As thousands of people fled cities such as Bangalore because of fears that they would become the targets of retributive violence engineered by angry Muslim groups, who were in turn fed on tales that seem to have exaggerated the extent of violence in Assam and Myanmar, India was reminded of the ability of rumours to spread panic. Social media helped to amplify these fears.
The photographs of the chaos at Bangalore station reminded me of an old story about the Hindu god Krishna that was adapted into a play as well as a celebrated problem in game theory. Both examine the origins of social chaos though the solutions they offer are quite different from each other.
The story about Krishna comes from a Marathi play written by P.S. Rege, about Kalayavan, a demon hell-bent on destroying Mathura and killing Krishna. I saw the play directed by Ajit Bhure back in 1993, a few months after Mumbai was reduced to a state of panic during the communal riots there. The entire city was abuzz with wild rumours about impending attacks by the other community, creating an atmosphere of fear that widened the communal divide.
The play is set on the streets of Mathura at a time of festivities. Thousands of revellers have poured in from the neighbouring areas to take part in the merriment. All goes well, till a rumour begins to circulate that Kalayavan has come into the city disguised as a reveller. He is there to kill Krishna.
From small beginnings, the rumour takes on a life of its own, becoming what we would today call a viral phenomenon. Panic sets in. Mistrust spreads among the people of Mathura, as they wonder whether the man next to them is the murderous demon in disguise. The town soon descends into chaos.
Fear factor: A man tries to board an overcrowded North-East-bound train. Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters
The same dynamic works in our Kalyug as well. Stable societies run amok as panic spreads in geometric progression, multiplying at an unbelievable pace. Such episodes have been explained very well by game theorists, who study human interactions, both cooperative and competitive.
One good example of a panic is provided by bank runs, when everybody rushes to withdraw money from a bank, thus accelerating its collapse. You may believe that the bank is sound, but the fact that others are rushing for the exit will force you to also pull out your money. It is rational to be irrational.
In the language of game theory, we then have two Nash equilibria, named after the mathematician John Nash, whose battles with his inner demons were so powerfully portrayed in the film A Beautiful Mind. A Nash equilibrium is based on the strategies of the players given their beliefs about the strategies of the other players. So banking stability or a bank run are both possible outcomes, depending on what every depositor believes the other depositors will do. All is fine if everybody believes the bank is safe. All hell breaks loose when doubts spread.
A society can suddenly swing from a “good” Nash equilibrium to a “bad” Nash equilibrium. Sometimes, a powerful rumour can act as a catalyst of the swing from the former to the latter. What then? A classic solution to this dilemma is provided in an old Hollywood film, It’s a Wonderful Life. James Stewart is a small-town banker caught in the middle of a bank run. “The whole town has gone crazy,” his manager tells him. Stewart gives a rousing speech, explaining to the town folk that it would be better for them to keep the money in the bank rather than pull it out. The bank stays in business, as the town moves from the “bad” to the “good” equilibrium at a speed that only the movies can make us believe.
The implicit lesson is that good communication from a credible agency can calm nerves, be it a bank run or some other coordination failure in society. We saw very little of such communication during the recent influx of people back to the North-East, with the government focusing its attention on silencing the social media. As Nitin Pai of the Takshashila Institution, a think tank, pointed out on Twitter on 21 August: “At the best of times, a country of a billion people cannot be governed in silence. Certainly not when the chips are down.” (Disclosure: I am a trustee of the Takshashila Institution.)
Game theorists would have explained to our political leaders that their correct response to the fear that sent thousands rushing to Bangalore station should have been to communicate with panic-stricken citizens. The best citizens got were half-hearted assurances from a political system that is not trusted enough.
The Kalayavan story had a more poetic ending than the game theoretic solution, perhaps inevitably so. As panic spreads in Mathura, so does an undercurrent of hope that Krishna will come out to take care of his people. But he does not emerge, leaving a lingering sense of anxiety in Mathura when the play ends.
The underlying message here is that Krishna was trying to tell his people that both he and Kalayavan—the good and evil—reside in their minds. Societies are built on mutual trust and reinforced with the inner strength of their citizens. It tells us a lot about the state of our country when social peace is threatened through something as effervescent as a rumour.
Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is executive editor, Mint.
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