In the summer of 2017, mass hysteria gripped much of North India as hundreds of women, from villages and cities, complained of having their braids chopped off by mysterious attackers. Many a theory was propounded to explain the phenomenon and mental health experts were called in but the mystery was never resolved. The frenzy it generated, however, manifested into a culture of vigilantism that claimed one person and left several injured. A year on, mass hysteria fostered by rumours of child abductors on the prowl has left at least 22 people dead across 10 states.

The two seasons of hysteria bear striking similarities – in rationale, or the lack of it; in how rumours spread through social media and word of mouth; and in the inadequate investigation of causes and effects.

The major difference, of course, is that the ongoing hysteria over child abduction is far more widespread, and deadly. Another is that in all cases of lynching incited by rumours of child lifting the victims were outsiders – ethnically and culturally if not necessarily geographically – whereas some of the people targeted for allegedly chopping braids had turned out to be fellow villagers, or townsfolk.

But the primary distinction perhaps is that unlike the phantom braid chopper, the idea of the child lifter has not emerged out of a void. It is rooted in Indian folklore and legend.

Just an urban legend?

The concept of the child lifter has existed in many Indian communities for a long time, primarily as a tool for parents to control the behaviour of their children, said Kishore Bhattacharjee, a professor who researches folklore at Gauhati University. Over time, it has mutated into belief, spread through word of mouth. But how and where the belief actually originated has barely been researched.

Some have called child lifting an urban legend, but Shibani Sarmah, who researches urban legends at Gauhati University, said it is “not considered” one so far. Urban legends, she explained, contain a message that people tend to preserve for some reason, they have a kernel drawn from myth or a real story, and their settings are, well, urban.

The serial killer murdering the homeless on city pavements, for example, is an urban legend which originated from real instances in India and abroad. “The nucleus of the child lifter belief, however, remains unexposed so far,” Sarmah said. “And the incidents have been reported from rural areas as well, without any urban essence.”

Another famous urban legend that has travelled around the world is the vanishing hitchhiker. In Pakistan, the legend manifested as the Ghost of Tahira, a woman in a blue saree asking for lift on a highway in Karachi. In Assam in early 2000, it appeared as Teen Chudail, or three witches, who would hail a rickshaw at night and, at the end of the ride, break the rickshaw puller’s neck. It caused such dread in some areas that people started lighting three lamps outside their doors at night.

The urban legend of AIDS Harry AIDS Marry – the degenerate man or woman, as the context demanded, who infected unsuspecting people with the HIV – came to Assam wrapped in patriarchy and cultural tribalism. The story went that an Assamese man met a woman from Nagaland on a bus and they ended up spending three nights in a hotel room. The following morning, the man woke up to see the woman was gone but she had left him a message with the receptionist: “Welcome to the AIDS club”.

This legend, Sarmah pointed out, contains a message, alluding that Assamese men should not mingle with women from tribal areas who are perceived as being more liberal sexually. It is telling, Sarmah said, that such urban legends gained popularity just as patriarchal family structures started to loosen. Urban legends, she added, have always been closely linked to issues of gender, anxiety, lust and desire.

Such a clear message is not entwined with the belief of child lifting, Sarmah said, though there may be a motive. “At this juncture, the child lifter can be called a traditional rumour that has taken the shape of a belief and now is transforming into an urban legend with the dynamics of the communication patterns changing rapidly through social media,” she added.

Indeed, Shaheen Ahmed, a cultural studies researcher at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, writing on The Wire, connected the belief with Assam’s history of child trafficking and poor development indices. The Assamese, in fact, have several terms to describe child lifters: they are called Xupa Dhora in non-tribal areas and Phanka Dong in Karbi Anglong, where two men from Guwahati were lynched by a mob in June. In Bengali, the child lifter is called Chhele Dhora and in Odia, Pilla Chor. Chhele Dhora appears in a short story in the Taranath Tantrik anthology, written in the 1940s by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, the famed author of Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar.

In a study on the depiction of women in Purana traditions published in 1998, Aparna Roy, a scholar from the University of Allahabad, identifies the child lifter with Putana, one of the many forms of mother. In Hindu mythology, though, Putana is a demoness who breastfed the infant Krishna – depicted in the epics as an act of maternal devotion – only to be killed by him.

A Facebook post about purported child lifters from Bihar which has been doing the rounds of social media in Assam since early June

Role of social media

Yet, as police officials in several states pointed out, rumours about the prowling child lifter have incited violent mobs even in places where this concept seemingly does not exist in the language or folklore, particularly in western and southern parts of the country. In these places, the mob generally used the local term for thief to describe the suspected child lifter, the officials said.

This shows messages circulated through social media are cutting through historical and cultural contexts and beliefs. “Such beliefs earlier used to operate within closed communities, but now they are scattering, making them more difficult to examine,” said Nimesh Desai, director of the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences, whose team had cracked the mystery of Delhi’s Monkey Man, a classic example of rumours transforming into urban legends, in 2001.

“Such beliefs, coinciding with social concerns about child safety, can indeed create a hysteria,” he said. “Also, one needs to understand the demography of the mobs – the higher the degree of deprivation in terms of development, higher is the insecurity. Higher the insecurity, higher will be the potential to manifest into a mob culture.”

Still, until this year, fears about child lifting have rarely led to such a spate of killings in independent India. At least none have been widely reported. There are no records of such killings, by the government or otherwise.

One of the earliest reported cases of the lynching of alleged child abductors took place in 1982. Seventeen Ananda Margis, followers of a socio-spiritual movement founded in Bihar in 1955, were lynched by mobs at three separate places in Kolkata in a single day. The killings came to be known as the Bijon Setu massacre, which the Mamata Banerjee government formed a commission in October 2013 to investigate.

Most recently before this year’s spate of such lynchings, seven persons were killed by mobs on suspicion of being child lifters in Jharkhand’s Bagbera and Rajnagar on May 18 and 19 last year. It has only gotten worse this year.