Lindsay Pereira: Looking for info? Access denied

Published: Nov 19, 2016, 06:02 IST | Lindsay Pereira |

Conspiracy theories thrive in an environment where mistrust and fear are encouraged, and honest replies to questions are rarely given

The only people standing outside banks and ATMs for days were people this new move was supposed to benefit. Pic/AFP
The only people standing outside banks and ATMs for days were people this new move was supposed to benefit. Pic/AFP

I am convinced that a significant number of my countrymen spend much of their time watching the news and cooking up conspiracy theories in order to frighten the rest of us into doing things we wouldn't normally do. It happens like clockwork every other week, irrespective of which government happens to be in power. I am convinced about this because these bizarre theories start popping up on the 200 WhatsApp groups I am part of faster than pointless birthday and festival messages usually tend to do.

'Guess why the government did this?' they ask, rushing to answer without giving us a chance to respond. 'Guess who profited from this move?' 'Why do you think it happened like this?', 'Don't be fooled.' 'Here's the real reason this occurred'. 'You won't believe this.' 'Think again about what you just did.' It goes on and on. I don't really care anymore.

Take the exchange of currency notes, for instance, which traumatised everyone except businessmen, politicians and their henchmen. Many believe it wasn't a simple exchange at all, with some referring to it as a massive plot. The theories flew thick and fast even before the first ATM ran out of money. 'It's a scam,' they said, creating infographics and tweeting Photoshopped images of anything and everything to prove their brilliant theory of the hour.

Friends of mine forwarded messages pointing out that the notes were being recalled in order to cover up a mistake that involved thousands of notes printed without the crucial security threads, by a press in Madhya Pradesh. Others believed this entire exercise had been set in motion by a former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India in order to make things hard for the government at some point in the future. I didn't bother attacking either theory despite the obvious loopholes.

Many were convinced this was connected to the upcoming elections in UP and Punjab, in order to force parties there to struggle with bribing potential voters. Some swore they had photographs of leaders in possession of new notes well before the rest of us, while still others believed this was done to benefit some of India's biggest corporate houses. A couple of people on Facebook — that haven for conspiracy theorists everywhere — even dismissed the whole move as a PR tactic aimed at diverting attention from other things that would otherwise have been noticed.

The saddest thing about conspiracy theories is the reason for their existence. They ought not to, but always thrive in an environment of fear and mistrust. They are given a breath of life by people who desperately want something to cling on to in times of uncertainty. And they are most prevalent in places where people don't have leaders they have respect for or belief in. It's why they cropped up in the aftermath of 9/11, the UK's exit from the EU and post Donald Trump's election win.

At the same time, conspiracy theories are also a luxury for so many of us because as last week's exercise showed, the poor simply have no information or explanations. They are abandoned in the cold, left to fend for themselves time and again, by governments that don't condescend to take their lives into consideration whenever they issue a proclamation. It's why some people died of shock and others starved, while the people who were supposed to be harmed the most by this attack on illegal currency weren't seen standing in lines at all. It's why the only people standing outside banks and ATMs for days, putting their lives on hold, were people this new move was supposed to benefit in the first place.

Tell people something is being done for the good of your country, and they will believe anything. The fact that there is still no consensus on whether the currency withdrawal exercise actually does anything positive for India shows just how confused, cynical or exhausted we all are by anything and everything done by our elected leaders. Maybe none of it happened at all. Maybe this is just a well-orchestrated joke being played out on us all. Who is to say the theories aren't concocted by telecom companies to make us all consume more data, forward more messages on WhatsApp and share more videos on Facebook walls of families and friends? Maybe it's all a giant ruse to simply help us keep telecom corporations and banks afloat. Sounds stupid? Most conspiracy theories are. Unfortunately for us, they are often the only theories we are given access to.

When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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