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How to stem the tide of tattle?

'Calcutta has become a jungle of rumour,' lamented the Statesman, noting it had become the sinful occupation of just about everyone.
Last Updated 24 February 2024, 23:12 IST

In mid-February 1942, Calcutta’s Commissioner of Police, C E S Fairweather, was pushed to clarify that he had not been arrested. There was a loud buzz in the city that he, a Scotsman, had been put away by the Chief Minister for being an Irish retarder of the war effort.

In a press statement, Fairweather threatened to deal with rumour-mongering fifth columnists in the same way as he did with the ‘hostile’ and “budmash” elements of the City, whom he felt may have received some temporary encouragement ‘from the rumour’.

"Calcutta has become a jungle of rumour," lamented the Statesman, noting it had become the sinful occupation of just about everyone. "It is practised not only by the simple and illiterate but also by many of the sophisticated who wear stiff shirts or backless dresses for dinner . . ." The newspaper was understandably not so exercised by Fairweather’s arrest, which it dismissed as a ‘most entertaining’ piece of gossip. Its concern was directed at the virulent rash of rumours that swept through the city.

Of course, by this time, the eruption had broken out all over the country. This was not surprising as wartime is an ideal breeding ground for rumours, which take root and grow in a climate of fear and anxiety. But the British hadn’t anticipated the scale and spread of the ‘menace’ which, in their eyes, seeded doubts about their ability to defend India, undermining the war effort. Only some of the rumours were a result of Axis propaganda, but the administration regarded every rumour as an enemy bullet.

The Nazi victories in the West, the introduction of ARP (Air Raid Precautions) measures and the lack of real military preparedness were early sources of the outbreak, but after Japan entered into the war, rumours went into full play. While they assumed different forms, most rumours were what Robert H Knapp, the American psychologist, called the ‘wedge driving’ kind, essentially those that have ‘the effect of dividing groups and destroying loyalties’.

The retreat in Malaya and the surrender in Singapore provided a persuasive backdrop for such rumours, many of them tall tales about Japanese prowess and British cowardice. There was a story in the United Provinces that a Japanese man had parachuted to a mela, addressed the gathering and ‘returned to the skies by the same means’.

Around the same time, a train dacoity in Gorakhpur was attributed to the Japanese. There were recurring rumours about Japanese attacks at specific times on specific places such as Calcutta, Jamshedpur and the Kumbh Mela at Allahabad. In Dehradun, guns were to be dropped into a PoW camp to empower those incarcerated to capture the town.

The official report on the Dehradun rumour made a wry note of another making the rounds: ‘The arrest of the Superintendent of Police Cawnpore as a spy has been improved by the addition of the information that he was subsequently shot dead in Allahabad Fort.’

Even the ‘wildest rumours’ are believed by people, complained another official, citing one about the Maharaja of Darbhanga having been detained in Delhi because he had refused to part with all his gold.

There was considerable frustration about the inability to stem the tide of tattle. Stories that the British were in a state of frightful panic particularly annoyed the administration.

Rumours about Europeans being spirited away to safety from the coastal areas — a suspicion that was not entirely fanciful given the ignominy in Penang and the selective and racially motivated evacuation from Burma — were among them. In Cuttack, gossip about Europeans being sent away provoked a communiqué that warned rumour-mongers of prosecution under the Defence of India Rules.

In Madras City, rumours that European women and children were being rapidly evacuated by special trains were denied in a detailed press note. The government clarified that the extra traffic was no more than that which routinely occurs during Christmas and New Year holidays.

But what worried administrators most were the rumours that implied that Japan looked kindly on India and Indians and vice versa. The most ‘insidious form of rumour’ are those about Japanese racial discrimination against Europeans and in favour of Asiatics, read one official communication.

Such stories were hardly surprising in the prevailing climate. Many Indians believed, as did Gandhi at one time, that Japan’s war was really against the British. Others, led by Bose, regarded the Axis powers as a force of liberation, an idea that was spread tirelessly by Japanese propaganda.

Given this, it is probably no surprise that rumours of Japanese benevolence made the rounds. In Assam, gossip had it that the British deliberately raided a Buddhist temple in order to blame the Japanese, who had refrained from bombing it. There were stories about Indians appointed to important posts.

A Nattukottai Chettiar was said to have been appointed the High Commissioner to Japan after Malaya was overrun. A Bengali was said to have been made the Governor of Singapore; another account had him as a ‘Madrasi Muslim’.

To counter this, there was a concerted British attempt to alter the narrative by highlighting Japan’s record in China and its atrocities in other invaded countries. Deploring ‘the false belief that Japan would not attack an Asiatic race’, Madras’ Governor Hope reminded people that any bombing would perforce be racially indiscriminate.

Aircraft flying thousands of feet above cannot distinguish between Englishmen and Indians, he told an audience somewhat condescendingly. 

(Excerpted with permission from The Great Flap of 1942 by Mukund Padmanabhan, published recently by Penguin)

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(Published 24 February 2024, 23:12 IST)

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