Please allow me to welcome you to the most popular and fastest growing university in India today.
It is so far ahead of the competition it does not even need to advertise anywhere. It does not require glossy colourful brochures showing gleaming new air-conditioned laboratories and conference rooms and happy students of all shades. It needs no testimonials, no motivational speakers with ponytails.
It is already the national leader, way ahead of any competition.
This is WhatsApp university, India’s most trusted source of news, facts, life hacks and the real truth about everything. Its motto seems to be seize the day, don’t hesitate, forward right now.
What is this irresistible itch to forward? Where did it spring from? Is it some leftover reflex from years of five-year-plans lumberingly taking the nation forward, dam by dam, yojana by yojana? We endured those newsreels every time we went to the movies. But still nothing seemed to move forward for most of us in India, whether it was traffic on the roads or the file in a babu’s office. Our Great Leap Forward always felt like a shuffle, two steps forward, one step back. But now 200 million WhatsApp users in India are on the Great March Forward.
WhatsApp hit our sweet spot. We felt the power of numbers. And we all felt equally empowered. On school alumni WhatsApp groups no one had to defer to the annoying know-it-all first-rank boy/ girl anymore. Now everyone had access to the truth if they could only find the right WhatsApp forward to back them up. It did not even have to be 100% true any more. Mahatma Gandhi’s great-grandson did not need to have really said Rahul Gandhi was no Hindu. Unesco need not have declared Bengali to be the sweetest language. Vladimir Putin did not really have to make a speech demanding Muslim immigrants learn Russian.
It just needed to sound true enough to forward.
I remember someone sharing a story about a BBC survey ranking the Congress among the top 10 corrupt parties in the world. When it was pointed out that it was obviously fake since some of the other parties that also made the Hall of Shame, like Mussolini’s Fascists and Hitler’s Nazi party, had not existed since World War II, he conceded this might be a fake BBC. But that, he said, does not mean that the Congress is not corrupt. QED.
The great beauty of a forward is that it lets us off the hook. It’s not our problem if someone gets killed on suspicion of being a child trafficker or a closet beef-eater because of the forward. We are not levelling any accusation. We are merely forwarding. The forwarding finger forwards, and having forwarded, moves on: nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.
The Unesco stamp
A forward adds gravitas to whatever random crackpot theory we have. You can call me uninformed. My opinion does not matter a hill of beans. But surely you believe Mahatma Gandhi’s great-grandson? Or the Unesco? At least the BBC? We are no longer alone in our conspiracy theories.
Never in our history has the aam aadmi had so much power over fact and fiction. Entire revolutions can be plotted and unravelled in an encrypted WhatsApp bubble without anyone being any the wiser. We grew up in a spoon-fed country. The whole world knew Indira Gandhi was dead before our Doordarshan news-readers admitted it. We knew the government was shoving propaganda down our throats but we could do little about it, whether we believed it or not.
Now, as if in some mass act of protest, we are embroiled in an orgy of disbelief. Or rather we choose to believe WhatsApp instead of the “presstitute” mainstream media. It’s just wondrous that power of creating our own echo chamber. If we cannot be a talking head at least we can be the forwarding finger.
I understand the urge to forward fake news. I really do. I’ve fallen victim to it myself when it hit my confirmation bias. I understand those who dispense spurious medical advice in good faith. I understand the rush to forward sensational news without verifying it because we want to be the first one off the block. I even almost understand the R-rated wink-wink Playboy jokes that make middle-aged men feel they are still hormonal teenagers doing something naughty.
But I just don’t understand those who send those good morning flowers everyday. I wonder if there is a special place in hell reserved for them.
But most of all I wonder how we got to a place where as a nation we seem to think that the most effective way to take the country forward, is forward by forward.
The writer is the author of Don’t Let Him Know , and like many Bengalis likes to let everyone know about his opinions whether asked or not