OPINION | Chaos in Shillong: When truth is washed away by tsunami of ‘fake news’
By Freddie Michael Majaw
OPINION | Shillong, June 04, 2018:
Shillong had always been an epitome of peace, love and progress in North East India. It is home to different communities with their varied cultural practices, living and working together to develop the city that they love and are proud of.
Shillong, a city is like any other normal city in India with common issues like scarcity of water and congested traffic roads. Who would have thought that these same issues would be the toxic ingredients to concoct a chain reaction of conflicts and violence in the city for four days now?
We have all seen issues when people fight over water in a community tab and the worst that can come out of it is buckets of water being hurled at each other. Now couple that with the traffic-choked roads of Shillong and we have ourselves the makings of 31st May 2018 at Them Metor – a day which almost brought the entire city to a standstill.
Before I further express my views on the issue, I would like to cite media reports (balanced reports) on what actually happened that day.
At approximately 9:30am, according to witness accounts, 'there was a Punjabi lady from the community, yelling at three Khasi boys who were conductors of an STPS (Govt. run bus) to move it as it was blocking her way to fetch water from a community tab. Since these three boys were minors, they had no idea how to move the bus and asked her to wait for their father, who was the bus driver and had gone out for a cup of tea at a nearby tea shop. Frustrated, the lady disappeared for a while only to return with a group of boys from the community who assaulted the three minor boys. When the father returned, he was shocked to find his sons injured. He immediately took his two sons and nephew to the hospital with the help of nearby street vendors; he then went to the police station to file a complaint. Both parties were called and the matter ended in a compromise.
Later in the evening, the tables turned and everything went up in flame and over what? a skirmish between two groups. It escalated further in the evening, thanks to fake news shared through social media that one of the sons died, when actually he recovered at NEIGRIHMS hospital.Rumours ran rampant through-out the day that even the story of the witness accounts above seems doubtful.
By evening, everyone in the city was well aware of an undergoing conflict between the Khasis and non-Khasis at Motphran area, as the two groups of people involved which started the entire fiasco just so happen to be from two different communities. But no one was sure of what could be the cause of the incident. The only information that everyone was getting were fake news spread through social media, such as eve-teasing of the woman or that the boys were stabbed in the scuffle. No one knew the truth and everyone were pinning their hopes on the leading local English daily to unveil the details of the account.
The next morning came and majority of the people were disappointed by the newspaper's report which seems to be solely base on the information spread through Watsapp messages i.e. the eve-teasing perspective. Maybe the newspaper in the midst of all the chaos had managed to uncover only this version of the story.
Soon after a prominent national news channel came up with another ridiculous angle to the story i.e. the bus nearly ran over the lady, apparently no reporter was present on the scene to witness how congested the road is for a bus to be zooming. None of the stories seems credible or balanced, where the views of both the groups were taken into account, everything seems to be based on assumptions.
Majority of the Khasis in the state have even decided to boycott the English Daily for its biased report and were disgusted with the news channel's representation on the issue, but the damage was done, many other journalists and online news outlets (regional and national) joined the band wagon and further instigated the conflict by publishing news with headlines making it a Dalit Vs Tribal issue, where the tribal men were destroying and looting the Them Metor dalit settlements, which never happened.
At times like these, can't the media also play a role to restore law and order in the city and refrain from publishing sensationalised news that may only add fuel to the fire? Then there are vile comments on the prominent national newspaper – online page on the story. Even though the story seems balanced, there where internet trolls in the comments section who were blaming the Church for instigating the riots, some are stereotyping that Punjabis are a community of aggressive people and that their aggressiveness needs to be tamed and then there are others who accused all Northeast Indians of being as racists and that they are no different from Delhiites. Another concern here, is what do these people gain from all these ruthless hate comments? Isn't it our duty as citizens of this nation to try to refrain from such derogatory comments, especially at times civil unrest?
Everything that has been published online or print during the two days since the riots transpired, did little to contain the situation. There have been events in history where the media, particularly the radio after World War II, had created mass hysteria, anyone who is a journalist by profession knows this story, but for the Shillong chaos the media, (and largely social media) saw an issue that can be juiced up into many stories, they played with people's emotions and instigated the violence further.
It was till the day three that leading English Daily in Shillong, finally put on a fresh pair of lens and gave a balanced report, where all angles to the story where reported and juxtaposed besides each other, but it was a little too late as many had already boycotted the newspaper.
A regional news website based in Shillong gave their account from the police reports on the evening of the second day and a leading National newspaper published their balance report on the third day.
But what concerns us now is the collateral damage on the reputation of Shillong and the tainted image about the people of the city that these media portals have painted to the rest of the world. There is a concern now that, Shillong will not be looked at the same way as the sought out city in Northeast India. The entire people of Shillong irrespective of being Khasis or non-khasis will now be stereotyped as people with communal disharmony.
These tags and stereotypes may be even more inconvenient for Shillong people studying and working outside the state. Most of us Shillongiites, who are at the mercy of fake news, can now only pray that others who are witnessing the chaos from outside to please re-checked the facts published by the media and social media, as most of them are not telling the two sides of the story or the truth.
What was a dispute from a community tab which happens to be blocked by a bus had been twisted to many forms of fake news to the extent that the conflict had escalated to what we see now. A handful of people from both sides of the conflict and even those caught in between were injured and hospitalised, but nobody died, no one was looted and holy places were burnt.
These are all rumours to spread hatred among our fellow citizen.
It's day four now, a the dust of the conflict seems far from settling, we hope that the tension will die off soon, law and order will be restored and we live together once again as humans in Shillong, for our beloved Shillong is not a place of communal conflicts and xenophobia; it is still a favourite hill station for many visitors, where they can find many people from different communities living together in harmony.
Please pray for Shillong!
(The writer is a Research Scholar in North East Hill University (NEHU), Shillong)