The events that led up to the brutal assault on Monday of two men in Uttar Pradesh ’s Hapur district on the outskirts of New Delhi are unclear — but one of them died and the other sustained injuries. The family of the dead man, Qasim, a 45-year-old cattle trader, says that he had set out when he heard about the possibility of cattle being on sale, and the next thing they heard was that a mob had set itself upon him, killing him. Sameyddin’s relatives say he had been out getting grass for his cattle when he spied the mob attack on Qasim — he tried to run to safety, but was beaten up nonetheless. Qasim’s son says his father’s death was the outcome of a conspiracy. Others in the village say locals were on edge following rumours that cow smuggling was afoot. And administration officials say it may all have been a case of road rage. Investigations are on, so what actually transpired is not definitively known yet. But given lynchings across north India by ‘cow protection’ vigilantes, it is not difficult to miss the communal dangers here. Elsewhere, from Tamil Nadu in the south to Assam in the Northeast, men and women have been lynched on suspicion that they were out to kidnap children. To give just a few examples, in May, a homeless man in Pulicat, north of Chennai, was battered to death on such suspicion, as was a car-borne woman pilgrim in Tiruvannamalai district, who offered some sweets to children while seeking directions. This month, in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district, two men from Guwahati were killed by a mob on the same anxiety that they were looking to kidnap children. In many cases — including in Tamil Nadu and Assam — such public concern was created or heightened by warnings that were circulated on social media.
Yet, irrespective of whether the lynchings are due to fear of kidnappings or are deliberate acts by cow protection vigilantes, the authorities should not treat the crime of murder and the allegations that enrage a mob with the same equivalence. Murder is murder, but the killing of another human being by a murderous crowd out to enforce mob justice or avert an imagined crime takes an extraordinary toll of the civilities of wider society. The police must make it clear, by word and action, that murder and mob violence will be strictly dealt with. Yet, the administration must also reckon with a new challenge: the use of social media, especially WhatsApp groups and forwards, to spread fear and panic. Responses such as surveillance and Internet shutdowns are not just impossible — in a free society, they are inadvisable. What is needed is an administration that reaches out to local communities to keep them in the loop in order to check trouble-makers — and that conveys sufficient good faith so individuals will trust it to keep the peace and sift real threats from mischievous rumours.