The combined power of the mobile phone, the Internet and the social media was on display in the crisis that led to thousands of people from the northeast fleeing Bangalore. What became clear was that rumour-mongers did not belong exclusively to either the northeast or the Muslim community. There were also other groups who may have helped fan the panic.
In mid-July this year, a Pakistani news portal, columnpk.com, carried an image of Buddhist monks wearing masks amid a sea of mutilated bodies. It turned out that the image was of the July 2010 earthquake in Tibet where the monks were engaged in relief work.
But the portal carried the image with the tag “The body of Muslims slaughtered by Buddhist Barma [Myanmar].” By the time protests from the Tibetan groups forced the portal to withdraw the image, the damage was ostensibly done.
The image went viral on the Internet and two weeks ago it found its way into the pages of a local Urdu newspaper, which also passed it off as proof of Muslim persecution in Myanmar. This image, along with a copy of the Urdu periodical, was presented to the Karnataka government as part of a dossier submitted by the northeast groups here on Thursday. There were emails and text messages calling on people to avenge the deaths in Assam and Myanmar.
Text messages played a particularly vicious role. A staccato SMS in Hindi sent to a Nagaland girl by her landlord’s help read: “Madam, do not get out of your house. There is lot of panga [trouble]. People from your caste [community] are being beaten. Seven women have been killed in Yelahanka [a suburb of Bangalore]. Don’t go to college tomorrow. I am only trying to help.”
There were several similar messages that claimed that people had been killed, raped and assaulted.
On their part, members of the northeast communities too relied on rumours rather than going by hard facts.
Asked to substantiate shocking claims of kidnap, assault, molestation and intimidation, they invariably came up with statements like, “It happened to a friend of a friend.” While some of these claims were quite elaborate in their description, these “details” differed from person to person. A popular rumour was that a girl from the northeast had been kidnapped. Some claimed that she had been killed, while others said she had been released and had gone home.
The surprise entrant in this war of propaganda was Tejinder Pal Singh Bagga’s Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena. On Facebook, the Sena claimed that a fatwa had been issued to people from the northeast to leave Bangalore by August 20 or face riots. Another post warned of counter-violence, if these communities were threatened, in Delhi.
To be fair, there were also Facebook posts such as these: “Bangalore Muslims are not against people from the northeast. Please do not spread rumours. We want peace. Bangalore is for everyone.”