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Wednesday, Nov 13, 2019

Mob lynching: Who’s the villian? Social media or trust deficit | Opinion

Rumour-mongering is not a new phenomenon in the country nor is mass hysteria

opinion Updated: Sep 04, 2019 11:48 IST
Sunita Aron
Sunita Aron
Hindustan Times, Lucknow
Even when social media, often perceived as the villain in spreading rumours, was absent, rumours did spread. But lynching incidents were few, if not totally absent.
Even when social media, often perceived as the villain in spreading rumours, was absent, rumours did spread. But lynching incidents were few, if not totally absent.(REUTERS FILE/ Representative Image)
         

In an interactive session with the top brass of Uttar Pradesh’s police force, I casually asked, “Will you feel safe in plain clothes or will your family be safe when they travel by public transport, instead of an escorted police vehicle?”

There was a pin-drop silence, but later some of them privately admitted that even the police are not safe in plain clothes. It’s the uniform that offers them protection. But, even the uniform is no more a guarantee of safety in this season of mob hysteria, violence and lynching. Policemen have been beaten up, police stations burnt and senior officials, minus their security guards, accosted by unruly mobs.

Are we becoming an intolerant society? Or is it a trust deficit with the administration that compels people to take the law into their own hands, deliver their verdict and decide on what punishment to mete out on the spot.

After all, rumour-mongering is not a new phenomenon in the country nor is mass hysteria. Even when social media, often perceived as the villain in spreading rumours, was absent, rumours did spread. But lynching incidents were few, if not totally absent.

I remember how in 2002 people used to stay awake whole nights fearing that “Muhnochwa” (face scratcher) would attack them in the dark. Rumours of a Muhnochwa had started from the east of Uttar Pradesh and spread across the state like wildfire, though there was no video clip that had gone viral. Such was the fear psychosis that the people had even formed night patrolling groups.

I had then decided to park myself, along with my team, in the most-affected area in Allahabad, near the Yamuna river, to catch the Muhnochwa red-handed. The clock kept ticking and we kept sipping tea while people narrated stories of “an unidentified flying object that scratched faces at midnight.” Time just flew past. After sun-up, we left the place dejected as we had failed to meet the imaginary Muhnochwa. The crowds refused to see any reasoning and kept telling us to come the next day for an encounter with the faceless Muhnochwa. They even promised to call some of the Muhnochwa’s victims for us to take pictures.

After some years we heard women complaining about their chopped braids. I met so many of them, who had the same story to narrate, “I started feeling giddy, fell unconscious and when I woke I found my tresses cut.” And there were pictures of cut hair. Reports of violence trickled in, but they were few.

But today anybody accompanying a child – may be father or mother -- is suspected to be a child-lifter. A woman is suspected to be a child-lifter because of her complexion. She was dark and the child fair. The babas are suspects because they carry jholas, a mentally challenged man because he can’t defend himself.

Recently in Ballia district of Uttar Pradesh, a young mother woke up to find her nine-year-old child missing. She panicked and started knocking on doors while the fact was that the child’s uncle had taken him to the doctor for a check-up. While she was hunting for her child, her neighbours thought she had come to lift their child and started beating her. Someone in the neighbourhood, who recognised her, saved her life.

Who is the culprit? Is it the social media alone? After all, most of the incidents are being reported from smaller towns where social media could be one of the culprits. The other could be trust deficit in an inefficient administration.

Social media expert Rakshit Tandon describes fake news as a huge challenge. “The content creators are on it and they make it viral within seconds. In a particular case, police arrested the mischief maker within three days, but by then the provocative clip had reached 15 lakh people.”

Generally by the time police acts, the damage has already been done. The response time is too long.

Of late, we have been hearing about digital volunteers. UP police claimed they deployed about two lakh digital volunteers to counter wrong information circulating on social media.

These digital volunteers are meant to be local public figures like teachers, doctors, village heads, lawyers, traders et al. They have been formed at the police station-level and are called S-10. It is not clear how the police have drawn up the list. There are many influential people in the state capital who say they have neither been approached by the police nor spotted any real effort by these ‘volunteers’ to counter fake news.

Perhaps, society will have to wake up as majority of people are vulnerable. If one way to promptly counter fake news is to make quick appeals, posting positive stories or corrected versions by both the cops and credible people, the other could be the time-tested public announcement systems which are still not obsolete. Munadi (announcements by loudspeakers) have proven effective in some districts.

It is time to act. After all, no one is safe in today’s environment of suspicion, frustration and mistrust.