25 January, 2021

‘Ashwathama Hata!’

The milk-made Ganesha of 1995 offers us a parable for today: when motivated myths, rumours and lies cross over from mass culture to the media, the truth dies…and it’s a noisy lynching.

‘Ashwathama Hata!’

Almost exactly 25 years ago, at dawn on September 21, 1995, a devotee in a temple in central Delhi gave an idol of Ganesha his morning shot of milk. To his surprise and that of the priest, it seemed to vanish up its trunk. Someone reached for a phone to communicate the miracle. In 1995, cellphones were rare, so that meant rushing home or to an office to dial an MTNL landline.

By daybreak, Ganeshas all over India were drinking milk. Within a couple of hours, people defeated by the surging crowds in temples invaded the homes of friends and neighbours who collected Ganesha idols and left them slathered with milk. By breakfast-time, traffic was at a standstill because all the one million and eight gods of the Hindu pantheon were putting it away, and huge crowds were turning out to slake their thirst. Milk ran out in markets nationwide. Stock markets suspended trading for want of custom.

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But American idols stole a march on Indian peers because of the difference in time-zones. September 21, 1995, was a Thursday, but long-distance calls from India reached American Hindu groups on Wednesday evening, and the NRI faithful broke out the half-and-half and the double skim, according to taste. Congratulatory faxes and newfangled emails about the greatest miracle in modern times began to fly between Hindu groups in the US, Canada, UK, the Emirates, Nepal and India.

The milk miracle appeared to be motiveless, a colossal mass hysteria that put the tulip mania of 1673 to shame. Or was it a dummy run for something else altogether? An experiment to see if vast, widely dispersed populations could be united by a rumour and called to action at the speed of a telecom switch? The story took over the front pages of every newspaper, but this possibility was not investigated. Editors were instead preoccupied with the irrationality of the faithful, and invited scientists and rationalists to explain the intricacies of surface tension, capillarity and ads­orption. Earnestly, they investigated the physics of Ganesha drinking milk, but perhaps that was not the point, because it was actually a telecommunications miracle.

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Next year, in 1996, the press was much more receptive to Ramar Pillai’s claim of using the shrub Boswellia ovalifoliolata (the Biblical frankincense is a close cousin) to transmute tap water into gasoline. Editors and reporters who had read science in high school should have known that it violated the Law of Conservation of Mass and Energy, which is impossible. While the milk miracle had been met with scepticism, Pillai got a surprisingly patient hearing from the press, perhaps because India was energy-deficient. Though the Delhi Science Forum had exposed him almost immediately as a sleight-of-hand artist, it took 20 years to convict him of fraud. It was an early instance of the ‘both sides’ argument, now a popular cop-out in the press. True, it is the duty of the press to hear both sides of an argument, but that is only half the truth. The res­ponsibility of the press is to sift truth from falsehood, and Pillai was obviously lying.

The same year, in 1996, a young internet enthusiast in the US founded the Global Hindu Electronic Network, a portal to the Hindutva universe. It announced its arrival in India with a cybershakha held in Delhi, which was attended by thousands of participants overseas by live chat. Perhaps unr­emarkable for the Zoom generation, it was almost a miracle in the era of the dialup modem. Sahib Singh Verma, who had just been elected BJP chief minister of the capital, participated as an ordinary sevak in floor exercises and the lathi drill. The chat channel’s server crashed in 20 minutes under the load, but it was clear that the Hindu right had chosen the internet as its superhighway to the future.

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‘Love jihad’ is a copy of ‘missionary dating’campaigns used by fringe US groups. The ‘anti-national’ tag recalls the ‘un-Americans’ of the McCarthy era.

When the milk miracle happened, the term ‘virality’ was unknown and social media, the force multiplier which now drives the phenomenon, was still over a decade away. But it raised the curtain on a permanently connected world in which motivated rumours ricochet in fake news bubbles until they achieve escape velocity into the wild, and cause people to be murdered by mobs for the presumed contents of their refrigerators, raise tsunamis of fear and loathing against designated ‘anti-nationals’, demonise intellectual and cultural ‘award wapsi gangs’, and hatch the fictitious plots of ‘love jihad’, ‘IAS jihad’ (Sudarshan TV has been cautioned, but not res­trained) and ‘land jihad’ (alleged land grabs by Muslims to alter the demographics of Jammu, but lists of encroachers bear few Muslim names).

It’s all pirated, actually. ‘Love jihad’ is a local copy of ‘missionary dating’ and ‘flirty fishing’, campaigns which were actually used by fringe groups in the US long ago. The ‘anti-­national’ tag recalls the ‘un-Americans’ of the McCarthy era. Neither has a real basis, but malevolent rumour campaigns are powerful nevertheless. In 2012, they triggered an exodus when migrant workers from the Northeast fled Bangalore after a campaign of threatening phone messages.

