Khabar Lahariya on the tail of what burning hot fake news really looks like, in the Hindi heartland.
‘If only the police hadn’t come. I would’ve tied her up with ropes myself and dumped her onto the pyre.’
During our follow-up visit last week to the village where a woman was rumoured to have attempted Sati, the abolished practice of wives choosing to burn themselves alive on the pyres of their husbands rather than opt for their lives as widows, the whispered echoes on the streets suggest that this is the prevalent sentiment amongst members of said woman’s family.
Only apt, since rumours and whispers are at the heart of this story.
The residents of Shahbazpur, a village in the Banda district in Uttar Pradesh, sharing borders with Madhya Pradesh, found itself at the centre ofa tsunami of attention, especially from the media, over the last month.
On January 16, Khabar Lahariya reporter Geeta Devi followed the direction of the local news storm and found herself in Shahbazpur. ‘A woman is just about to commit Sati…’ was the general refrain.
Geeta was not alone. Within hours, open areas in the village were flooded with crowds and crowds of warm bodies, all feverishly eager to see a woman burn alive. ‘She’s old, we hear’, said one man, while another was disappointed the ‘show’ hadn’t begun yet.
Geeta, not unfamiliar with the practice and its prevalence in parts of Uttar Pradesh even today, spoke with the local police who confirmed that the woman had been prevented from doing what she intended to – that she was under police watch.
The crowds around the burning pyre became incensed, at not having got what they had come for – some from far-off villages and districts across M.P. even.
We met with the diminutive Savitri, 70, who refused to speak much, but was visibly distraught at the death of her husband. Her son, Rambabu, equal parts agitated and pleased, both enjoying the cameras and not,confirmed that his mother intended to commit Sati, but he immediately informed the authorities. ‘I only told the police’, was his claim.
How it went from the local thana to smartphones across U.P. & M.P. perhaps calls for a separate investigation, especially given how the majority of people who had turned up to watch a woman commit Sati said that this had been a forwarded message on their What’s App.
Savitri’s neighbours were largely unimpressed, many even of the opinion that it was all ‘fake news’.
But some were keen to express themselves. Genda, for instance, insisted that Savitri’s ‘inner fire probably wasn’t pure enough’, else no force of nature could’ve stopped her from committing Sati. ‘The locks of the house break open if a pure Sati is inside it. Nothing and nobody can stop her.’
When we met Savitri again last week, she was forlorn and dismissive of the world in general. Lying still in the courtyard of her house, she said that she had lost her will to live, ‘ever since they prevented me from becoming Sati’. Unsure if it is the image that has caught up with her finally, we tried to ask one of the daughters-in-law, who had just returned from a day at the fields. She immediately asked us to leave, repeating only one thing, ‘She’s fine. Just leave us alone.’
The workings of a carefully-manufactured piece of local news that garnered so much traction and noise, using everyone’s preferred new word of mouth means – What’s App – was amplified on the Khabar Lahariya YouTube channel as well. The video went viral in the matter of a few hours, and comments interrogated us, ‘Where was the woman, and why didn’t she jump into the fire?’
Currently clocking at 2.1 million views, we feel the real question it does beg is – In our voyeuristic urge to view violence, especially towards women and the way that technology makes rumours unstoppable across our rural countryside,are the voices of fact and fake-news busting loud enough? And perhaps, more importantly, does anybody even care?
An edited version of this article first appeared on The News Minute.