Two men on a bike stop a youngster riding through Chivada village near Nagalapuram in Tiruvallur district. They question him about his whereabouts. When he responds in Tamil, they allow him to leave the place as they are convinced he is not a kidnapper.
Over 250 km away, in a nondescript village in Polur taluk in Tiruvannamalai district, women, in hushed tones, have been discussing about rumours of children being kidnapped in neighbouring villages. The fear has infiltrated to such an extent that they have been guarding their homes at night, taking their little ones along with them to work and sending away grandchildren, who had come visiting during the summer vacation.
The panic and pressure
The fear of strangers has been running deep in the minds of villagers in many parts of northern Tamil Nadu, especially Vellore, Tiruvannamalai and Tiruvallur districts, in the last few weeks. Behind these seemingly irrational fears are rumours that have been spread over WhatsApp that 200 child traffickers/criminals (north Indians) had entered Tamil Nadu and were planning to lure away children from the State. These completely unfounded rumours have, unfortunately, claimed three lives in the last three weeks, while there have been many incidents in which mobs have attacked strangers.
The first victim was a man, aged about 30 years, who was beaten up by residents of Parasuramanpatti in Gudiyatham in Vellore district on April 28. The residents thrashed the ‘Hindi-speaking’ man thinking he was a robber, while the police speculated that he could have been mentally disoriented and was in search for food. The second victim was 65-year-old Rukmani, who was lynched by villagers in Athimoor in Polur, in nearby Tiruvannamalai district after being mistaken for a kidnapper, while the third victim was a 45-year-old homeless man who used to beg on the streets of Pulicat.
If womenfolk in Athimoor came across many stories of children being harmed and kidnapped by strangers, Pushpa, a resident of Parasuramanpatti, believed rumours that a large group of criminals have landed in the locality and were hiding by a water body.
“I heard that these persons were staying by the ‘ eri ’ here. On the night of April 28, just hours after I reached home after undergoing an eye surgery, a stranger walked into my house and assaulted me and my aged father. I managed to push him outside when passers-by caught hold of him and hit him,” said Ms. Pushpa, talking about the yet-to-be-identified man, who, it seems in retrospect, was the first victim of such rumours. Her husband, Venkatesan, brother-in-law Vasu and neighbour Dharman are among the eight arrested for the murder. However, Ms. Pushpa claims that these three men never assaulted the stranger.
Living in fear
It was the same sense of fear and mistrust that was giving sleepless nights to villagers of Tindivanam panchayat in Polur.
“We were very scared after information spread, via WhatsApp, among villagers that children were being kidnapped. Some of the villagers stayed awake during night to ensure that there is no movement of strangers. Mothers, who have young children, have been taking the little ones when they left for work in the fields. They make them stand next to them when they worked,” said Kuppamma, a resident of Jamankulam in Tindivanam panchayat.
A class XII student of the village said they were receiving messages on child abduction on Whatsapp. “In fact, one of my neighbours sent back her grandchildren, who had come to spend the summer vacation with her. We just wanted to ensure that our children are safe,” Ms. Kuppamma said.
The sense of fear intensified when Rukmani and her four relatives landed at Jamankulam on May 9. “They offered chocolates to two children, and their grandmother raised an alarm thinking they were child lifters” said Lalitha, another resident.
Family and friends of few of the perpetrators blamed the rumours that spread on social media. “My son is not a rowdy. He has two children and he was worried that something may happen to them,” said an elderly woman from Pulicat who came to Thirupalaivanam police station on Saturday to meet her son, who was arrested in connection with the murder.
Manickam, a villager from Light House Panchayat in Pulicat, said that the youngsters should not have taken law into their hands. “Recently a man with knives was nabbed in Vairavankuppam. This might have triggered suspicion about strangers,” he said. A villager who did not wish to be named said that there is a fear about North Indians among the villagers. “But we fear only those who behave strangely,” he said.
Meanwhile, rumours caused similar problems in Methur village, situated over 10 km from Pulicat, where two persons were arrested on Wednesday for assaulting a man who was mistaken to be a kidnapper.
“I chased a man who was dressed like a woman in Eri Colony. I don’t know if he was a thief or a kidnapper. Similarly, there are complaints of strangers roaming in Pulicat and surrounding villages. All these issues created flutter among villagers,” said Satish, a resident of Methur.
But with the police stepping in and issuing warnings that those who spread rumours would be punished, it hopefully will put the brakes on such mob activity. The arrest of a person for spreading such rumours, and perpetrators of the mob violence, has also ensured that the message reached the public.
Given the circumstances, in their wisdom, village heads have decided take the initiative to exercise restraint on mobs. “We have now advised all to nab suspects and hand them over to the police,” said Mr. Manickam.