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.

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3 thoughts on “The marriage between riots and rumours

  1. i found your account here interesting, Rigya, but probably not in the way you thought it might be to a reader…you see, i had followed the story of the Jat rebellion in the American news media, and although i had concerns about my (online) friends in Delhi when i heard of the water cut-off, most of the story came to me as would any series of events occurring half a world a way, wherein their were agitators against a government policy engaged in various forms of disruption to get their case heard, ie, almost as if a series of events were happening without people actually involved…now your narrative reminds me that when i hear of news of such events, there are hundreds if not thousands of real people such as yourself who are personally affected and whose lives are being disrupted as a political change is being forced through…

    i have to say that i had been supportive of the Jat’s demands through all of that, even though i did not fully understand the issues, as i tend to take the side of the underdog in any such dispute…similarly, though i don’t you caste system, that a supposedly modern nation would still base social policy on such a predetermination of people’s situation by birth seems disgustingly medieval to me…

    on your broader point, as to how rumors cause such events to take on a life of their own and can terrorize an entire population, i have to think that everyone having access to media certainly exacerbated that situation; rumors certainly spread much more rapidly when they’re passed on instantaneously….the city i lived in had race riots in the 60s, and i lived in the areas affected both times…but i had no phone, no internet, and not much contact with anyone affected, so i went about my daily business without anxiety, even as military jeeps and armored vehicles patrolled the streets in one instance, and even as buildings burned just 15 city blocks away from me in the other…

    • I am assuming you aren’t Indian?

      I’ll try to give you a broad picture of caste system. People were divided into four castes in the Hindu system in the Vedic times, Brahmins (the religious authorities), Kshatriyas (warriors and kings), Vaishyas (the merchants) and Shudras (who did everything else). Now, the caste system was rigid, you were born into a caste with no tools to change it. There is a whole thing about Varna (caste) and jati (sub-castes) too, but I too am confused about it, so I won’t say anything.

      Dalits, outside the caste system, were considered untouchables, impure and any other derogatory adjective you can think of.

      Now, I will jump post-Independence, when Ambedkar (a dalit, who were considered “low” caste and untouchables), helped to write the constitution. He wanted egality for the dalit. Soon, reservation system was born, which is something like affirmative action in the US. Here, a portion of school, college, jobs are reserved for those considered “low” caste, to help them. Since the “upper” caste people are generally well-off (most of the poor people in India belong to “low” castes), this was to level the playing field.

      Now for Haryana, this is Jats’ stronghold, Jats have dominated all the political positions in Haryana for a very long time. This time, the government changed and a non-Jat person came in power. He isn’t a good guy frankly, he is incompetent and corrupt. Now, Jats as a community aren’t backward in any way, but they want reservations. Everyone wants reservations these days. Jats aren’t underdogs actually. They are an economically well-off community. I would to be a Jat if I subscribed to the caste system. These riots did what it meant to do, divide the public.

      • no, i’m not Indian, i’m from Ohio in the US and have never been to India…in fact, before the internet, my only contact with anyone from your country was a brief exchange with some of the principals from your Hungryalist Movement in the 60s…and yes, what i meant to write in my first comment was that “i dont understand your caste system”, at least no more than what i can gather from looking up the details in some online reference…there is a lot about India i dont understand, a failing of my US education, in which world history was taught from a euro-centric point of view…i didn’t even understand the partition until i encountered talk of it online and dug for the details…and hence, what i knew of the Jat uprising that you lived through was limited to what i could glean from maybe a half dozen articles written about it by Western journalists who probably know as little about India as anyone else in the West….so your comparing your reservation system to our affirmative action was very useful in helping me understand that aspect of the Jat’s complaint…

        but there is still something about what happened there that i dont understand…if the Jats were economically well off, why would they resort to violent and disruptive revolutionary action to make their point? in the US and around the globe, it’s not those who are doing well who start the riots, it’s those who have the least to lose if things get out of hand…the apparent underlying story, that the Jat’s rioted for additional reservations, doesn’t make sense; there must have been something else eating at them for some time before this broke out…perhaps it had something to do with the corrupt and incompetent government that you mentioned…without some other issue, the pieces of the story as i’ve heard them told just don’t fit..

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