In May, around a month before two young men from Guwahati were lynched by a mob in Karbi Anglong in Central Assam that had accused them of being child kidnappers, a 45-year-old man in Telangana’s Wanaparthy district narrowly escaped being killed for the same reason. His life was saved after a villager called the police, even as members of the mob that attacked him cheered about thrashing a donga, the Telugu term for a thief.

It later emerged that the man, who worked as a labourer in a Hyderabad factory, had arrived in Wanaparthy to meet a woman with whom he had been having a secret relationship. The man was spotted by some village women. They raised the alarm. Rumours about child kidnappers on the prowl were doing the rounds in some parts of the state, said Rema Rajeshwari, police chief of Gadwal and Wanaparthy regions of Telangana, and the women feared that that the labourer was one of them.

He was lucky to have escaped alive. Over the past three months, across more than 10 states in India, at least 20 persons have been killed and several injured in incidents of mob violence sparked by rumours of child kidnapping.

Since March, the states in which such incidents have claimed lives are Andhra Pradesh (2),Assam (2), Chhattisgarh (1), Gujarat (1), Karnataka (1), Maharashtra (7), Tamil Nadu (2), Telangana (2), Tripura (2) and West Bengal (2).

According to media reports, states in which similar incidents of mob violence have left its victims severely injured this year include Assam, Odisha, Tripura, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

Though the Assam case in June hit the headlines, perhaps because the victims were from urban, middle-class families, it wasn’t the state’s first recent case of people being targetted on suspicion of being kidnappers. In February, two Sikh men were brutally beaten up by a mob in Kamrup district on suspicion of being kidnappers, said the Assam police.

The police in the states where such incidents have occured say that there are two common factors in most of these assaults. First, they seem to be driven by the fear of outsiders. Second, the rumours that sparked the mob action were magnified and circulated with lightening speed with the help of social messaging applications such as WhatsApp.

Both these factors have made it difficult for the police to nip these rumours in the bud. Police teams in many states have, however, started outreach programmes to help quell rumours that might fuel suspicion against strangers.

Fear against outsiders

The fear against outsiders is not necessarily directed only at those people who live in another state, but can be against someone who is not from that particular region.

In Assam, for instance, Nilotpal Das and Abhijeet Nath who were lynched in June were Assamese but not from Karbi Anglong, whose people are ethnically distinct.

A 65-year-old woman lynched by a mob in Tiruvannamalai district of Tamil Nadu on May 9 on suspicion of being a child kidnapper was also not from the area even though she belonged to the state.

The 24-year-old man assaulted in Wanaparthy, Telangana, was not from that area either.

In Bengaluru, 26-year-old Kulram Bachchanram, who was lynched on May 24 on suspicion of being a child kidnapper, hailed from faraway Rajasthan.

Abhijeet Nath (left) and Nilotpal Das.

Role of social media

The other factor that has fuelled violence against strangers across the country is social media. While fears of kidnappers have prevailed for generations in several parts of the country, social messaging apps have given such rumours unprecedented speed and reach, leading to mass panic in many cases, and subsequent mob violence.

Rumours spread like wildfire even as the police fail to comprehend their implications and end up reacting only in the aftermath of violent incidents. This ineffective response is not restricted to child kidnapping rumours but has also been observed in lynchings related to cow slaughter.

‘Police partly responsible’

Some people allege that the police is partly responsible for fuelling fear against outsiders.

For instance, in Odisha, several victims of the child kidnapping rumours belong to a denotified tribe who travel to coastal areas during this time of the year to seek alms, said Sudarshan Chhotoray, a social worker in Odisha. Denotified tribes refer to groups of people who during British rule were in 1871 formally classified as criminal tribes. In 1954, these tribes were delisted as criminal. “Rumours have already spread the fear of the pillachor [child lifter] and the police have somehow contributed to the fear by often naming denotified groups in unsolved criminal cases in the cities,” said Chhotoray.

But Odisha’s Director General of Police RP Sharma refuted the allegation. He said that the police had issued advisories in newspapers to create awareness among people about fake news about child kidnappers being on the prowl. “But to make sure that the message reached the remote corners of the state, we engaged police officials,” he said. “But by then a few incidents [mob violence due to child lifting rumours] had already taken place.”

