The ruse of rumours

We the people of India, that is Bharat, have paid a heavy price in the last few days to realise the power of whispered words — or, as they are often referred to, rumours. Wild forest fires cannot match their pace or the scorching they leave behind as they spread far and wide.

It comes as no consolation to hear the home secretary — five full days after the damage began — inform the nation that these panic-creating, exodus-driving rumours originated from Pakistan. As if to provide a balm to soothe our nerves, the chief minister of Assam states that all along he suspected a foreign hand.
There was a time when, decades ago, the Congress Party saw the devil of the foreign hand even when monsoons failed. It is earnestly hoped that we are no longer looking for an alibi for our failures in the “foreign hand”. Hands, foreign or Indian, need to be identified, made to face the law of the land and duly convicted, without undue delay.
Let us presume for a moment that it is indeed a cyberwar unleashed by Pakistan, as home secretary R.K. Singh said. But, in hindsight, the damage that was done, the lives that were lost, the fear psychosis that was generated, were all controllable.
After the terrible Mumbai riots, when Pune was heating up and targeted attacks were being reported, it was essential to have had a convergence between the Central and state intelligence, as well as all monitoring, preventive detention and community support mechanisms. The Maharashtra government, already reeling under the shock of the Mumbai riots, were probably sizing up the extent of problem at hand. Even their women constables who were molested, that too in full view of the media, did not want to file a complaint. This in itself can raise several questions in our minds. Let me hasten to add that it is entirely the prerogative of those women to complain or to quietly suffer the trauma and the violation. The questions raised herein are more in the nature of understanding the collective Indian mind.
Do such decisions get taken by the institution or by the individual constables? Do decisions taken in such contexts factor in the obvious, that it was violence against women (VAW)? As a nation we rightly respond with a call against the Khap panchayats whenever unlawful diktats affecting the safety and security of women are issued. Here is a case of not common women but women in uniform, women who enforce law, empowered women who were molested publicly, and not one woman constable, but probably a platoon! When, during elections or even otherwise, a public servant is stopped from performing his/her duties, the act of stopping calls for a punishment. Can it be construed that molesting is less offensive than stopping someone from performing their duty? Sometimes, when small men and women afraid of powerful offending opponents write a postcard to the Chief Justice of India, justice is done based on that simple postcard. Are the images flashing live from ground zero through several media cameras less potent than a postcard? Don’t commissions both at the Centre and state, for women or human rights, see a cause to take up? Or are women in uniform exempt from their good services?

Getting back to the cyberwar and the rumours, it was interesting to observe some experts suggesting censorship of social media as a remedy, keen as they were to cover up the inefficient administration. This suggestion is interesting because the media, in general, has actively and rightly demanded self-regulation for themselves. This demand has been made notwithstanding the fact some sections do report/telecast unverified stories and images.
The tone and tenor of the television debates on the exodus of the people of the Northeast from various states was thankfully subdued. The “speak in one voice in support of the fleeing people” rationale prevailed. This was fortuitously, but easily obtained. However, there is a reason to worry. We may all quickly get back to our duties and responsibilities, and the main issue may remain unaddressed. What are we going to do about the offenders? The offenders who kicked the Martyr’s Memorial in Mumbai, the molesters of the women constables, those who whispered ear to ear, those who keyed in text messages and even those who publicly spewed hate messages. We may hold candlelight marches, wear a black band or even give fiery speeches in Parliament. But that is not taking action. We need to act at different levels, because that is our duty.
The rumours are less worrying than our failure to punish the rumour-mongers. Definition of cyberwars can not be limited to systems being hacked or when viruses garble your texts. The immeasurable collateral damage it does to our collective conscience has to be deconstructed and studied. The damage to our collective conscience will be manifold when we remain powerless to punish the perpetrators. After all, the cyberwar may have emanated from outside, but why should we wait to punish those here who served as their force multipliers? Let the mandarins in the MEA deal with any foreign hand which churned this rumour machine, but those adding the ballast to it are here, aren’t they?
Riots, communal violence, rumour mongering, VAW and atrocities against SCs and STs are crimes this nation can no longer afford. This is not to say that other crimes are lesser evils. But crimes that hit our collective conscience have a detrimental effect which brings down our self-confidence and our belief in our nation. Crimes which go unpunished breed more such crimes. We should not lose this opportunity to undertake the necessary course correction we need to take for a better India. Our future generations will not pardon us if we fail this time.

The writer is spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The views expressed in this
column are her own.

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