Whilst doing field research in a village not too far away from Ambikapur in Surguja in Chhattisgarh, I spoke to a young man who came to the local school accompanied by his nephew, a child aged 5-6 years. While speaking to him, I playfully ruffled the boy’s hair. He didn’t seem to mind, I finished my conversation and went to a nearby tea shop to have breakfast.
Within fifteen minutes, I got a call from a teacher in the school that someone from the village had complained that I was a child snatcher and kidney thief. Intrigued and a bit worried, my friend (also a teacher at this school) and I went to the school. In no time, a group of five to seven people came to the window of the room where we were sitting and started shouting and screaming, threatening to kill me. Apparently, the kid had fainted and they had required two buckets of water to revive him. They were furious that I had touched their child.
The teachers reassured the villagers that I was not a child snatcher, but they were trembling with rage and fear. The shouting and threats continued. The teachers got worried and called the police and the local press, who came rushing within 20 minutes. The situation cooled down. Later that evening and over the next few days, I was featured in the news, primarily as a young man who nearly met his end due to the superstition of villagers.
Of course, this story by now is all too familiar. Across India, approximately 30 people have been killed by mobs who thought the strangers were child snatchers. Many who were part of the mob will probably do hard prison time for manslaughter. The incident involving me is not important in itself – for it merely echoes what has been and is happening across the country. The scale and scope of this panic cuts across much of the country’s rural landscape, but it has not received the critical attention it deserves, apart from a handful of media reports. Because it has spread rapidly across different contexts and regions, I believe there must be underlying social structural reasons as against technological (WhatsApp) or moral (violent character) reasons. This is a tentative attempt to introspect on the wider implications of these rumours.
Let us first address the all too common responses when confronted with news of such incidents – most of them occur in rural and remote areas. Dismissive responses include: they are uneducated and superstitious, they are drunk, they have no jobs or work, they are stupid and mischievous. Upon closer inspection, none of these reasons hold true.
Let us take the charge of being uneducated. What do we mean by this statement more precisely? Do we mean that he or she should know how to sign their name or do we mean a certain level of schooling, or do we really mean a mode of thinking? I suspect it is the latter, rather than literacy or schooling. By this, we mean that the violent villagers are not really rational. In any case, there are multiple instances of educated, literate and otherwise rational people fully willing to believe that the Other is indeed a kidney snatcher or a child snatcher.
Moreover, we live in a country where the political leadership makes regular public statements that shatter any straightforward causal connection between education and rationality. The other problem with this expectation of rationality is that it simply misses the nature of the problem. People are perfectly capable of maintaining rational elements of their lives (running a small shop and managing transactions), whilst simultaneously believing in all kinds of myths.
This holds true for all of us at large. Any patient, patronising, even sympathetic attempt at explaining, the science behind kidney transplantation (as I have seen teachers, journalists and officials try) are met with either silence or refusal. The issue here is neither about education (or rationality), nor anything to do with moral character of the average villager.
The mainstream and social media reportage has presented WhatsApp, mobile technology and smartphone usage as the villains of the narrative. This smacks of indirect elitism – this is what happens when you put high-end technology in the hands of these ‘stupid’ people (as many have told me). Secondly, this narrative mistakes symptoms for the cause. Digital media undoubtedly amplifies the scale, scope and speed of the problem. Not only is the content distributed and amplified faster and wider, it is not terrestrially bound, thus spreading unpredictably to an extent uncontrollable for authorities used to old-school methods of censorship (the standard response from the administration these days is usually to kill the internet post-facto, by when it is always too late).
The other aspect related to media and communication is the gory visuals themselves. The messages are not written warnings or soundscapes. They are visuals – mimetic in the sense they bring about an anticipation, a mirroring of what will happen. We tend to project our own future into images that address our deepest fears and desires. There is a horrified fixation with the realness of the image and this fixation is unavoidably followed by a mental replay of the visual of one’s own family and body interposed into what one has seen.
