On Monday morning, the city of Malegaon in Maharashtra’s Nashik district heaved a sigh of relief. The night before, a tragedy had been averted when a mob on the verge of lynching a family of five – including a two-year-old child – on the suspicion that they were kidnappers had been stopped. It had taken a few valiant citizens, a police cordon and a tense two-hour operation to stave off the angry crowd and rescue the family.

In neighbouring Dhule district, five others had not been as lucky. Barely 12 hours before the Malegaon incident, a mob in Dhule’s Rainpada village beat the five nomadic travellers from Solapur to death, also on the basis of rumours that they were out to kidnap children.

The Dhule killings are the latest in a spate of mob lynchings that have claimed 22 lives in Maharashtra, Tripura, Assam, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Karnataka since March. Everywhere, the mobs seem to have been influenced by widely-shared WhatsApp videos and messages asking people to beware of child-lifters seeking to kill children. In most cases, the victims were people on the margins of society, such as beggars and settlers or visitors from another state.

In Malegaon, the target of the mob was a family of migrant job-seekers from Maharashtra’s Parbhani district who were allegedly begging for money to help them get back home. For many Malegaon residents, the fact that this family survived the attack has become a matter of subtle pride. When Scroll.in visited the city on Tuesday, a common sentiment among residents was that “at least Malegaon did not go down the same path as Dhule”.

But for many older residents, including those who helped save the family, the incident has brought intense shame, fear and despair. While no one died that night, they mourn the moral decay they witnessed when their younger neighbours came together to bay for the blood of a family that included a two-year-old child.

“This crowd was willing to kill people, even a small child, just because of rumours. They refused to listen to anyone,” said Rasheed Rationwala, a businessman and social activist who hid the family in his home. “What is happening to our youth?”

‘People are just concerned about the children’

A Muslim-majority town with a population of 5.7 lakh, Malegaon is famous for its power loom textile industry and infamous for two serial bomb blasts in 2006 and 2008 that left more than 40 people dead. Like in dozens of small towns across India, Malegaon’s citizens have been in panic for the past few weeks because of the alarmist “child-lifting” messages and videos surfacing on almost every WhatsApp group.

“These messages have been coming mainly in Urdu, but also in Marathi, Hindi and English,” said Rizwan Batterywala, a social activist and politician with the Malegaon Awami Party. “Typically, the messages name a neighbouring district or region, like Dhule, and claim that children have been kidnapped from there.”

According to Rationwala, some messages claim the kidnappers are “Naxals” while others ask people to be wary of Pardhis, a nomadic tribe once branded as criminal. “Our youth is not too educated so they easily believe such rumours,” he said.

Rizwan Batterywala says he has been seeing WhatsApp messages about child-lifters for more than a month. (Photo: Shone Satheesh)

Harssh Poddar, Malegaon’s additional superintendent of police, said the rumours are disparate and thus difficult to trace. “The messages include a mix of videos and voice recordings coming from different places. They are not surfacing on any one type of WhatsApp group either,” said Poddar, adding that the police have sent out counter-messages, distributed pamphlets in public and even held a few public meetings in the past fortnight to dispel the rumours. “We have also been booking people who forward these messages under Section 505 [of the Indian Penal Code], for spreading rumours with the intention of causing public mischief,” he said.

Nonetheless, the rumour-mongering has triggered a few small mob incidents in Malegaon in the past month. Just two days before the July 1 incident, Batterywala claimed he helped save three beggars from an angry crowd near his shop. “That evening, an eight-year-old boy had strayed from his mother in a public park, and when the mother came out crying for help, people began beating up some beggars who sit in the chowk,” said Batterywala, adding that he intervened and managed to disperse the crowd. “Later it was found that the lost child had made his way back home by himself when he could not find his mother.”

Dismissing the WhatsApp messages as lies spread by people with a political agenda, Batterywala, however, said the “public is not at fault” because the rumours are very strong and “people are just concerned about the children”. He said, “Lately, people have been terrified of sending their children to school. The other day, when I went to pick up my own daughter from school, someone stopped to verify whether I am indeed her father. I was touched by his concern.”

