Srinagar: Even as the authorities cried at the top of their voices that no child had died anywhere after being administered polio drops during Sunday’s anti-polio campaign in the Valley, hundreds of weeping and wailing parents stormed hospitals because the rumour mill said dozens had died after being “administered expired polio drops in south Kashmir”.
The authorities will definitely have to do some hard explaining to justify why they acted late to counter the rumour mill, but there is no denying the fact that the power of the grapevine in Kashmir has always been “earthshaking”.
Residents of cities, towns and villages where children had been administered polio drops were rushing in cars, load carriers, three-wheelers and motorcycles – and even on foot – in the extreme cold to seek medical attention to reverse the effects of the so-called expired vaccine.
Pediatricians, hospital superintendents and paramedics pleaded with angry parents outside hospitals that their children were fine and no child had died anywhere after being administered polio drops.
People simply refused to relent because the rumour mill was agog that dozens of children had died after being administered the vaccine.
It was only around midnight that the situation was brought under control not because the people believed the authorities, but because children had started catching cold in the sub-zero winter temperatures.
Police has now arrested one person who allegedly spread the rumour through social media about the “deaths of dozens of children in south Kashmir”.
The arrested person has been booked under the relevant provisions of the IT act and other crime prevention laws, but the fact that just one person could set the Valley on fire has a historical background.
People in the landlocked Valley have always believed rumours more willingly than the official word.
“There have been historical reasons for the power of the grapevine in Kashmir. You see, in 1947 Maharaja Hari Singh was attending an investiture at the palace without knowing that the tribals had invaded Kashmir.
“The grapevine at Zainakadal in Srinagar city said in the morning the tribals had captured the Mohra power station near Uri town. The Maharaja’s administration came to know of this only when the lights inside the palace suddenly went off in the evening,” said Ghulam Nabi, 76, a resident of Ganderbal district.
He also said the death of National Conference founder and the then chief minister, Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah on September 8, 1982 first came to Kashmiris as a ‘rumour’ till the authorities confirmed it only in the evening.
More recently, when official health bulletins said the now deceased chief minister, Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, had been “showing signs of recovery and responding to the treatment of a team of expert doctors at AIIMS in New Delhi”, the rumour mill said he had been deteriorating.
Ironically, the doctors at the hospital had not confirmed Sayeed’s death when people in the Valley said the chief minister had passed away in the morning of January 7.
Despite giant strides in information technology, Sunday’s panic and desperation in Kashmir proved not much had changed here.
The world might have become a global village thanks to the internet, television channels, radio stations and mobile phones, but the power of the grapevine in Kashmir remains unparalleled.
Of course, there has been one difference, the spin doctors of the grapevine have learnt the art of using modern technology to spread wild rumours using the same gadgetry that should have thrown them out of business.
(Sheikh Qayoom can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)