India's unaddressed ethnic, sectarian and caste divisions have weakened civil society so much that a few unsubstantiated rumours can cause widespread panic.
Fear campaign in India exposes vacuum in Delhi
In recent days, thousands of Indians living in the southern city of Bangalore have been heading back to their homes in the north, frightened of being the victims of retaliatory violence after ethnic clashes in the north-eastern state of Assam. So far, an epidemic of violence has been more rumour than real, and yet New Delhi has been able to do very little to reassure the country.
The violence in Assam over the past month, which has left dozens dead and hundreds of thousands displaced, has also resisted any solution. In part, it is a sense of the government's powerlessness that has allowed a fear-mongering campaign to take root.
India's default response - blame Pakistan - misses the point entirely. The offending Photoshopped images of "victims" and text messages warning of a campaign of violence may have originated from Pakistan-based websites. It hardly matters. India's unaddressed ethnic, sectarian and caste divisions have weakened civil society so much that a few unsubstantiated rumours can cause a panic.
Recent events can hardly be taken in isolation. Assam's troubles have particular causes based on land use and demographics - disputes that go back decades in some cases - but the country's shared history of communal violence gives north-eastern Indians another reason to be afraid. From Mumbai to Manipur, Hindu-Muslim animosities have threatened to tear the social fabric apart and cost thousands of innocent lives.
While there is an undisputed history of Pakistan's meddling, the reflex action of blaming the neighbour is unhelpful. This has not been confined to low-level officials, right-wing Hindu extremists or rabble-rousing media: Home Secretary PK Singh created a diplomatic incident by blaming Pakistan on Saturday. Such rhetoric plays well in domestic politics precisely by feeding prejudice.
India desperately needs to acknowledge its home-grown problems. A crippled infrastructure, persistent economic inequality and endemic corruption, and politics that are increasingly provincial: all of these contribute to a sense of unease that ill befits a great power. As much as the massive electricity blackouts in July raised doubts about the country's economy and long-term policy planning, this vulnerability to a digital fear campaign shows a dangerous fragility in the social compact.
India's democracy has always taken its strength from the ability to resolve myriad conflicts on the fly. But the leaders in New Delhi, both the ruling Congress party and opposition BJP, have failed to offer a vision of India that is greater than its constituent parts. Instead, they preside over a country where a malicious lie makes compatriots fear each other to the point of abandoning their homes.