Hate in the time of social media
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There is something wrong with our society. It seems that we are driven more by emotions, non-issues, violence and calls for destruction than reasoning, common sense, non-violence and trust. We are choosing politicians who are dividing us; we are allowing the administration to use us as commodities. By now, you must have read the headlines and watched TV news or seen posts on social media that say Ranchi is simmering with communal tension.
On 25 September, Eid was celebrated all over the country. Eid-ul-Adha is supposed to be celebrated in the spirit of love, sacrifice and sharing. My wife, son and I went to Ranchi, my hometown, to be with my parents and sisters and their families. Although we grew up in the colony of Heavy Engineering Corp., my parents chose to finally settle in a place called Parastoli in Doranda, 2.5km from the airport. This neighbourhood is mostly populated by minorities as a result of polarization and lack of trust between communities, although the same community works, does business with and is employed in a multicultural environment. Even though I grew up in a minority community and studied in a university with minority status, I never for a moment felt part of a minority.
The morning after Eid, we were having a discussion about a news item from late Friday that somebody had found a piece of prohibited meat near a temple and that had excited people of the majority community and as a result there would be a bandh in Ranchi, called by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. The talk over the breakfast table was even more interesting as we were made to believe through hearsay that the bandh was planned and had the backing of a politician who wanted to show that the administration led by the current chief minister was weak.
Soon, we heard a knock on our door and our next-door neighbour said that an agitated mob was moving towards us. We stepped out and could see the arterial road that connects Ranchi with the airport was heavily crowded and even the narrow streets inside our neighbourhood were filled with people.
I was shocked to see that a huge number of people, both men and women, had something in their hands— belts, rods, sticks, knives and pipes. And everyone had another object in their other hand—a mobile phone. The road was filled with people with unreasonable voices, shouting slogans. Some headed towards a huge crowd on the other side of a barricade where members of the other community milled around agitatedly. Then suddenly, the police started firing tear gas in the air, which dispersed the crowd somewhat, although the stone-pelting did not stop.
I could not convince even a single soul to retreat, and came back home. In the meantime, my wife called her brother, who told me to tweet about the situation so that it gets wider attention. I said ‘no’ because I was not sure whether it will lead to some action or flare up the situation instead. I was finally convinced and started reporting the situation on Twitter. I intentionally did not take any picture of the scene on the road as I thought this might do no good on social media.
Anyway, as soon as I tweeted, my tweets were retweeted, tagged to the Twitter handles of the prime minister’s office, local authorities and home minister, and many appealed to the government to take immediate action. In fact, some tweets said it is a call of a citizen that must be heard. I got a direct reply on my post through Facebook as well as from Twitter from an IAS officer by the name of Rai Mahimapat Ray, who said, “I am in the chief secretary’s office and we are taking all action and things will be normal very soon.”
In a further conversation, he said the Rapid Action Force had been deployed and the chief minister and the officers concerned would be visiting all the places themselves. My uncle called the director-general of police. My sister, who works in Prabhat Khabar newspaper, called media offices and alerted them and sought help, who further called all possible contacts in the administration.
In less than half an hour, there were battalions of police. Not only did they push the minority community inside their lanes, they also dispersed and pushed the agitating community away from the minority community. There was complete silence all around. I was regularly getting messages from Rai: “Hope everything all right? Here is my mobile number. Please call when you need.” He also conveyed that I could proceed to the airport without trouble, which I did and all was good.
Of course, the half an hour of chaos, violence and anger on both sides resulted in loss of property, vehicles and bruises to some people as well as the police, but what I felt and gathered was that the entire event was engineered, people were brought from outside and they were used as paid-for miscreants.
Are there so many people in our country available, jobless and ready to be bought to create planned confusion and violence? I see a deep relationship between our youth, their joblessness and negative politics. I wonder if widespread mobile phone use, especially when the penetration of cellphones is the highest among the youth of all strata, is doing any good, or can it?
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He serves on the board of World Summit Award and Association of Progressive Communication. He is the co-author of NetCh@kra—15 Years of Internet in India & Internet Economy of India. His Twitter handle is @osamamanzar