Thursday, May 04, 2006

Half baked?

A text message I received just now illustrates the dilemma of the common man. “Repeat of 2002. 2 colonies in Baroda surrounded (etc. etc.) Please try to help. Forward this to as many people as possible. Do something.”

I hate what happened in Ahmedabad then. I’m worried about what’s happening in Baroda now. I wish I could do something about it. Since I’m not the man in charge there, I can only watch television, call friends who know what’s happening … and check back on urgent text messages from “a girl called Shabnam”.

I called my friend and mentor in Delhi. He was a trifle brusque. “We have our men there. This is bullshit. Ignore it.”

If he says the situation is under wraps, I believe him. If he asked me to jump down the lift-shaft, I’d do it without … well, being the way I am, I’d probably ask him a couple of questions first, but I’d do it. This man is bedrock. Bottom line – there is no repeat of the Best Bakery scenario in Baroda now. (The text message even mentioned “near Super Bakery”. Such artful use of the resonance of memory.)

They’re saying it on television all the time. Don’t spread rumours. Do. NOT. Spread. Rumours.

Rumours are poison. This message, for example. I’m a naturally cynical old cuss, so I cross-checked. What if you’re about 22 and you already have a grouse? What if day in and day out for those 22 years, you’ve been systematically poisoned against others, against anybody who doesn’t pray where you pray, eat what you eat, wear the same clothes as you? Wouldn’t it be that much easier to call you out of your house and put a can of kerosene in your hands? Voila, Baroda is no longer an isolated incident, there’s Meerut and Hyderabad and Jajau for company!

I didn’t forward the message. After I’d checked, I called the friend who’d sent it to me. Now she’s texting everybody to whom she’d sent the earlier message, to tell them it was a hoax (she’d got as far as ‘B’ in her phone-book). Let’s hope they haven’t already forwarded it to Aurangabad and Jhumri Thilaiya.

To come back to the average man and his dilemma. If he gets a message like that, he can turn on the radio and check for news, but at the back of his mind there’s a voice saying “Maybe it’s not even on the news yet, there may be people burning to death, SHIT, what do I do?! Whom do I know in Baroda?!” You see how it goes.

So should he ignore it? Should he wait till the afternoon news shows the body-bags being carried out, then curse because “dammit, I knew about this four hours ago, what was the administration doing?!?!” Or should he just call as many people as he can in the hope that somebody will do something about it? Tough call. My friend messaged me. But she also messaged others. Perhaps she should have called me first.

Perhaps I’ve spent too much time within the system. Perhaps it has eroded my individualism. Perhaps that’s why I believe you should leave these things to the people whose job it is to stop the killing. Perhaps. (There’s cynicism involved too; after all the present political equation is very different from the time Ahmedabad happened.)

Or perhaps I’ve seen enough good men within the system who honestly try their best to stay human, to help, to follow their conscience, to preserve their backbones. Either way, there’s no percentage in spreading bad news. Especially without verifying it.

Next step in the hypothesis – if you verify the bad news and it’s true, and you’re all the way across the country, should you spread the news? Would that help? How do you calculate the benefit-cost ratio? Would the news cause some more deaths elsewhere? Or would it mobilise enough decent people to stop the killing? Tough call?

Well, there’s always the belief that the truth shall set you free. But as I grow older, I wonder ….

**** ****


vanilla said...

The Gujarat government banned SMSes on mobiles for some hours, to prevent panic due to rapidly spreading rumours. All that is caused by such information is panic.

Anyway, on a side-line, why does everybody conveniently *just* hate what happened at best bakery. Why why why do people forget the horrid burning of alive people in an entire bogie at Godhra, due to some eve-teasing of a muslim woman? Why do people only look at suffering of muslims and conveniently forget the suffering of hindus altogether. It was a horrible horrible time for us Gujaratis, both Hindus and Muslims. Something that we are shameful about. Please refrain from such pseudo-secular nonsense.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Vanilla, step back, take a deep breath and read what I wrote. The text message mentioned some "Super Bakery", probably caculated to bring to mind the much-publicised Best Bakery case.