The night of the attack

At the heart of the July 1 incident on Malegaon’s Ali Akbar Road is a 14-year-old boy, who was returning home from his madrasa at 7.30 pm. According to Poddar, the family from Parbhani encountered the boy on the street. “The nature of their interaction is still being investigated, but soon after, rumours began to spread that they were trying to kidnap the boy,” the officer said. Some time later, an angry mob gathered on the street.

But when Scroll.in met Ismail Sheikh, the boy, at the Malegaon General Civil Hospital, he narrated a very different story. “I was returning home from madrasa that night and went through a dark lane,” said Sheikh. “Suddenly, someone came from behind me and put a handkerchief over my mouth. The smell was making my eyes feel heavy, but I managed to scream.” As Sheikh struggled, a man came to his rescue, prompting his assailant to run away. “The man later told me there were two people who attacked me, and that they might have been wearing burkhas,” Sheikh said.

The boy said his rescuer chased the assailants for a while, but the pair managed to escape in the darkness. “Then the man came back to me,” he said. “I was vomiting, and he offered to drop me home.” Once home, his family took him to the hospital. They do not know the man who rescued their son. Sheikh is still recuperating and hospital authorities did not allow journalists to photograph him.

The hospital where 14-year-old Ismail Sheikh is recuperating from the attack. (Photo: Shone Satheesh)

Within three hours of the attack, rumours gripped the neighbourhood that the family of beggars from Parbhani was behind the incident. As the mob beat up the family, the commotion drew the attention of Shaikh Wasim Shaikh Karim, a businessman and Rasheed Rationwala’s nephew, whose family owns a power loom mill and a ration shop off Ali Akbar Road.

“Me and a few others tried very hard to stop the crowd, but they kept attacking the family,” said Karim. “We called the police and somehow managed to push two of the family members in my power loom and lock the door. We then pushed the couple with the child into our house.” Karim – who was punched in the face while allegedly trying to protect the child – and his uncle Rationwala live in a three-storey bungalow with a tall concrete fence around it.

While Karim claimed the police arrived late, Poddar said his teams were at the scene on time and were instrumental in extricating the Parbhani family from the mob and protecting them. “By this time, the crowd had swollen to around 1,500 people,” Poddar said. “I had to call for the riot control police and additional reinforcements.”

The officer also said the police managed to contain the mob, which was growing increasingly violent, without using firearms. “The mob had started heavy stone-pelting but we stuck to lathi charge,” he explained.

Shaikh Wasim Shaikh Karim (left) with a photojournalist who was injured during the mob attack in Malegaon on July 1. (Photo: Aarefa Johari)

‘They wanted to deliver mob justice’

After an intense tussle, the police managed to stave off the mob long enough for them to rescue the hiding family of five in two police vans. The family has now been kept at an undisclosed location. Barring one member who suffered a contusion on his forehead, they are largely unharmed, Poddar said.

Over the next few hours, as the mob dispersed and calm was restored, the police booked 250 people for attempt to murder. But the chilling details of the altercation between the mob and those who stood up against it have left many in Malegaon shaken.

For one, the arrival of the police did nothing to quell the crowd’s rage. “Even when we assured the crowd that we would investigate the allegations of kidnapping, they kept demanding that we hand over the family to them,” said Poddar. “They wanted to deliver mob justice.”

When the mob began pelting stones, several police personnel were injured and had to seek shelter in Rationwala’s home. “The crowd was so angry they overturned an entire police van, while three policewomen were in it,” said Karim, adding that he helped the policewomen out of the van.

Close to the scene of the incident is a prominent mosque. When the stone-pelting started, the police requested the imam to appeal for peace on the loudspeaker. That too did not have an impact, said Rasheed Rationwala. “The imam tried to explain to them not to act with josh [fervour]. Then he began to pray the azaan, so that the crowds would calm down,” he said. The azaan is the Islamic call to prayer. “The mob was full of young people from our own community, and they did not even have respect for the azaan,” Rationwala said. “What has our youth come to? All of us are worried.”

At the Malegaon General Civil Hospital, Ismail Sheikh’s mother Zebunnisa seemed even more anguished. “I never believed all those WhatsApp rumours about children getting kidnapped, but it almost happened to my own son,” she said. “But I do not know why the crowd decided to blame those poor Marathi people [the Parbhani family]. We never asked anyone to attack them like this.”