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In Sonbhadra, even professionals and officials got fooled. Such is India’s love for gold

News that nearly 3,500 tonnes of gold was found in Sonbhadra was first picked up by regional papers, but soon spread like wildfire across mainstream media.

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There is good reason for why Indians are called gold-obsessed. It is not just about shopping for gold during festivals and weddings. Gold is central to the average Indian fantasy. Indians popularly invoke their country’s past as the golden sparrow (sone ki chidiya) which was robbed by invaders and colonialists. People begin to salivate everytime there is any talk about gold — whether buried under a temple in Kerala, or in a mine in Unnao or Sonbhadra or when a finance minister even eyes the gold stored in temples.

Everybody quickly lapses into fantasies of the return of prosperous India and the golden sparrow.

A few years ago, a similar thing happened when a baba (yes, you read it right) had a dream about a gold treasure buried underground in Unnao. There was a Peepli Live-like beeline for the site as Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was called in to dig. All kinds of people came on TV debates to tell the viewers that India’s poverty problems are a thing of the past. Yes, India is just one gold dig away from reclaiming its lost glory and prosperity.

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Our love for gold

“I’m a fool so I’m told, I get left in the cold
‘Coz I will search the world for that fool’s gold”

The lyrics to this Graham Parker song from 1976 found some takers in India, specifically in Uttar Pradesh, this past weekend as the country witnessed a colossal gold hoax. News that apparently nearly 3,500 tonnes of gold was discovered in the state’s Sonbhadra district was first picked up by regional papers on 20 February, but soon spread like wildfire across mainstream publications like The Times of IndiaThe Economic TimesDD IndiaANI and Business Standard. The details were shaky, the numbers varied, but a quote from the District Mining Officer pointing out that the deposits were found in Sonpahadi and Hardi seemed to add legitimacy.

Moreover, the fact that deposits found were allegedly worth Rs 12 lakh crore — five times that of India’s current gold reserve, putting us second in place after the US in terms of the world’s largest gold reserves — seemed like reason enough for national celebration.

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Who jumped guns?

In the Sonbhadra incident, with most headlines screaming “Yogi Adityanath Strikes Gold”, the BJP was quick to galvanise the moment and make it sound as if the bling was found in Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister’s own backyard, and thus would go directly into his state’s coffers.

Senior BJP leaders like Amit Malviya and Union minister Hardeep Singh Puri proudly took ownership of the news. Puri even exclaimed that the discovery would “catalyse growth” of the “beautiful inspirational district” of Sonbhadra — the poverty-stricken region which was in news last year for a tribal massacre of 10 Gond tribals.

In a truly religious spirit, BJP’s National Social Media Incharge Priti Gandhi went so far as to say that the discovery might have something to do with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent announcement of the Ram Mandir being built in Ayodhya.

Journalist and RSS ideologue Swaminathan Gurumurthy took it one step further, claiming the discovery would enable India to “control the world gold market” and “decide the world gold prices too”.

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When the bubble burst

The bubble then burst as swiftly as the news had been built up when the Geological Survey of India issued a statement that no such recent discovery had been made, with the last survey being carried out as far back in 1999 which discovered 160 kg of gold, not 3,350 tonnes.

Predictably, the brutal reality check gave way to thousands of internet memes but also became an embarrassing moment for many who proved to be too gullible.

For the media, it was a sharp reminder to not blindly repeat what one hears without verifying the facts. When wire services and the leading dailies of the country spout the same facts — what should listeners, readers, viewers believe after all? For the politicians and government officials, it was a lesson in not just being accountable to check the validity of news, but also in exercising humility.

But in this dry spell of India’s flailing economy, it was also a reminder that Indians will believe anything — especially when it’s good news. Perhaps India’s long-time obsession with gold, be it mythological references that include Sita being born as a result of a golden plough used on a sacred field or the golden deer found by Sita in a forest, the country’s annual Dhanteras frenzy or the age-old obsession that physical gold is the best form of investment, did not help matters. Fake news and hoaxes might have become commonplace thanks to social media and the internet, but in the end, we believe what we want to believe.

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  1. As a person who follows the gold mining industry…. I would have to say all gold focused geologists and investment managers were laughing at the fake news of Sonbhadra…

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