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It is perceived that hate speech and fake news on the mobile internet have flourished because they are new infections, like the novel coronavirus, to which the Indian information ecosystem has no antibodies. Besides, they spread in positive feedback loops over networks of neural complexity. Malware bounces back and forth on WhatsApp groups and right-wing websites, is validated by television news, invites discussion in print and at the corner tea shop, and bounces back to WhatsApp. Each step amplifies the message, and the recipient naively concludes that since everyone is talking about it, there must be something to it.

This always-on amplifier of lies may be new to India, but the politically motivated lie dates back to the epics. The oldest in print concerns the disarming of Drona in the Mahabharata, by the fake news of his son’s death: Ashwathama hata iti, naroh va konjaroh va (Ashwathama is dead, either the man or the elephant). (In the eastern tradition, it is rendered as, Ashwathama hata iti gaja.) It demonstrates the killer strategy of successful fibbing—the fabrication is founded on the truth. An Ashwathama had indeed been killed by Bhima, but it was an elephant, not Drona’s son. The lie, meticulously engineered by Lord Krishna, changed the fortunes of the dramatis personae of the Mahabharata.

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In the Indian tradition, the lie in the service of a higher goal is legal tender. And we can just go with the flow, bec­ause the perceived universe is itself a lie—maya. Also, we are unusually susceptible to storytellers, including hate-mongers, because of a long history of oral storytelling in a largely illiterate population. The majority instinctively accepts person-to-person communications as more reliable than media reports, or institutional responses.

In news coverage, a principle of balance is deployed to support a false equivalence. It is false because the truth is not equivalent to a lie, myth or mad vision.

Underground communications—which is what a WhatsApp group amounts to—are also native to India. The enduring mystery of the rising of 1857 concerns packets of chapatis delivered across thousands of villages between Awadh, where the Doctrine of Lapse had prepared the ground for revolt, and the Mughal capital of Delhi, before hostilities broke out. Administrators viewed these homely messages with alarm, since they travelled faster than the East India Company’s post, but the content of the message remains unknown. Perhaps there was no content at all. Perhaps it was a pre-telecom ‘milk miracle’, intended to estimate the speed at which a call to mobilisation could travel across the Gangetic plain. For groups planning an insurrection, that information would be of strategic importance.

The milk miracle and the chapati mystery appear to be purposive, since they involved thousands of people working in unison, but incidents in the immediate past appear to be motiveless and were probably mass hysterias amplified by the press. In May 2011, a frightening ‘monkeyman’ appeared in Delhi, followed by a muhnochwa or ‘face-tearer’, a malevolent cyborg wearing a crown of blinking LEDs, in several districts of Uttar Pradesh. Administrative action was required in UP to contain public alarm, and military radars were used to seek these mythical creatures, which were attributed to Gen Musharraf in Pakistan. The inconvenient fact that he was in self-imposed exile at the time did not detract from the power of the story. These mass hysterias channelled majoritarian fears of the other in their midst, but appeared to be motiveless. They benefited no one.

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The spate of lynchings over eating and trading in beef channel those very fears, but someone benefited from the anxiety that swept the country. Someone also benefited from the cult of Rama, whose footprint was marginal until L.K. Advani stepped aboard his garish DCM Toyota rath—like the Santoshi Maa cult was insignificant until a Bombay film turned it into a national craze in 1975. Prior to Advani, the Ramayana was a universally loved text, but in most communities, people would have been sceptical about Rama’s place in the pantheon. He was the ideal man, not a god in search of a temple.

Ekta Kapoor gets a disproportionate share of the blame for the slide of Indian society towards majoritarianism—that’s because the role of the press raised concerns only after it became too obvious to ignore. Scepticism and distance, its guiding principles, gave way to partisan proximity, especially on television, as journalists cosied up to power. How close the relationship has become was obvious recently when Arnab Goswami became the BJP’s cat’s paw in its war on the Maharashtra government, was arrested, was vocally supported by Union ministers and had his bail plea heard out of turn by the Supreme Court.

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Goswami stands out because he is an abrasive thespian. Other media players are far more subtle, painfully mindful of the reality that in hard times like the pandemic, when corporate advertising dries up, the government can break them by withholding state advertising, even access to news. Last week, for ins­tance, on some TV channels, in the midst of accurate reporting of COVID-19, PM Modi was presented as a hero on a quest for a vaccine. The bald fact was that he was visiting vaccine developers.

Far more subtle is the strategy of balancing voices, inviting ministers and ruling party leaders to write in support of government policy in newspapers, counterpoising them against liberal commentators. Traditionally, politicians held press conferences to air their views but now they are in print, obliterating the distance between power and the press. In news coverage, the same principle of balance is dep­loyed to support a false equivalence—both sides of an argument must be given equal play. It is false because the truth is not equivalent to a lie, or a myth, or a mad vision.

The job of the press is not to present both sides of the arg­ument, but to establish which one is the truth. That’s how it dealt with the milk miracle of 1995 and, reluctantly, with Ramar Pillai. If it had persisted in that role, it would not have embarrassed itself.


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