I've been in riot situations and I haven't noticed any Hindus or Muslims. Only trouble-makers and criminals on the one hand and terrified suffering people on the other.

Our supposed secularism seems a sham. And the term "pseudo-secularism" has already become a shibboleth.


bongop'o'ndit said...

One of the unfortunate side-effects of technological progress.

SMS-ing and mobile calls were responsible to a great degree in spreading rumors as well as assembling masses during the Sydney riots of last year and the riots in Britain five years ago.
Hopefully, steps like temporary ban on SMS/cell-phones or a quick publicity by the authorities will counter such troublemakers in future.

On a similar note, I am sick and tired of people forwarding me e-mails with various warnings about two-way bathroom mirrors, bone-eating colas and tempting of bad luck by failure to forward to N number of people. Some people mercifully simply hit forward button, others even add a few cautionary words of their own (in a totally altruist spirit no doubt). One word for all these people:

Sorry for the diversion from the more serious topic.

km said...

Yes, but does Bill Gates pay each SMS forwarder 2 gazillion dollars?

The SMS feature and a button-happy thumb. Oy veh. A marriage of idiots.

Anonymous said...

"Perhaps I’ve spent too much time within the system. Perhaps it has eroded my individualism. Perhaps that’s why I believe you should leave these things to the people whose job it is to stop the killing. Perhaps."

Wonderful. It feels so good to hear that our country is in safe hands.

p.s.: instead of wasting our tax money doing this catatonic poetry, it might be better if you actually went and saved some lives.

Anti-establishment Inc said...

The truth is very often what we make out of it. When the IISC incident happened in Bangalore, there were rumours that human bombs were roaming around in Bangalore. It turned out to be a hoax and I believe that the administration did their best to ensure people that things were all right. This post too serves that purpose. Thank you.

As far as getting rid of rumours is concerned, it is truly a herculian task.

jhantu said...

JAP the very essence of a riot is the presence of troublemakers and criminals in the crowd who will not only instigate people around you, but also acitively take part in all the different ingredients that finally make up a riot. What i fail to understand though how normal sane non-criminal minded people sudenly instigated by a handful of criminal elements start taking part in this absolutely shitty mass hysteria. I mean how does the riot makers gang swell upto such huge numbers????

And the only explanation i can think of is to quote feluda "Men have evolved from a certian killer ape species".

Tabula Rasa said...

there isn't any good way to manage a rumor, is there? especially in 'us' vs 'them' situations like this, any attempts to squash a rumor only lead to feelings - on both sides, ironically - that the government has something to hide. and this only serves to accelerate the spreading.

banning sms'es is effective to an extent, but repeated use of this tactic means that it will inevitably be circumvented some day. after all, these rumors aren't just starting by themselves, they're being motivated. the only way to stop someone shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater is if that person knew they could be identified. is it legally / technologically possible to trace the sms stream back to its source?

Rimi said...

p.s.: instead of wasting our tax money doing this catatonic poetry, it might be better if you actually went and saved some lives.

Anon, hon, you're deliberately missing the point, aren't you? Back off, love. We have enough trouble with persecution mania and stoking raging emotions. Don't add deliberate idiocy to it, there's a good Anon.

Incidentally, thought of giving the army or the administrative system a try? Yeah, thought so.

Priya said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Priya said...

So Anon, how many did you save? If you did any, good for you. But if you didn't, I'm sure you could've saved at least one, if you didn't waste time commenting on this blog or lurking around in blogsphere. Thank you. Now, get that butt off the chair and head for Baroda before unidentified hurtling objects hit you.
JAP, completely agree with you, rumours are poison. They consume as they spread. Also, don't think, we suckers of technology can do much to control the menace of fwds.

The Marauder's Map said...

I was wondering about the same things when the Rajkumar riots broke out here -- how much we spread panic by predicting the turn of things and unwittingly help those events along simply by predicting them. A mob is so often like a performing animal, I feel. It can't help but get reactive when it sees a ready audience, waiting for some reactions.

ichatteralot said...

