From Jallianwalla Bagh to Operation Bluestar; Questions on information credence

Anyone can publish wrong information on the internet. How do we identify when faulty stuff is pushed in the name of Sikhi or Sikhs? Rishpal Singh Sidhu looks at the issue

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By Rishpal Singh Sidhu | Opinion |

The past few decades have been marked by an exponential growth in both, information sources and resources, and the digital technologies to access them, together with the equally corresponding difficulties experienced by most of us in verifying the truth of facts from these multifarious information sources.

Next year will mark the fortieth anniversary of Operation Blue Star, the military attack on the Golden Temple ordered by the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in June 1984. Conflicting and divergent news reports then immediately appeared on the number of deaths and injured arising from this attack. The primary sources of information were official Government statements, reports by independent news agencies, and eyewitness accounts. The Government White Paper stated that 1,592 militants were apprehended and there were 554 combined militant and civilian casualties. The official casualty figures for the Indian Army were 83 dead and 249 injured. Human Rights Pulse reported the death of 492 civilians.1 SikhiWiki, Encyclopedia of the Sikhs, reported otherwise that 1,600 innocent pilgrims including men, women, and children were killed in the operation and more than 3,000 Indian Army soldiers were also killed during the attack with more than double that number injured. News and information on the assassination of Indira Gandhi on 31 October 1984 spread like wildfire, and a well-known Indian personality is reported to have said “Khoon da badla khoon” on India’s media outlet, Doordarshan. It was reported that more than 3,000 Sikhs were killed in the mob attacks on Sikhs in Delhi the following day and an estimated 8,000 to 17,000 Sikhs in total were killed across 40 cities in India. Almost four decades later and after 4 Commissions of Inquiry, 9 Committees, and 2 Special Investigation Teams, we are still nowhere near the truth. The Indian Ministry of Home Affairs put the deaths at 2,732 (2,146 in Delhi and 586 in other parts of India), a figure echoed by the  Ahuja Committee in 1987 and the Nanavati Commission of Inquiry in 2005. “The most reliable estimates of the total number of deaths during Operation Bluestar range from 5,000 to 7,000.”2  

Likewise, there have been equally conflicting news reports on the fate of the Sikh Reference Library (SRL) with its precious collection of rare manuscripts. Early reports by the Indian Army claimed that the SRL was completely charred on the night of 5 June 1984. This is contrary to eyewitness accounts that the SRL contents were taken away  by the Army to a nearby location, packed in gunny sacks, and loaded onto its trucks,  later confirming a  belated admission by the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Tatla (2020) poses a pertinent question “did all the contents of the SRL perish during the fire? If not, as asserted by many eyewitnesses, then what happened to them subsequently? To date, what valuable manuscripts were taken away and what were returned has (still) not been satisfactorily resolved.’’3

In this context, three other interesting examples come to mind. In his report on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, Brigadier General Reginald Dyer is reported to have boasted “that not one bullet was wasted. They fired 1,650 rounds, and every bullet hit someone. About 1,300 people were killed, and several hundred more injured.’’4 However, there are conflicting news reports and wide variation in the number of people killed.  Official  figures released by the British in 1919 estimated the deaths at 488. The Hindustan Times reported 547 deaths, 59 more than the official count of 488. Extensive research conducted over two and a half years by Amritsar’s Partition  Museum and Delhi’s Art and Culture Heritage Trust  confirmed the figure of 547 deaths.

Similar discrepancies have also been reported on the number of Sikhs who lost their lives in the mayhem of the 1947 partition.  

The Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) was formed in November 2020 as a coalition of over forty Indian farmers’ unions to coordinate protests against the Indian Government’s proposed introduction of three Farm Laws that would have loosened rules on the sale, pricing and storage of farm produce – rules which have protected them from the free market for decades. The SKM argued that these laws would leave farmers vulnerable to big companies and destroy their livelihoods. Farmers travelled from far and wide in the country to stage protests in Delhi and their protests met with widespread support both from within the country and from non-resident Indian communities overseas. The protests were ultimately successful, and the Indian Government agreed to repeal the laws in November 2020. There were conflicting news reports emerging that somewhere between 400 to 750 farmers had allegedly died during the protests at Delhi borders. The Times of India and Al Jazeera reported 600 deaths. A detailed analysis of the data of deaths of farmers by OpIndia painted a different and clearer picture. It reported that 108 farmers lost their lives while on the way to the protest site, 191 lost their lives at the protest site, 340 died after returning home and 40 were reported suicides.5

Fake news or incorrectly reported information is not a new phenomenon. The advance of continually evolving digital technologies and unmediated social media platforms are fertile grounds for the spread of fake news. “The COVID-19 pandemic and its associated “infodemic” have highlighted how the spread of fake news and misinformation online, even if shared without malicious intent, can weaken global public health efforts, contribute to social unrest and lead to real-life harm or even deaths.”6  “It was reported that 79% of UK  and 72% of USA citizens use the internet, including social media, to look for Covid-19 related information.’’7  Together with official government  health department websites in each country, WebMD, the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, and John Hopkins are known to offer reliable factual medical information on their websites that has been independently reviewed and produced by a team of medical experts.

