SWARNA RAJAGOPALAN | 7 JULY, 2018
The Unquestioning Indian: We Did Not Say the Lynching Was Wrong, We Said the Meat Should Have Been Verified First
Why are we believing these rumours?
When I was a little girl, my school held assembly for the primary classes on what we called ‘The Platform,’ an open space levelling the uneven ground between two buildings, with a narrow opening at one end to a similar unpaved space and gate.
As a tall girl with an ‘R’ surname, I would stand at the back of the class line, as a few lingering parents and other adults would watch us through that narrow opening. Every few weeks, a rumour would circulate about ‘kidnappers.’
We would be terrified. Every adult watching kids stand solemnly at assembly—family and caregivers, probably thinking, “So sweet, so serious”—looked like an ominous kidnapper. They all looked evil, and we were ever so relieved to be out of their line of vision, in our classrooms. We were between 5 and 8 and barely understood the difference between robber and kidnapper. We knew to sense threat and we simply responded to it.
Rumours are hardly a new phenomenon. What is new is our willingness to act first on a rumour and then verify. This hearsay lynching culture may be said to have begun with the Dadri mob killing someone because he might have eaten beef (or earlier). We did not say it is wrong to lynch someone; we said it is wrong to lynch them without verifying which meat it was. Right there, we should have known things would get worse. We seem to now be in the middle of a lynching epidemic set off by wild rumour-mongering. But we are still searching for whom to blame. It is surely not us, as we choose to lynch; nor those who started the rumours. We shoot the messenger, and or at least, press for its regulation.
Even as we now debate whether WhatsApp and other platforms can be regulated meaningfully, let me ask another question: Why are we believing these rumours? When the 7-year-old went home and said seriously, “I saw one kidnapper at Assembly today,” there was always an adult available to dismantle the misconception and allay the fear. What has happened to us?
Future generations will be struck by the irony that in the age when information is most accessible to more people than ever before, we chose to remain ignorant and credulous.
Take news. We now have news, Fake News, Paid News and Screaming News. It is hard to tell them apart unless that is your main business. We can play ‘whodunit’ endlessly, but the fact remains not just is it being purveyed, it is also being purchased. Someone is ready to believe fake news or paid news or the news of the loudest person.
Take facts. We have facts and we are told, there are alternative facts. We have now styled our age ‘post-factual,’ and clever as that sounds, what it implies is frightening—that in this age, in democratic politics, facts do not matter. We know that to some extent this has always been true. We are eager to believe the truths that allow us to be comfortable. For instance, believing in the liberalisation boom and the growing middle class has allowed us to ignore how many people in the new middle class live precariously and how many are still left behind. Not long ago, a strong cynicism about government and politics stopped us from believing everything uncritically. I know I learned to believe that if something was official, it was probably not reliable—datasets, speeches, reports and manifestos were all read with a large pinch of salt.
Now we want to believe. Desperately. Therefore, we appear to have become consenting denizens of a bubble of alternative reality conjured up on the fly by a strong leader who is convinced about his truth. In the story of the Emperor’s new clothes, it is the Emperor’s delusions you first laugh at, until you reflect on his or her willing subjects—the ones who are too apathetic or too afraid to call out the truth to him. The bubble may be pleasing to the Emperor but it is preserved by his or her public.
Therefore, we believe everything we read and nowadays, we mainly read WhatsApp. It brings the world to us every morning with a variety of cheery and pious ‘Good morning’ GIFs, followed by the news of the world. This is how we have learned in recent years about the UNESCO prizes for best Prime Minister, about the conspiracies behind Jayalalithaa’s death, destructive tidal waves, the contents of people’s kitchens and now, about kidnappers and traffickers. I have quietly laughed at people who believed and shared these stories as news; I am not laughing now.
WhatsApp’s technology apparently makes it harder to track the origins of these rumours, but in searching for a way to fix that, we are likely also to lose one of its best features—encryption. And what we will still not fix is us and our willingness to believe uncritically. WhatsApp is only the messenger.
That, I believe, is a function of how we learn to learn. Of course, things are changing in small pockets but schooling for most of us has been and continues to be, a place of uncritical rote learning. Faced with large classes and syllabi to complete, teachers ride a bullet train delivering classes to students, unable to pause, linger and engage.
The result is that hundreds of thousands of us learn a great deal, store it in short-term memory so as to disgorge it into an answer paper. We ask no questions; have no discussions; never play what-if and never learn critical thinking. We are argumentative, not in the sense that we like to think through and form our own ways of reasoning about a subject, but in the sense that once we take a position, we will argue it to the point that one of us collapses. There is a great deal of difference between the two. The latter variety of argument is not a journey, it is an endpoint; and now, the endpoint is when someone dies for disagreeing with your position.
Years ago, when I began studying Sri Lankan politics, a historian lamented the fact that Social Studies had replaced History in the school curriculum. I now understand the difference it makes. Not only have Indians not studied history for more than twenty years, even before that, it would appear that we were simply mastering lists of dates. We retain nothing longer than necessary for an exam; no need to understand.
We have come full circle to regarding history as myth and myth as history. When we cannot remember the history of the last half-century, we naturally believe anything about a thousand or ten thousand years ago. Those who rule us, are of us. Naturally, it is getting hard to remember who made which policy, what action causes which crises and who resisted which injustice. No one can challenge what no one remembers any more. And the warning bells die down—you cannot remember what sort of behaviour sparked which disaster or violence; everything is new and we are always unprepared. We are especially unprepared to resist.
Add to this what we are taught to expect from authority figures—sagacity, truth, leadership and benevolence. We believe they know better. We seek their guidance and advice because it is our culture (or so we are told). We know we cannot function without instructions or the threat of punishment. Look at how we respond to any crime—we want the most severe punishment instantly meted out so that we will be deterred.
We believe that we cannot do what is right unless there is a tangible cost to doing otherwise. We do not trust ourselves and yet, we believe in the wisdom of the ‘public’—who came up with ‘public hai, sab janti hai’? Thus, in our infinite wisdom, like those in the state of nature, we choose for ourselves Leviathan-like leaders who are strong, confident and will lead us even if they have to control us for our own good.
Unprepared, uncritical, unquestioning and gullible. That is us—trained to obedience, discouraged from speaking our minds, untrained in reasoning, trusting no one less than ourselves or more than our governments. Except possibly, rumours and mobs. If everyone forwards something, it must be true, and if everyone is running around with sticks, it must be the thing to do.
This must be the Fifth (or Sixth) Wave of Democracy where the people become a mob and the mob cheerfully surrenders its right to think. I look forward to seeing what my political science colleagues make of it.