The marriage between riots and rumours

The early morning of 15th of February, Haryana Roadways decided to do something different; they took a nausea inducing route to Delhi with me on board. But I reached on time, was introduced to a different identity of Delhi; one with open fields and empty spaces that were somewhat out of DDLJ.

Regardless of the beauty of early morning mists settling in fields, few kilometres away, few protestors had blocked the main route between Rohtak and Delhi. Nothing alarming, it was known beforehand that they would, to put pressure on the current state government to include few more castes in the quota system. I was already making plans to go back to my hometown, or get my family to visit me in Delhi since I was irritated shopping alone for all the women in the family (our tastes just don’t match, and Lajpat has horrible 3G connectivity to conduct a back and forth of designs).

What I didn’t know was that in the coming week, I would become familiar with fear and worry like only my mother felt when I travelled alone. The agitation for Jat reservation would spread like wildfire in the coming week, but more importantly, that wildfire would be led by rumours that had only basis in fear and to incite violence and hatred among different communities.

Schools were closed, curfew imposed, mobile internet shut down, and roads were blocked, effectively sealing in a large part of the population. Then the riots started. When I talked to my mother on 17th, she had an inkling that things would get worse; some people had died and the situation had turned sinister.

That is when I started worrying and it didn’t help that for aesthetics and natural light, we had decided on large glass windows for our house. This was a time when I was calling my family numerous times a day, scared of their well-being, hoping everyone remains unscathed. Then the pictures of shops I regularly visited started floating on social media, now all burnt or looted, or both. The city I was born in, grew up in, was in flames. In midst of this mayhem, I found out that residential colonies had taken it upon themselves to protect their loved ones and properties. My father, along with several other people were strategising how to ward off people of the “other” community if there were an attack. The “other” community was waiting of “this” community with similar trepidation.

Someone had heard someone else say that their friend’s first cousin’ uncle knew it for a fact that “disturbing” elements were trying to burn houses of their perceived “enemies”. Some people had even been rushed to the hospital. Since the state protective machinery was nowhere in sight, it was up to local people to defend themselves against this “threat” and this was the story of nearly every residential area. Everyone was scared of the attackers, but where were the attackers? This is not to say everything was a rumour, people lost their lives and property, their businesses and their livelihoods, but the atmosphere of fear was being perpetuated by rumours. My Whatsapp was constantly flooded by rumours of attacks, some near my home, which on placing frantic calls to my mother, were completely denied by her.

This word of mouth game succeeded in tearing the fragile social fabric of my hometown, succeeded in creating distrust among people and succeeded in keeping my father awake and vigilant till early morning hours for fear of their safety.