How fear, blame lie at the root of mass hysteria surrounding incidents like the braid-chopping one

Each event whether monkey man, braid women, or the much-saluted Ganesh becomes a fable unfolding the symptoms of trust and the contours of suspicion and anxiety

analysis Updated: Aug 08, 2017 08:21 IST
Hysteria,Ganapathi Festival,Rumour
A girl from Gurgaon whose braid was allegedly chopped off, with her mother, August 1. Women in Haryana are falling asleep or falling unconscious and coming awake to discover their hair has been cut. (Praveen Kumar/Hindustan Times)

Fear and anxiety often demand an articulation of a public performance. When it reaches the level of panic, it acquires an epidemic quality of a spectacle, rampant when it is present, forgotten and almost mysterious when it is over. Some of these events have a devastating effect on the psyche of a society. One can think of a witch hunt, the great inquisitions or even the stock market crash of 1930. Such panics, from being invitations to storytelling, often reveal the repressions of a society. All it needs is a rumour, an audience prone to gossip and anxiety, and the gruesome episode begins.

One recent example was the Ganapati Festival but it had an almost endearing quality to it. I remember colleagues of mine in Delhi who went to temples to see the phenomenon came back feeling blessed. When I smiled sceptically, one of them explained to me “It is not how many academic degrees you have. You have to believe to see it. It is like punya. If you don’t have it, you can learn it.” Another said, a pujari whose temple was not the site of miracles has gone to the hills to meditate, do penance because he feels he has missed out. I offered to go to the hills but another said, “Don’t laugh at us, you have not been touched by God as we have. This is a faith which you won’t understand. To believe is to be blessed.” I felt left out as Ganapati looked indifferently at me.

I consoled myself by reading about a rationalists meeting, reading an edit about scientific temper. Why do such epidemics occur so often?

I was reading about the braid cutting phenomena. Women in Haryana are falling asleep or falling unconscious and coming awake to discover their hair has been cut. Panic spreads quietly across town and women shut doors to keep out the evil force. While the Ganesh episode had a touch of the comic, the braid episode evokes the right touch of the sinister, the lethal. Where innocence ends, and conspiracy begins is difficult to decipher. Rationality dismisses the event but rationality cannot explain it.

Reading the origins of such an event, one senses a sequence. It usually is triggered, often innocuously, in moments of anxiety where the first event seems almost a joke, carrying the touch of the incredulous. It looks like a prank but is never fully dismissed as such. By the third or fourth report, rumour has acquired a tenacity, a vector of its own. Forces of law and order are summoned but they make little sense of it. They ask people to be cautious, adding a few layers of paranoia to the anxiety. Explanations do not explain. Lucky charms seems to guarantee more safety than police escorts and cow dung and turmeric, usually used to keep people at bay, become popular. Warding off evil becomes a local cottage industry as a community waits to zero in on the next report. It is generally a vulnerable group that is targeted, children, women and the victims have an ambivalent status. They are both complainants and rumour-mongers. Forensic experts collect the braid for analysis but forensics is little match for witchcraft as the anxiety spreads. It is eerie watching official rationality and irrationality battle but what makes it sinister is the element of violence as superstition inevitably searches for a scapegoat as a cause. A Dalit woman, a migrant worker, a minority group meets a gory death that changes the narrative. The victim as complainant has an innocuous story but rumours provide the agency of the narrative. The police then find their own scapegoats but few look at the social profile of anxiety, mobility, displacement, the appearance of a modernity that does not answer questions of meaning. Indeed, people prefer collective insanity to an individual recognition of problems.

Rumour constructs a monster, a demonology which is always amorphous. What it smashes is the usual routine of domestic life as suspicion cuts down on interaction and a fortress complex develops. There is a predictable quality of narratives. What one misses is the presence of groups, civil society activists, doctors who can tackle the event, civil society activists to initiate panchayat meetings. As hysteria mounts, violence increases. Yet a few weeks later after the ‘criminal’ is caught, few are able to explain what happened. Social scientists rarely follow up. The standard explanations hardly explain. The weak and susceptible are often accused of magnifying attention on them. Yet these words look as if a lot of the script is missing. Just as we have early warning groups to predict a stock market crash, we need groups that examine such explosions of irrationality as symptoms of what such societies are going through. Each event whether monkey man, braid women, or the much-saluted Ganesh becomes a fable unfolding the symptoms of trust and the contours of suspicion and anxiety. Scenarios of this kind will become more critical as society faces tensions it cannot comprehend at the level of folklore. Here, the Ojha and the Shaman may be as necessary as the psychiatrist. Such crises can be a moment of collaboration between our different psychiatric systems. Constructing such epidemics as mere law and order problems adds little to understanding or healing.

Shiv Visvanathan is Professor, Jindal Global Law School and Director, Centre for the Study of Knowledge Systems, O.P. Jindal Global University.

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Aug 07, 2017 12:46 IST