There is a compulsion to spread this imagery – a mix of shock, perverse fascination and the disbelief that this subterranean aspect of life has come to the surface of discourse. I only stress this aspect to bring your attention to the affective dimension of these rumours and widespread belief in them. Such visuals have a strong affective power and form the driving engine behind the act of ‘forwarding’. The act of forwarding has both online and offline consequences, since forwards blend into interpersonal and group conversations discussing what they have seen on their screens. As Brian Massumi once remarked, affect is asocial, not prosocial.
While the purely affective dimension is pre-social in itself, the fact that these rumours travel far and wide and that people act upon it means there must be some common social conditions that exist in order for the affective dimension to come into play. What we have to ask ourselves is that notwithstanding the particularity of the rumours or their mode of distribution – what are the conditions within which millions of people are willing to invest in these rumours and increasingly act upon them? Here in Chhattisgarh, the fear of child abduction is an old one, with the mythical abductor commonly called ‘udikka’ – a term referring to udaane waala, someone who can fly away with the child. It is a legend with which mothers used to get their child to behave or go to sleep; else the udikka will come and take you away. These rumours, while based on shared myths common across the world, assume materiality when the social and material conditions deteriorate. Let us look at three broad aspects of this deterioration that is common to the majority of the population.
For more than two decades, wealth inequality has widened consistently. Today, the richest 10% control 75% of the wealth in India, making us after Russia, the country with one of the highest wealth inequality in the world. In India, it will take an average daily worker about 941 years to earn what a CEO earns in one year. The supposed fruits of liberalisation have simply not come about for the majority. Second, our media ecology is almost entirely dedicated to upper or upper-middle class and caste, urban population. As a result, there is not a single visual, music, sound or word that even remotely corresponds to life as lived by the poor and lower caste population.
Lack of representation
If and when they find mention of their lives – it is mostly sensationalised or filled with misery. Quotidian rural life as it is lived and experienced is almost entirely missing from our media narratives. Thirdly, the State has consistently failed to create a human presence at the grassroots. On the contrary, central and state governments are increasingly focusing on digital governance through Aadhaar and internet connectivity. In fact, the panacea of connectivity is positioned as a substitute for human and material aspects of governance and infrastructure. Even before the udikka violence began, it has been preceded by at least two solid decades of oppression and marginalisation – both material and symbolic. It is thus almost fitting that widespread violence today is aimed at the figure of the outsider. After so much has been snatched away, do we expect any less than intense violence, when one’s own body and child are under threat?
It is tempting to see these incidents of violence and rumours, to use James Scott’s famous phrase, as ‘weapons of the weak’. We should be wary of assigning a revolutionary status to such violence, since these incidents seem to target the figure of the outsider without any reference to their economic, caste, social/cultural or gender identity. It is a desperate backlash against a perceived attack on their life and their kin, not an emancipatory struggle or resistance. The udikka here is defined negatively – i.e. not familiar or recognisable. He could be poor and/or Dalit, but will still be attacked. The secular trope of the outsider is also what serves to distinguish such incidents from communal or caste-based violence where perpetrator, victim and intent can be identified clearly.
For those who are solution oriented, the entire discussion has focussed on how to stop, or clamp down on the violence. This is understandable, given the consequences of such incidents. However, in this case, because the problem is misunderstood or misdiagnosed, it also tends to produce myopic solutions. For example, there are those advocating for greater surveillance or stricter punishment or increasing intimidation so that villagers will ‘get the message’ by hook or by crook.
Such measures empirically speaking, have failed. For example, in Mendra village in Surguja, the police held an awareness camp and precisely two days later, a person was beaten to death, or in Tripura, the a person was killed while walking around with a loudspeaker, requesting people to not believe in these rumours. Further, blanket surveillance can be misused against other dissenters and activists and tends to position all people as potential criminals. Solutions like these can quite possibly make life worse for the majority. Killing the internet temporarily or issuing orders to WhatsApp to weed out mala fide content is not going to work. The local administration, police, political leadership at state and Centre need to engage by increasing their human presence on an equitable basis – take questions, acknowledge and assuage fears. Initiatives like a 24-hour dedicated helpline, interactive public camps, public service messaging on different media will also go a long way in mitigating the risk of violence.
Ram Bhat is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science and is the co-founder of Maraa, a media and arts collective.