by Khalid Bashir Gura
SRINAGAR: Rumours and Kashmir have had a long tryst with each other with the former recently causing panic in the valley leaving people wondrous and questioning.
In a vast playground in Sher-e-Khaas, a fielder in a cricket game said, “Khaber kya chuk karun (Don’t know what they are planning to do?)”
“They say it is a rumour! They say anything can happen at any time! They say phones will be down and the internet snapped! They say there will be an indefinite curfew, again! They say they have to do something in Kashmir! They say they have to…!” the fielder said, his words reminiscent of the August 4, 2019 rumours which all came true when the erstwhile state witnessed a midnight lockdown ahead of the next day’s reading down of the Articles 370 and 35-A.
Historically, rumours have been used as a political tool to induce fear, and generate hysteria along with creating confusion among individuals and organizations by overt and covert powers.
What lends credence to rumours in Kashmir is the history of being hoodwinked and rumours turning out to be true especially when it came to the assault on the collective identity of the people.
The mistrust, insecurities, fears are so deep that any information especially on social media wherein gate-keeping is impossible people believe whatever confirms their pre-existing notions irrespective of the source and time.
When an old government order starts doing rounds, a rumour can literally make people rush to petrol pumps, hoard essential commodities and stare at their phones towers as they are apprehensive, thinking the government might be planning a “clampdown”.
Given the severity of the crisis that ensues after such a prognosis come true, people have been conditioned to be prepared and over time have grown resilient.
All these apprehensions triggered by rumours are not unfound. People have reasons and are justified in acting the way they do.
But why do rumours always rule Kashmiri’s psyche?
As per historian and author, Khalid Bashir Ahmad, the Kashmiri people have had romanticised rumours. Any major political, economic, social, cultural, religious happenings have rumours entailing them. It is not just limited to events; the natural disasters in Kashmir also accompanied by rumour-mongering. Kashmiri being geographically a landlocked country has made its inhabitants’ good storyteller and this trait is still ingrained when the borders, geographical barriers have been blurred by the globalisation of information and connectivity.
But it is the fear of uncertainty and being cut off from the rest of the world that lends credence to rumours. Post-reading down of Article 370, Kashmir was cut off from the rest of the world and a communication blackout was imposed for almost 180 days.
These days as the government is reaching out to people at doorsteps for inoculating against the Coronavirus. It has not been an easy task for healthcare workers to convince masses who are recalcitrant and adamant to believe what they want to believe about the vaccine. The misinformation regarding the efficacy of the vaccine and the rumours regarding it has prolonged the fight.
However, according to the historian, Khalid Bashir Ahmad in his book, Kashmir Looking Back in Time, “Generally speaking Kashmiris love rumours and exaggeration. They tend to derive amusement out of overstatement. If they like a person they make him divine and if they dislike someone they make him look like a devils sibling.”
Further, the author recalls in his chapter Romance with Rumours that on 17 January 2016, panic gripped the streets of Srinagar when a rumour on social media said that few infants had died soon after being administered with polio drops. Within hours the streets were choked with traffic and people rushing to nearby hospitals for a medical check-up. Even though special messages by the government were broadcasted through radio and television to not pay heed to rumours but the parents had panicked and Kashmir was gripped by the frenzy.
The spread of rumours cannot be solely attributed to social media and the lack of gate-keeping. Kashmir has a history of falling for the rumour bandwagon which predates social media and the internet. However, social media like at any other place has made the spread faster and reach to larger audience base.
Similarly, the author recalls a scene from the 1960s when the word spread like a wildfire that a mysterious gang in the name of vaccination was drawing blood out of the veins of children in school. The anguished parents ran towards schools and brought their children back. The chaos ensuing this was terrible in the city says the author and it died down only when the rumour turned out to be a prank!
Similarly, Sir Walter Roper Lawrence, who acted as a Settlement Officer in Kashmir in 1889 tells us in his book Valley of Kashmir, half the stories to the discredit of Kashmir and its inhabitants were due to the fertile imagination of a particular community in the Valley.
Another British missionary and educationist Tyndale Biscoe in his book, Kashmir in Sunshine and Shade has narrated a rumour in the nineteenth century he has had to confront and forced him to convince and compel his 130 students to swim in the waters of Jhelum to make people believe that there exists no frightful creature in it. Prior to this, the people didn’t bathe or do any other activity in the river which to date exists as a lifeline.