On matters pertaining to Sikhism and Sikh history, the four volumes Encyclopedia of Sikhism with content from a host of carefully chosen contributors and edited by Professor Harbans Singh is generally acknowledged as a reliable information resource. On contemporary matters pertaining to Sikhi, the SikhiWiki website has four content-guiding principles and makes no claims to original thought or research. Verifiability, not truth is its primary guiding principle for inclusion of content, the other three principles being no original research, a neutral point of view, and relevance. SikhiWiki claims to contain material and information that has been published by other reliable sources, regardless of whether its editors view this material as true or false. Important mention must also be made here of the Asia Samachar news portal, which since its establishment in October 2014 has been consistently publishing objective news on Sikhs, including providing space to thought-provoking Sikhi concepts, something that has been shunned by other Sikh news portals. Asia Samachar was also probably the only Sikh news portal that reported on the alleged sexual abuses by Yogi Bhajan. In contrast, the Sikhnet website has been known to take a liberal view on some Sikhi matters and has been openly linked with the 3HO (Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization) and the late Yogi Bhajan.

Fast forward to the present and we are increasingly confronted with an almost bewildering array of news and information sources and resources, including misinformation and disinformation. The first social media made its appearance in 1997, followed by Facebook in 2004, YouTube in 2005, WhatsApp in 2009, Instagram in 2010, WeChat in 2011, and Tik Tok in 2016, resulting in an exponential growth of information. Together with Google and Wikipedia, it cannot honestly be said that information from these sources has always been fact-checked and is totally reliable. How then can we as individuals be more discriminating and socially responsible in first checking that the information we have received and read is factually correct before hastily sharing it with family members and our wider circle of friends and contacts?

MISINFORMATION, DISINFORMATION & MALINFORMATION

Misinformation is when false information is shared with others with no intention of causing harm. Disinformation is when false information is knowingly shared to cause harm, alarm, and concern. Malinformation is where genuine information is shared to cause harm to others by moving information originally designed to stay private into the public sphere.8 Today, more than ever before, and with information so readily available at the touch of a key on our computers, laptops, and smartphones, there is an urgent need for both critical thinking and information skills to help us to distinguish between genuine and fake news and to combat extremism in our society. We have a social responsibility to protect ourselves and our fellow beings from fake news. The CRAAP Test (acronym for Currency, Relevance/Reliability, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose) was originally designed in in 2004 by Sarah Blakeslee and her colleagues at California State University may be of some help to us the next time we encounter and need to verify dubious information before passing and sharing it with others. How Current or recent is this information, how Reliable or Relevant is this information (who is the Author, publisher, originator of this information, and can it be trusted), Accuracy in terms of whether it can be verified from another source, and are there any glaring spelling, grammar, or typographical errors, and what is the Purpose/point of view of this information? Snopes.com was started in 1994 and is but one notable tool that we can use to help us to tell the difference between fact and fiction. It verifies articles and claims the old-fashioned way with human fact checkers who then write up articles verifying news topics with their findings.

Anyone can publish wrong information on the internet, and we instinctively perform online searches all the time without stopping to think about the reliability or credibility of the information. The social media have their uses in terms of social networking, photo sharing, video sharing, interactive media, blogging, and community building. They are also fertile grounds for the spread of fake news. “Algorithms known as bots are increasingly being deployed to manipulate information, to disrupt social media communication, and to gain user attention across a whole range of subjects. While technological assistance to identify fake news are beginning to appear, they are still in their infancy. It will take time for programmers to create software that can recognize and tag fake news without human intervention.”9 We need to be much more vigilant about the information we come across and knowingly share with others, especially that which generates falsehoods and incites bigotry and hatred shared without malicious intent – can weaken global public health efforts, contribute to social unrest and lead to real-life harms or even death.

References

1.Gill, M. The 1984 Sikh genocide – 36 years on. Human Rights Pulse, June 20, 2020.

2. Singh, P. Wounds that never heal; Remembering Operation Blue Star. The Wire, 6 June 2021.

3.Tatla, D.S. (2020). The loss of Sikh heritage; The missing manuscripts of the Sikh Reference Library since June 1984. Sikh Formations, 16 (4), 385-409.

4. Wagner, K.A. (2019). Amritsar 1919; An empire of fear and the making of a massacre. Yale University Press.

5. Did over 700 farmers die during anti-farm bill protests at Delhi borders? A detailed analysis of the data reveals the truth. https://www.opindia.com 13 January 2022.

6. Fighting fake news in the Covid-19 era. La Trobe University, 5 December 2022. https://www.latrobe.edu.au/news/articles/2021/release/fighting-fake-news-in-the-covid-19-era

7. Nielsen, R.K., Schulz, A., & Fletcher, R. (2021). An ongoing infodemic: How people in eight countries access news and information about Coronavirus a year into the pandemic. Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

8. Wardle, C. & Derakhshan, H. (2017). Information disorder: Towards an interdisciplinary framework for research and policy making. Council of Europe.

9.Burkhardt, J.M. (2017). Combating fake news in the digital age. Library Technology Reports, November/December, 53 (8).

Rishpal Singh Sidhu is a semi-retired casual academic at the School of Information and Communication Studies, Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, Australia. He has a passion for research, writing, and teaching and is the compiler and editor of the book, Singapore’s early Sikh pioneers; Origins, settlement, contributions, and institutions, published by the Central Sikh Gurdwara Board  in Singapore in 2017. He is currently based in Sydney, Australia.

* This is the opinion of the writer, organisation or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.

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