Mob violence over child-lifting rumours is back with a vengeance.

In 2018, angry mobs killed at least 24 people between January and July in a spate of incidents across the country, on the suspicion that they were child abductors. The suspicions were fuelled by rumours that had spread like wildfire on WhatsApp and other social media platforms, about gangs of kidnappers who were out to snatch children and harvest their organs.

Reports about these rumours and the mob attacks they triggered died out in the latter half of 2018, even though mob lynchings by cow protection vigilantes continued to make headlines. But in the past two months, social media rumour-mongering about alleged child lifters have resurfaced in several states, fuelling mobs that have killed at least three people so far and injured dozens more.

Like last year, state governments and police forces are once again struggling to find new methods to counter rumours about child lifting bogeymen and prevent mob violence. The Uttar Pradesh government, for instance, is making arrests under the National Security Act to deter mob assaulters from taking law and order into their own hands.

But in a country where mob justice is rapidly gaining societal acceptance, will any of these efforts prove to be effective?

The attacks

On August 27, a man in Uttar Pradesh’s Sambhal district was killed when a mob attacked him and his brother while they were out taking their young nephew to a doctor. Earlier, on August 4, a mob in Patna beat a beggar to death after mistaking him for a kidnapper. In July, a transgender person met the same fate in West Bengal’s Jalpaiguri district.

Several other cases have not resulted in deaths, but have been just as alarming. On September 1, a mob in Delhi thrashed a 48-year-old pregnant and deaf-mute woman. The next day, a mob in Amethi beat up eight labourers after assuming they were kidnappers. This is the latest in a series of nearly 20 such cases that have been reported recently from across Uttar Pradesh, where mobs have violently attacked beggars, labourers, ‘outsiders’ from other states and even an engineer in Rae Bareli on the mere suspicion that they may be child abductors.

Rajasthan, too, has been grappling with a sudden spike in the number of child lifting-related mob attacks across the state, with 20 cases reported from eight districts in just three days in the last week of August.

In most cases, the assaulters have been young men in their 20s or 30s, and their frenzy has left even police and government officials feeling unsafe. On August 29, a Delhi police team visited Bareilly in plain clothes to investigate a dowry case, and was mistaken for child abductors. They had to be rescued from an angry mob by the local police. On August 28, a mob of more than 100 people in Fatehpur mistook a team of health department officials for child lifters and were attacked.

In Bihar’s Gaya, local police claimed they were afraid of venturing out into the dark after a mob assaulting a group of men on Sunday accused one of their victims of hypnotising his own child into calling him “papa”.

Mohammed Naeem was one of the seven people lynched by villagers in Jharkhand in May, 2018, over rumours of child kidnappings. Credit: Manoj Kumar/HT Photo

How states have responded

When child-lifting rumours reached a fever-pitch in 2018, the central government instructed state governments to take a slew of local measures to arrest their spread and prevent mob attacks. At district levels, police officials began monitoring social media and issued repeated messages on media and social media platforms urging the masses not to believe in the child lifting rumours.

In a more drastic measure July 2018, the Tripura government had shutdown mobile internet and messaging services for 48 hours in a bid to clamp down on rumours after one man was lynched by a mob.

On its part, the central government issued a warning to WhatsApp in July 2018 asking it to take measures to contain the spread of rumours on its platform. Since then, Whatsapp has introduced a feature to make it easy to identify a forwarded message, but it has not compromised on encryption of its messages to protect users’ privacy.

The resurgence of child-lifting rumours and attacks this year indicates that last year’s efforts to clamp down on them have borne little fruit. Now, states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are trying harder.

In Bihar, for instance, the state’s Director General of Police posted a Facebook Live message to educate viewers about how child-lifting rumours are completely false, and police officials have been asked to conduct local awareness drives through loudspeakers.

The Uttar Pradesh police announced on August 29 that it would invoke the National Security Act against people spreading rumours of child lifting. According to the state’s Director General of Police, OP Singh, 82 people have been arrested so far. But the announcement about the National Security Act has had little impact on the ground, with several cases continuing to be reported in the state.

In July 2018, Union minister Jayant Sinha garlanded eight men convicted of lynching a meat trader in Jharkhand when they were out on bail.

A culture of mob violence

More than a year after mob violence linked to child-lifting rumours became a sinister trend, we know little about the origin of these rumours and how they spread so far and wide. We know little beyond the fact that most violent mobs are made up of young men and that most of their targets tend to be migrants or people living on the margins of society.

Mob violence in itself, however, has gained increasing social acceptance in the past few years, particularly in the context of cow protection vigilantism. A Human Rights Watch report in February found that gau raksha or cow vigilante groups killed 44 people across India between 2015 and 2018, with Muslims forming the majority of their victims. Often, the report found, these vigilantes received support from law enforcement authorities and Hindu nationalist politicians.

These findings are corroborated by the results of a new study on the state of policing in India released last week. The report found that one in every three police person in India believes it is natural for a mob to punish culprits in cases of cow slaughter.

In this environment, government and police authorities will need to do a lot more than awareness drives against child-lifting rumours to prevent further mob attacks on innocent citizens.