Rumour. gossip. death

Certain parts of  India are  occasionally subject to the circulation of rumours. These are often vindictive and violent, resulting in death or mutilation. Either through the use of emotional manipulation or extreme forms of aggression, a vulnerable group is targeted. These may be the elderly, women, uneducated, young people, the extremely poor, or the wealthy.

Quite often, the cry of witchcraft as an accusation accompanies the rumours. Where women are widowed, or in their later years, powerful because they own property, or control their sons, in economic decisions, they become targeted. The accusation of  that they bring bad luck is often made, and such women are turned out of their homes. In a mimicry of feudal situations, where ever tradition has begun to hold a very strong claim to legitimacy, men and women are drawn into a strange and surreal space, often not of their own making, where mutual violence finds release.

 Women, too, co-operate in the Malthusian aim of bringing down their own numbers, because breeding of girl children is thought to bring hunger, poverty and shame to the family. The girl child whether in Tamil Nadu or in Haryana is thought to be an aspect of excess, so she maybe killed in the womb, or as soon as she is born, or given less food, or opportunities for education if the parents see her birth as a curse.

These relic customs are a sign of demographic responses to situations of hunger and deprivation. When huge numbers of girl children had been killed off in  the womb, in Haryana and Punjab, manifesting the lust for male offspring, the brides had to be imported from Bihar  and Bengal in the ’70s, and from Kerala in the early decades of the 21st century. Superstition, fanned by watching tv, and media hype, continues to hold sway in these regions.

The circulation of rumour about the cutting of hair of women in Delhi (Zee News, August 3) has had such an impact that an old woman of 60 years got killed because her accidental entry into someone else’s house had the young men suspicious that she was there to cut off the tresses of someone in their household. Nobody knows where these events are orchestrated from, and by whom.

Old women being targeted is a sure sign that someone in the society sees them as useless eaters. In fascism, the need to constantly assert oneself as being within the group of the efficient and the  functionally useful if not notable is seen to be necessary. The army of men and women who offer themselves as soldiers of the state demanding purity of blood, and tradition as their legitimating talisman become absorbed in  activities rousing needless violence that gives them a sense of euphoria and power. Enclaves of violence begin to knit together to give the appearance that it is the moral right of this self proclaimed army to kick its opponents, or those they do not think fit to live. Such people do not have a theology specifically, they use a representative text to claim that jihad is righteous, or Manu’s teachings are legal.

In the modern nation state, which operates with a historical mandate towards citizenship, the abuses of justice by the valorisation of traditional laws became more than visible. The political endorsement  of murder and rape, and lynching of those whom communalists consider to be different is terrifying. The threats and rumours that they pass around become even more ugly when they say that they are in power, it is their party, it is their state, and what they say goes.

The greed for money acts as a catalyst to define how people will behave towards one another in this cleavage of social worlds. There are laws which define in tradition how each category should behave or should be treated. The absorption in  ritual and to priestly access has made many  lower caste communities side with the upper caste fundamentalist groups. The actual caste lines and norms do not change, as marriage, food sharing and occupation are still defined by traditional rules. As lower castes become more wealthy and powerful, it is possible that they will dominate the political sphere.

Authors Sanjay Subramanium, Velacherry Narayana Rao and David Shulman have shown us in Symbols of Substance (1992) that the reign of the Nayaka kings in early medieval South India extending right up to  the coming of European colonialists, provided for the rapture of theatre, poetry, food, grand ceremonies and other  forms of conspicuous consumption. Tradition then provides a royal panapoly of excess as power is incubated through success at war.  Nayaka rule in medievalism is the test case that upper castes had to bow down to the lower castes, if they were kings, even if shudras.
The writer is professor of Sociology, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

Columnist: 
Susan Visvanathan