Aug 202012

My Column in Today’s DNA

Chaos theory is that branch of mathematics that looks at how random results arise from supposedly ‘normal’ events. The most popular representation of this is the Butterfly effect. The basic premise is “a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon, and a hurricane hits India”, essentially an event in one part of the world has terrible repercussions in another. In a globally linked world the butterfly effect is becoming more and more common.

Nothing can explain the butterfly effect better than the last ten days in India. In South Mumbai, a crowd of Muslim men gathered to protest atrocities against Muslims in Burma (approximately 3,000 kms away) and Kokrajhar, Assam (about 2,000 kms away). They had been shown doctored pictures and MMSes lifted from social media to help get them ‘charged’ up. Some of these pictures were a decade old, came from other countries, referred to other ethnic/religious groups, had been debunked multiple times – but none of these mattered. What mattered was the brutality in these pictures that was circulated, and the irresponsible and incendiary speeches that whipped up violence. The crowd became a mob with OB vans, vehicles and property being destroyed. The violence in Mumbai resonated through social media, with the word Muslim being used as an Adjective, Adverb and a religious descriptor. Did it add to the tensions on the ground – unlikely? Did it polarise the universe that inhabits social media and discusses politics and current affairs? Yes.

Bangalore, about 3,000 kms away from Kokrajhar, saw another sort of Butterfly effect. Random SMSes were sent to families in the northeast, warning them of attacks on their children and loved ones who lived, studied and worked in the rest of India. Panicked families began calling back their loved ones. A combination of these SMSes and news of ‘threats’ going viral in the real world led people to leave Bangalore. There have been smaller numbers leaving cities like Pune, Chennai, Vadodara and Mumbai – but Bangalore has faced the worst impact. Various state governments and the central government are making the right noises in terms of reassuring citizens but rumour carried rapidly by unfiltered media has had a powerful impact in creating a sense of insecurity.

It is at times like this you get to see two very different sorts of leadership qualities in both social media & mainstream media. There is the leadership that seeks to reassure and calm. And there is that which wants to create a narrative of victimhood and fear – watch out ‘they’ will take over your lives. Both exist and both are a reflection on the real world. Technology — be it broadcast or social media — has not created these attitudes, at best it allows these attitudes to be transmitted without filters to millions of desktops, mobile phones and TV sets.

Not surprisingly, calls have begun to have greater curbs on social media. Bulk SMSes have already been restricted. There is talk of monitoring social media sites. There are rumours of censorship. But it is neither social media nor mobile phones that are causing panic. People are. It is not the media that is spreading hate. People are. Most who are rioting don’t use social media – someone is downloading material, replicating it, at times morphing it and distributing it with only one express purpose: fermenting trouble. And there is a very good reason for this. From the time of Independence, there has been no cost, no penalty associated with polarising communities, instigating violence and causing death and destruction. In fact the converse is true — people who have done this have not only gotten away scot free but are ‘respectable’ members of the political class. Foot soldiers have been punished but those are the casualties of war.

India is such a complex nation, that even our butterfly effect is multi-layered – distance (event that take place elsewhere), and time (unconnected events in the past). Policies of not ensuring the rule of law, of pandering to religious fundamentalists, of making excuses for law breakers in the name of caste, community, religion, have come back to bite India hard, where it hurts. This is not a social media issue; this is a real world Rule of law problem. If you live in India, the laws of the land apply to you — it doesn’t matter if you sit at a computer and instigate people to cause violence or stand in front of a crowd and egg them to destroy. Both are criminal. The solution is not censorship of social media, or indeed banning gatherings, but punishment of those who break the law – without bias, without exception. Break the peace, go to jail has to be the mantra, going forward.

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