” and “take strictest action as per law against any attempt to weaken the secular fabric of the nation”.

But the tardy action the courts have taken in the past when the secular fabric of the nation has been torn apart does not inspire confidence that things will be any different this time.

Rumours light fires. Fires spread rapidly and can all too easily get out of control with consequences that could consume the PM’s reputation. If the home minister does take the strongest possible action against those who lit the fire in Bisada it will establish the government’s credibility in the Court of Public Opinion and could deter rumour-mongers.

(The views expressed are personal)

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