Thiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu, Karbi Anglong in Assam, and Chittoor in Andhra Pradesh are infamously linked in more ways than one. These three districts witnessed murders from the hands of irate mobs. The victims were hapless “outsiders”, who were beaten up and left to die. The perpetrators were local residents and the trigger was a piece of information circulated in social media platforms.
Not long ago, many parts of India witnessed mob violence based on rumours that people possessed cow meat or were smuggling cows. In most cases, the people who took the law into their own hands were associated with right-leaning outfits or a part of so-called cow-protection groups. But the spate of mob violence from April this year were triggered due to the fear of child abduction.
Rumours spread like wildfire on instant messaging platforms such as WhatsApp about children being kidnapped from neighbouring villages and killed for organ harvesting, leading to mob violence in many parts of the country.
One of the first cases of such mob attacks was reported from Obanapalle village on the outskirts of Chittoor, the Andhra Pradesh district that shares its borders with Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. On April 27 night, the villagers caught hold of a man suspecting him to be a child trafficker , thrashed him and handed him over to the police. The police, however, realised this person was mentally unsound and let him off. The next day he was caught by a group of youth, thrashed and killed.
The rumours of a child-lifting gang targeting children in Chittoor villages started spreading in the beginning of April when police put out posters seeking public help to nab the notorious ‘Parthi Gang’ of kidnappers from Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. The posters only increased the workload of police as more stories of gangs attacking people started spreading. On May 22, the Ongole police arrested a 33-year old man for spreading false news that a gang had slit the throat of a person.
In Vellore, Tiruvannamalai and Tiruvallur districts of northern Tamil Nadu, WhatsApp posts were circulated about 200 criminals from “north India” entering the State to lure children away. This claimed three lives and incited numerous mob attacks. The first victim was a mentally deranged man in his thirties who was found roaming in Parasuramanpatti village in Gudiyatham in Vellore district. The "Hindi speaking" man was hacked to death on April 28. Sixty five-year-old Rukmani, who was in Athimoor village in Tiruvannamalai district, was killed on the suspicion that she was a kidnapper. In a more chilling incident, a 45-year-old homeless beggar was beaten to death and hung from a bridge in Pulicat. All the three incidents happened within a span of two weeks.
The culprits have been arrested in all the three cases and police are making efforts to curb rumours. “Our cyber cell has started tracking those who create and forward such messages,” a police official told The Hindu . A 29-year-old man was arrested from a village in Thiruvannamalai on May 10 for spreading false news on child kidnapping. In the widely-circulated video message, the youth was reportedly seen narrating how a number of children were abducted from a few villages in Cheyyar, Vandavasi, Anakkavoor, and Kancheepuram. No such incident was reported from these villages.
Similar incidents were reported in Odisha, Karnataka, Telangana, Tripura and West Bengal as well. The victims of these attacks are mostly outsiders, migrant labourers, beggars or mentally-challenged persons. Not knowing the language of the territory only adds woe to these victims. A migrant labourer from Rajasthan was thrashed to death in Bengaluru, five transpersons who were seeking alms during Ramzan were thrashed and one of them died in Hyderabad. On June 26, a beggar woman from Rajasthan was killed by a mob in Ahmedabad.
The child trafficking rumours have spread far northeast resulting in the gory murder of two tourists in the tribal-dominated Karbi Anglong district . Audio engineer Nilotpal Das and businessman Abhijeet Nath were lynched by a mob on June 9 based on rumours that the duo had abducted a child in their car. Police investigation revealed that the rumour was spread by one Alphajos Timung, after he had picked up a fight with the duo near Kangthilangso waterfall. Timung, one of the main accused of the killing, is said to have called up Nath’s fiancee to inform her that he bludgeoned Nath and his friend to death. A video of an irate mob bashing the duo despite Das repeatedly pleading in Assamese that they were not child abductors emerged later.
It is not clear if the child abduction rumours are being spread with a malicious agenda. They keep resurfacing in different parts of the country time and again. Last year, a similar rumour swept Kochi and its neighbourhood in Kerala. Some messages even had the images of top police officials in order to make them appear “authentic”. They subsequently died down after police started acting against these hoax messages.
The law and order and cyber cell departments of police are trying hard to contain rumourmongers. Several people have been arrested and efforts are being made to remove offensive content from social media websites. "We are asking a cross-section of communities to visit villages and educate people about potentially dangerous social media posts and forwards,” said Karbi Anglong Superintendent of Police GV Siva Prasad. In Tamil Nadu, police are relying on public announcements, pamphlet distribution and community programmes to sensitise people on the harms of spreading false news.
Taking a cue from their neighbours, States such as Kerala and Nagaland have also started tracking the source of child abduction rumours. Police officials in Nagaland are being encouraged to become members of Whatsapp groups to keep a watch on rumours. Most State police are active on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook and instantly refute rumours. In case of Telangana which saw three social-media triggered murders, the Director-General of Police M. Mahender Reddy himself stepped in to assure people that no such organised gang of child traffickers are active in the State.
But there appears to be no end to rumours. Despite a ruling that admins are liable for false content spread on Whatsapp, such rumours are continuously being peddled. The end-to-end encryption of Whatsapp makes it hard for the law enforcement officials to crackdown onhoaxes spread through such applications. In most cases, the responsibility trickles down to the receiver of such information. A pause before mindless sharing of forwards could avoid the spread of false news in most cases.
Interactive map, graphic by Varun B. Krishnan
With additional inputs from Anusha Surendran