'The Great Fear’

Arup Kumar Sen

There are moments in history when ‘the great fear’ gripped the masses. In the ‘Foreword’ of his celebrated book, The Great Fear of 1789: Rural Panic in Revolutionary France, the eminent French historian, Georges Lefebvre, stated: “The Great Fear of 1789 is an astonishing event whose outer form has often been described, but whose inner motives have never been the subject of a thorough investigation. To its disconcerted contemporaries it was a total mystery, and those who insisted on finding some sort of explanation for it had to fall back on the idea of a conspiracy…”

Very recently, the spread of the novel coronavirus in India has generated ‘the great fear’ among the masses. This fear has been accompanied by conspiracy theories and spread of rumours, blaming the Muslim community as the spreaders of the virus.

A report by Shawn Sebastian, carried in (April 4, 2020), observed this phenomenon:

Since 30 March, when news broke that six attendees at the Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic religious gathering in Delhi’s Nizamuddin locality, had died of COVID-19, fact-checking websites have reported a barrage of fake-news targeting Muslims for the pandemic. Many video clips shared on Facebook and WhatsApp purportedly showed Muslims actively working to spread the virus in India.

 There is not much commonality between revolutionary France in the 18th century and India in the 21st century. The role of modern technologies in spreading fear among the population about constructed enemies, as is happening in India, could not be imagined in 18th-century France. However, the traditional “idea of a conspiracy” still persists. This is an exemplary case of ‘invention of tradition’. Let us leave it to the future historians to unearth the “inner motives” of this invention.

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Apr 22, 2020

Arup Sen

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