Mob lynching

‘Everything that could go wrong went wrong’: Days of rumours led to the lynchings in Assam village

Social media messages that had gone viral in the area warned local residents that child lifters were on the prowl.

Amar Terang, a resident of Dengaon in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district, had read it on Facebook: Five child-lifters from Bihar were on a kidnapping spree in the area and they had already struck several times in the district capital of Diphu. “It has been coming continuously over the last two weeks on Facebook, you must have also seen it,” said Terang, who has only recently bought a smartphone and joined the social networking site. The message had warned that everyone should be on guard as phankodongs – the Karbi term for child lifters – were on the loose in the area.

They were on guard on the evening of June 8, when two young men from Guwahati, Abhijit Nath and Nilotpal Das, were driving up National Highway-36, connecting Assam’s Nagaon with Nagaland’s commercial hub of Dimapur. Around 6.30 pm, going by the mobile phone tower signal intercepted by the police, the duo took a detour from the highway at Dengaon. They were headed towards the Kangthilangso waterfall in the village that went by the same name. It is located at the foot of the Mikir hills, which separate Eastern Karbi Anglong from Kaziranga National Park.

Over the next hour-and-a-half, Das and Nath were lynched by an angry mob who had allegedly taken the two to be child lifters.

As the news of the lynching broke, a furore broke out in the state. Protests spread in Guwahati, some of them reportedly turning violent. Meanwhile, in Nagaon district, Assamese youth allegedly tried to attack people from Karbi Anglong, who are ethnically distinct.

But the areas around Kangthilangso and Panjuri Kachari, the village where the two young men were found dead by the police on Friday, were eerily quiet on June 11. The road leading to the villages was closed. A group of stern policemen turned away everyone: from journalists to executive members of the Karbi Anglong Autonomous District Council.

(Photo credit: Abhishek Dey).
(Photo credit: Abhishek Dey).

‘Phankodong’

Fearing police action, most men – with the exception of children and old men – have fled the 25-odd villages in the area from the highway to the hills. The Assam police, in the midst of a manhunt involving 230 personnel to track down members of the mob, had arrested 18 men as of Monday afternoon.

The women, barely educated and with little access to the world outside their villages, are struggling to make sense of the incident. “The men are all gone, and there are so many military and police men, we are scared,” said Mitchu Teron, whose son was also picked up by the police on Sunday night.

Mitchu Teron. (Photo credit: Abhishek Dey).
Mitchu Teron. (Photo credit: Abhishek Dey).

In Kaibongkro village, barely a kilometre from where Das and Nath were murdered, Lakhi Ingtipy lives with her father-in-law and three-year old son. Five people have been arrested from the village. Ingtipy said that all she recalled from Friday evening, were men screaming on the street about two phankodongs being spotted. She claimed she did not step out of her house. “We had been warned to be extra careful and to keep the kids safe at home because phankodongs had apparently abducted children in Diphu,” she said.

Ingtipy said she was still not certain about the real identities of Nath and Das. Their physical appearances, she claimed, matched with the descriptions she had heard about child lifters: men who dressed as women. One of the victims, Das, sported dreadlocks. “My heart is heavy,” she said. “We have heard that they said they are Assamese, but we have also heard that in their car there were needles and knives. Also, if they are singers why did they come here so late?”

In a video believed to have been taken by someone in the mob, Das is heard telling his attackers that he was Assamese: “Do not kill me…please do not beat me. I am an Assamese. Believe me, I am speaking the truth. My father’s name is Gopal Chandra Das and mother’s name is Radhika Das…please let me go.”

Lakhi Ingtipy with her son. (Photo credit: Abhishek Dey).
Lakhi Ingtipy with her son. (Photo credit: Abhishek Dey).

WhatsApp rumours

A senior district police official said that all circumstances that evening went against Das and Nath. “There had been a viral social media rumour doing the rounds in the area about child lifters, and these boys had appearances that nobody in the village had probably come across before,” he said. “In the vehicle, there were two musical instruments: an almost five-foot long hollow pipe and an ATC-[air traffic control] shaped drum with flashy colours – both of which would have been completely foreign to the villagers. On top of that, they were riding a black Scorpio at night. Everything that could go wrong went wrong.”

Boreswhwar Rongpi, who owns an eatery on the highway, echoed the policeman. “This rumour about child lifters has been all over, and there is this superstition that they are men who impersonate women,” he said.

For many in the interior villages in the area, where electricity is intermittent and newspapers almost never reach, there is little by the way of credible information to counter social media. As a result, most people, even after Saturday’s gruesome murder, seem to believe there was some truth to the claims that the two men had been child lifters.

“But everyone is saying there are phankodongs kidnapping children in Diphu,” said Xangbor Tisu, the headman of another village in the vicinity.

A build up

The panic, Rongpi said, had reached such alarming levels in the days preceding Nath and Das’s lynching that he was sure something would go terribly wrong. For the past couple of weeks, young men from villages in the area had started keeping guard at strategic points during the night, he said, watching out for “suspicious looking men” who did not belong to the area.

On Thursday, a day before the incident, there had been two separate instances near Dengaon where villagers had chased two alleged child lifters, said Rongpi. “That day too men had come out in hordes with torches and whatever they could get hold of to chase supposed child lifters,” he said. “But they could not get hold of anyone. If they would have, who is to say that the outcome would have been different than what happened the next day, because most of the time these young boys are drunk.”

GV Siva Prasad, the chief of the Karbi Anglong police, too, said that many of the men caught by the police were intoxicated. The police officer also claimed that the area saw a particularly high number of alcohol-induced violent crimes.

But does the paranoia about child lifters have any basis in fact?

Instances of child trafficking in the area were almost nil, Prasad said, although there had been a few occasional cases of missing children. Government records, however, reveal that Karbi Anglong accounts for one of the highest cases of child trafficking in Assam – which itself has routinely recorded some of the highest numbers of women and child trafficking cases in India.

The car Nath and Das were travelling in. (Photo credit: Abhishek Dey).
The car Nath and Das were travelling in. (Photo credit: Abhishek Dey).
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.