The relatives of the men from a nomadic tribe who were lynched on suspicion of being kidnappers in Maharashtra's Dhule district on July 1. (Photo credit: Shone Satheesh).

‘Unprecedented challenge’

Several states have identified the phenomenon of mob-driven violence against suspected child kidnappers as an “unprecedented challenge”.

“We have never seen cases of violence caused by the traditional myth of chhele dhora [child lifters] till date,” said Atri Bhattachariya, Home Secretary in West Bengal. “To tackle this issue, we have included awareness curriculum on chhele dhora in our current community outreach programmes.”

Other states – Assam, Gujarat, Odisha and Telangana – have already designed community outreach programmes in connection with the problem. These states had earlier used similar outreach programmes for specific purposes such as witch hunting in Assam, child marriage in Odisha and temple prostitution in Telangana, police officials said.

As part of these programmes, police personnel visit villages to build relationships with local communities. “Beat constables in all districts have been asked to visit villages regularly and spread awareness against fake news about child lifters,” said Virendrasinh Gadhavi, spokesperson of the Ahmedabad Police.

They do this even without getting any distress calls concerning law and order situations, Gadhavi added.

But in Karbi Anglong, this outreach programme ran into trouble soon after the lynching of Nath and Das. When the police arrived in the area, they found that all the men in the village had fled fearing arrest, leaving only the women and children behind, said GV Siva Prasad, the superintendent of police in Karbi Anglong. Hence, the programme had to be re-designed by the state’s Director General of Police Kuladhar Saikia.

Tripura is one of the many states that had decided to focus on spreading awareness about fake news related to child kidnapping. But one of the campaigners it had hired to spread awareness was lynched by a mob last week on suspicion of being a child kidnapper himself. According to reports, an unidentified woman and a man from Uttar Pradesh were also lynched that same day in separate incidents in Sipahijala district and West Tripura district. After the incidents, the Tripura police suspended text messaging and mobile internet services in the state for around three days.

Some police officers say swift action was vital to deflate rumours that fuel suspicion against strangers.

In Rajasthan, for instance, Additional Director General of Police (Crime Branch) Pankaj Singh said that his colleagues had acted swiftly as soon as they sensed potential trouble in the western part of the state. “We informed all police stations and instructed beat officials to visit villages on a regular basis to spread awareness [on child kidnapping rumours].”

Swift action by the police could come with greater awareness of the situation in their area.

In Telangana, for instance, Rema Rajeshwari, the police chief of Gadwal and Wanaparthy regions, said that she sensed something was wrong in her area when constables told her in May that people in the villages were sleeping inside their homes, not outside, even though it was the height of summer. This was unusual. When the police dug deeper, they found six WhatsApp texts, audio messages and video clips saying that members of a denotified tribe were mutilating people.

Mohammed Naeem was one of the seven people lynched by villagers in Jharkhand in May 2017 over rumours of child kidnappings. (Manoj Kumar/HT).

The origin of the rumours

Keeping track of the spread of rumours and assessing their potential impact is something that the police has failed to do even as they have arrested scores of people for spreading rumours in the aftermath of such incidents. For instance, 40 people were arrested by the police in Assam after Nath and Das were lynched. Similarly, after the Tamil Nadu lynching in May, a man was arrested for spreading rumours.

But what about the very start of the rumour chain? Have those who started rumours that have caused panic and led to murder even been identified, forget about being caught?

Police departments across states have been unable to trace the origin of such rumours. The police concede it is difficult for them to do so.

Several claims about the origin of these rumours have fallen through upon scrutiny.

On Wednesday, Gujarat Home Minister Pradipsinh Jadeja accused Pakistan of circulating a video on social media that he said was responsible for spreading child lifting rumours in India. In a news report, BBC also identified that video – shot by a non-governmental organisation in Pakistan – as the probable cause behind the current frenzy in many parts of India.

Jadeja, however, did not attribute his accusations to anyone. Police officials in Gujarat admitted that they were clueless about the origin of child lifting rumours in the state. In Assam, the police said that Facebook posts on such rumours were already doing the rounds before most people had come across the Pakistan video. Even in Telangana, the police had seen grotesque videos of mutilated bodies with text claiming that the perpetrators could be child lifters much before the Pakistan video had started being circulated in the region.