Rainawari Rumours: A Sign of Deep-Seated Stigma in Kashmir?

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Photo: Abid Bhat

As a chronic case of the indoor kite-flying, attempts were made to demonise Rainawari family and their neighbourhood after an elderly lady became latest Covid-19 victim in Kashmir on April 28. But beyond the brooding Red Zone that curtly emerged to chagrin of concerned locals, a sense of viral stigma fuelled by fake news has gripped the valley today.

Sajad Bhat

JOGHILANKER, Srinagar — A day after witnessing a quiet and controversial burial, the archetypal Old City pocket in Rainawari wore a ghostly look. Some masked men struggled to come out of the new community confines, as weary window watchers glimpsed the gloomy streets, where a bunch of cops were enforcing the regimental routine.

Some of these policemen doubled as undertakers on April 28 when they gave a hushed farewell to an elderly lady. Since then, her hometown in Rainawari Srinagar is facing fake news.

Various loose texts sent out on social media tried to malign the entire family for “abandoning her”. But many pricked the propaganda balloon by terming it a blatant act to create faultlines in the lockdown-ridden community during one of the most severe health emergencies in human history.

“It’s all rubbish,” a local, introducing himself as Mushtaq Ahmed, dismissed the rumour that the elderly lady was abandoned by her family.

“Her large family of around 30 members was sent to quarantine soon after she was detected carrying the coronavirus. So this argument of abandoning her just does not hold water.”

The septuagenarian woman from Rainawari had tested positive for Covid-19 at Srinagar’s CD hospital on Monday, and a day after she became the eighth Covid-19 victim in J&K. She was suffering from various ailments, including diabetes, hypertension and other comorbidities.

The knee-jerk social media reaction following her death came after a picture surfaced and showed cops lowering the lady into her grave. The loose talk was apparently triggered by the absence of her family and neighbours at the graveyard.

A photo of burial that went viral on Social Media

“The cops were only following the set and strict protocol for the [Covid-19] burial,” Mushtaq continued. “Even as they hadn’t been in quarantine, do we really think that the family would’ve participated in her funeral when authorities have barred gatherings? Let’s not demonise these infectious patients, and their families, like this. Anyone of us could’ve been at their place.”

Earlier, when Covid-19 positive persons and their families faced hate campaigns driven by a mindless propaganda, Dr Samia Rashid, Principal GMC Srinagar, had to put her foot down.

“My message to general masses is that,” she said, “please don’t ostracise them [Covid-19 patients], they shouldn’t be treated as untouchables, they don’t have any disease, they are part of us, anyone of us can get this illness, please respect their privacy.”

But as the virus is spreading, many people are viewing each other with apprehension. “It’s a basic human tendency to become overly cautious in times like this,” says Wasim Misgar, a research scholar from Pulwama. “But humanity should not lose its true meaning.”

However, in Kashmir, where rumour-mongering is one of the biggest social problems, Covid-19 has created many stigmas in the society.

“The problem of rumour-mongering is adding to the ongoing troubles created by the existing health crisis,” says Younus Khan, 28, a trader from Srinagar, who had to earlier gone into quarantine mode after one of his family members turned positive case.

“We Kashmiris exaggerate a lot and get hyper very quickly,” Khan says. “In absence of authentic news and proper awareness, misinformation campaign is only taking us for a ride.”

The long-drawn-out kill-switch on the high-speed internet, Khan believes, is clearly aggravating the current pandemic by fuelling rumours amid sluggish flow of the right news.

What’s equally aiding this mindless campaign is a growing nonchalance of officials and reluctance of locals to talk and share facts.

While locals want to steer clear of any controversy in times of dreadful virus, the officials appear bent on imposing information embargo, apparently to keep bad press in check. Earlier, the same motive, many say, forced union territory movers and shakers to bar medics from reporting to media.

“Even as some babus are actively sharing their tweets on the situation, right and clear information is unforthcoming in Kashmir,” says Atif Dhar, 29, a banker from Sopore. “We’re largely dependent on news coming from outside.”

But such news has its own side-effects.

Photo: Abid Bhat

Much of the misinformation and the current community confusion is being attributed to the national media’s covid coverage.

“The corona pandemic has brought about the best in many, but also the worst in some,” Dhar continues. “While the rightwing media made Tableegi Jamat members as corona villains, it conveniently ignored other big gatherings and human issues during the current crisis. Such a toxic TV coverage has changed the perspective of the people negatively.”

Barring Tableegi factor, some perceptive barriers have cropped up in the society which was traditionally known for community spirit and support.

Few weeks ago, when a group of Kashmiri medical students returned from Bangladesh, they faced the wrath of their neighbours.

Fearing “potential corona carriers” at their doorsteps, they alerted the authorities and packed their “freaked out” neighbours to quarantine centres.

Although informing authorities about the travel history of the people coming from outside is a welcome gesture, it has also drawn some flak from a section of society, alleging that many people are becoming informers in guise of community whistleblowers.

“All this is being done to apply social distancing in letter and spirit,” Dhar, the banker, says. “But then, social distancing does not mean cutting off a person from the society.”

It’s a mutual cooperation among people, which is the key element in the fight against Covid-19, says Dr. Shakeel Sofi, a physician serving at the frontline today.

“Physical distancing should not stop various channels of communication with the Covid-19 infected patients, neither should it ostracise them,” the medic says.

  •  Mrinal Pathak contributed reporting.

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Sajad Bhat

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