The Power of Rumours

The power of rumours to influence society is immense. One of the most powerful rumours in recent times was the one about Lord Ganesha “drinking “ milk that swept all over India in September 1995. The whole of India was agog with rumours of this supernatural event and it all died down after about three days.
Some rumours can exhibit some really fantastic feats of imagination on the part of their creators. And as someone once pointed out, there is a sucker born every minute in order to believe it. The times when rumours have a field day are during times of civic stress, like wars, riots and the like. At that time grown and normally sensible can easily swallow seven impossible things before breakfast without even turning a hair.
One such group of rumours have been documented during a plague epidemic in Calcutta in 1898. Plague was a terror in those days and still is. Many will remember the panic that was set off by the Surat plague scare in 1994. People fled in panic from the city reducing it to a graveyard. Fortunately the authorities took this opportunity to do a cleanup act which has reportedly changed the face of the city subsequently.
The Calcutta plague epidemic started in the crowded streets of Central Calcutta on Sunday, the 17th of April, 1898.A thirty year old young man, a resident of Kapalitola Lane near Bowbazar was its first recorded victim. Subsequently many cases were reported at the Medical College, Manicktala and other hospitals.
I do not wish to talk of the epidemic self, but of the rumours that it spawned. A contemporary chronicle has recorded a story that a woman came to Howrah by the Bombay Mail and took a carriage to the centre of the town. When the driver asked about her destination, she declared herself to be the goddess of plague and disappeared. This story became so current that the entire workforce at Burrabazar and many of the jute mills disappeared within hours, escaping to their native villages to escape the plague.
Another interesting rumour suggested that the Governor General had met a Yogi in the Himalayas during his recent visit to the Hills who had demanded the lives of two lakhs of people in order to ensure the continuation of the British Raj. And in keeping with this pact, he had visited plague to the population and was now sending inoculators whose injections were reputed to cause death in minutes afte the injection.
There were also rumours that Queen Victoria had ordered a “thinning out” of her Indian subjects and this was also one cause of the plague. Another rumour, completely contradictory suggested that the Queen herself had died, as well as Lord Gladstone (the then British Prime Minister) and the Russian Tsar was marching to India to take over.
The power of such rumours however laughable as they may seem today, are not to be underestimated. These rumours led to rioting in the streets and many avoidable deaths, Not only this, it sparked off an exodus to the villages that depopulated Calcutta and led to a lot of lost production in the industries of Calcutta. However for the poorer sections of the population of Calcutta, there was little alternative except flight as they could not possibly meet the hygiene standards that were needed to stem the epidemic. To that extent perhaps, the rumours were useful.
Some rumours can sound funny; especially after the passage of a century, but to the contemporary men and women they were extremely believable and led to actions that had deep consequences. In today’s world the power of the rumour to spark off irrational action remains; and means to spread them have increased. The consequences can be even more horrendous as was seen during the Gujrat riots when the SMS was used a means of spreading tales all over the state.

Comments

Anonymous said…
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Actually each rumor went through a four-stage pattern of development in which a rumor was introduced for discussion, information was volunteered and discussed, and finally a resolution was drawn or interest was lost

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