The common man's motto is save yourself and your family and run. The people who sav eothers are rare

Patient Portnoy said...

It's not 'it happens to other people' anymore. And I'm scared of the mob after what happened in Bangalore.

If a victim is the only "happening" thing in their lives, they don't have much chance against that idea of glory. And neither has the victim

But out of all this, this shines out: "Or perhaps I’ve seen enough good men within the system who honestly try their best to stay human, to help, to follow their conscience, to preserve their backbones..."

barkha dutt said...

I dont really blog, and I have never posted a comment on any blog so far. But Gujarat touches a raw nerve, and Im just back from Baroda to the usual filled-with-hatemail inbox. Just want to say, that while the text messages that came in on the evening you mention may have been exaggerated in degree and detail (and we didnt put them on television for hours) my sense is that if there werent this much media scrutiny, changed political equations at the centre, and the pressure from within his own party ( Even Modi cant afford it again), this could have easily been a repeat of 2002. As journalists we love doing the standard hindu-muslim bhai bhai stories. But theres no candy-flossing the levels of hatred in Gujarat. The only place that comes close is Kashmir ( and there its not religious). Kind of ironic given that the tragedies from both communities were identical, mirror images really. The one mistake i think we made in the media is to not respond to the stabbling of the two "hindus" killed right after the demolition of the dargah. goodness knows, Im not into the headcount based on religion ( hence the hate mail that labels me "anti-hindu etc etc). But our reflexes are designed to react to certain trigger points and to that extent we played into the hands of the rabids. That said, Baroda feels like a city frothing at the mouth, barely held back. Barkha Dutt.

Aunty Marianne said...

We had a case here in Brussels recently where an unfortunate local lad called Joe was knifed savagely in the main station for his iPod. He died.

The far right got hold of CCTV pictures of "the assailants". They looked as if they were Moroccan, a large immigrant population in Brussels. They released it on the Internet, and bigoted people were forwarding this email. I got it 3 times from people who should know better. There was no info on who had released the pictures, nor any shots of the actual attack. So it was impossible to tell whether they were actually the assailants.

When the police finally caught and DNA-confirmed the killers, two lads of 17, they turned out to be Poles. Ethnic Poles too. With good Polish names. Not Moroccan at all.

Has the far right apologised? Have the idiots who forwarded me the mails apologised? Hell no. It's just too much fun to stigmatise the Other.

Makes me bloody mad.

Sue said...

Yes. On a lower scale, all the fake virus messages are quite damaging too. I've had IT friends tell me how folks would 'virus-proof' their computer by changing/renaming files... All it took was one silly message and too much credulity for them to crash their own machines. I know, it's not the same thing as what you are talking about, but the principle's the same.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

BongoPondit – some day I shall post my standard reply to chain-mails. What’s with the arbit apostrophe?

KM – Bill hasn’t paid me yet. And idiots are verywhere.

Anon – I can’t agree about “poetry”, but thank you for making me look up “catatonic”

a-e inc – thank you for kind words

me-jhantu – I agree. Scroll up to my reply to Vanilla

T. Rasa – text messages can be traced, it’s been done

Rimi, Priya – thank you so much for the defence.

M. Map – I had the self-fulfilling prophecy in mind when I wrote the last two paras. You must have seen enough of them in your line of work.

Ichatter – the good sort are not SO rare


J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Barkha – I agree that the changed political equation has probably prevented another bloodbath. I got a feel of Kashmir many years ago; I still haven’t understood the bases for the hatred in Gujarat. And yes, I used to feel queasy sending wireless messages about “Historians” and “Mathematicians”

Auntie M – nice case study. There are many arguments in favour of thrashing the hell out of rumour-mongers.

Sue – a large chunk of skepticism is healthy. Unless you happen to be Captain Carrot


bongop'o'ndit said...


not quite arbit - just trying to dinstinguish myself from the all the random Pundits out there in the blogosphere.