In his book, Khalid Bashir Ahmad writes about the same incident when it was rumoured that a frightful creature like a great cat was roaming in the city. While nobody had actually seen the creature, it was believed to be coming out of Jhelum to visit homes at night and tear people apart. The rumour spread dread in Kashmir and nobody ventured out after the day fall. When the students returned dirty and unclean after the summer vacations that year, Biscoe persuaded them to leap into Jhelum from Amira Kadal and swim right through the city to Safa Kadal. The bridges, banks and the roofs of the houses were crowded with people anxiously waiting to see what would happen.
“Nothing did happen and next day city was washing itself more, for the bogey was slain,” recalls Biscoe in his book.
Further, the author, Khalid Bashir has mentioned the dissemination process of the message and the grapevine trickling down to its last receiver in a totally altered form. It speaks about the spin any message is given as it passes through various messengers.
According to him, the legend has it that a woman in a Kashmir village delivered a baby boy with a slightly dark complexion. As the information passed on through multiple messengers, it ultimately got twisted. Rumour started that the lady had given birth to a crow. That drew people from across the Valley to see the newborn creature.
The rumour mongering has not been limited to gossip mongers or people who have hidden agendas in disseminating them but even journalists have succumbed and spread the rumours.
According to the author, in 1935, the Kashmir Times published a news report quoting Robert Macfield, a non –existent eminent geologist, warning that the Takht-i-Sulaiman or the Shankaracharya Hill will erupt between July 15 and August 15.
The news report cautioned that the people living within a distance of two miles will be in great danger and it is probable that the shock will change the configuration of the whole area of Srinagar. The news had created panic and widespread migration of people to safer places, until another newspaper, The Civil and Military Gazette described the news as a cruel joke and the Kashmir Times idea of April Fool, writes the author.
But to date, the rumour has not died down and even the present generation believes it even though the geologists have also ruled out any possibility of the hill ever erupting.
According to historian Khalid Bashir, there are geographical, historical, and cultural aspects that can be attributed to the birth and evolution of this trait in Kashmiris. The author considers geography compounded by inclement weather, long subjugation and oppression with no means of free expression and entertainment as reasons for the invention and popularity of the rumours to keep themselves in good humour and fight melancholic conditions.
However, not all touches of humour are good and fight against melancholic conditions!
The author further writes about the use of Tarr or fabrication of news and rumour as a political tool. Political leadership often used it in their propaganda. They used it as a tool to mount pressure or to push a certain narrative.
Bashir mentions that during the fall of the Dogra regime, Sheikh Abdullah’s popularity skyrocketed when through a widespread rumour his name was found naturally imprinted on tree leaves. However, this was a manufactured inscription that found its way to become gospel truth and travelled to villages and further bolstered the image of Abdullah. In reality, the leaves which were considered as Heaven’s endorsement of Sheikh Abdullah were prepared by drops of acid poured on mulberry leaves to make an impression of Sheri-i-Kashmir Zindabad.
The author narrates that the incident was planned to show the supporters of Mirwaiz Mohammad Yusuf Shah, an adversary of Abdullah, down. There was another rumour that Abdullah, incarcerated as he was then in the Hari Parbat Fort at Srinagar, was thrown in boiling oil but came out unharmed.
These rumours were planted to create a halo around Abdullah as some leaders today do through the use of social and corporate media.
Similarly in the 1930’s the middle rung leadership in order to test how widespread their word of mouth can go, circulated that a female leopard had delivered three cubs at the entry of the city’s Jamia Masjid and within no time hundreds of people thronged to have a glimpse!
Not just events, even during natural calamities rumours have been rife. During the 2014 floods, what exacerbated the psychological agonies were the rumours. As even phones were rendered useless, rumours made rounds in the valley that hundreds of bodies were floating on floodwaters and many prominent doctors were washed away across the Line of Control.
Lately, rumours were rife from the streets to social media. They were further compounded by the statements of mainstream politicians who have been out of the game since the reading down of Article 370.
What makes rumours powerful in Kashmir and why critical thinking takes a backseat can be vest described by world-renowned journalist, John Pilger’s words that official truths have powerful illusions.