It was exactly 30 days ago, on June 8, that two young men from Guwahati, Nilotpal Das and Abhijeet Nath, were brutally lynched by a mob of villagers in Karbi Anglong district after a local man posted a message on WhatsApp saying they were “child lifters” and had kidnapped a young boy.
This gruesome incident was recorded on smart phone cameras and went viral on social media, causing shock and horror across Assam. Tension soared and there were demonstrations across the state calling for the arrest and swift trial of the perpetrators. In Guwahati, police had to baton charge a crowd demanding justice for the victims.
The mood became ugly, with calls for retaliation against Karbis, the tribe to which the killers belonged. But saner voices prevailed and there were no attacks on members of the tribe, thousands of whom live outside Karbi Anglong district.
Today, the 30th day of the killing of the two young men was observed with bicycle rallies in cities across India as a mark of protest against the lynching and also to call for peace. The cities included Guwahati, Shillong, Delhi, Bengaluru, and Mumbai. It was appropriate the bicycle rallies were held across India.
Because the lynching of innocents suspected to be ‘child lifters ’, on the basis of false information posted on social media, has become a Pan-Indian problem, escalating sharply since May.
On June 27 and 28, five people were killed and 20 others were injured by lynch mobs in different parts of Tripura after ‘fake news’ was circuited on social media that an 11-year-old boy had been kidnapped and killed in order to harvest his kidneys.
Those killed included an itinerant peddler from UP, a music teacher and two women, one homeless, the other mentally retarded.
On July 1, five tribal men were killed in Rainpada village in Dhule district of Maharashtra. They had gone to Rainpada to beg for alms during the weekly bazaar, but were lynched by a rampaging mob of 3,000 on suspicion of being child lifters.
These incidents happened in rural areas. But on May 24, a mob including women and minors beat to death 26-year-old Kalu Ram Bachanan, in the Chamarajpet area of Bengaluru (Bangalore), using cricket bats and iron rods.
Kalu Ram Bachanan was from Rajasthan and had come to Bengaluru in search of a job.
This incident made it into international TV new channels, because Bengaluru is famous as India’s ‘Silicon City ’, the heart of the country’s computer and information technology industries.
In May 2017, seven men were lynched by tribals in Jharkhand, also on suspicion of being child kidnappers.
From Assam, Tripura and West Bengal in the east, through Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in the north, Maharashtra and Gujarat in the west, and Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Telengana and Tamil Nadu in the south, such incidents have been on the rise across India since May, causing deep concern across the nation. At least 30 people have been lynched in the recent incidents.
In each of the cases cited above, there are certain common features.
First, the victims were all non-locals, strangers in the area, perhaps belonging to a different state, ethnic or linguistic group.
Second, in each case, the lynchings were triggered by ‘fake news’ circulated on social media, primarily WhatsApp and Facebook.
The messages, illustrated with graphic and gory morphed images, claimed that organized gangs were going around kidnapping and killing children in order to harvest their organs.
These fake messages have been circulating in almost every state of India.
In Maharashtra alone, 10 people were lynched in 14 districts since May, including the five in Rainpada. 18 more were injured, including some policemen who tried to protect the victims.
In Rainpada, the mob threatened to burn alive a few policemen who were on duty at the weekly bazaar, if they tried to interfere.
Fake messages about ‘child lifters’ naturally fed public paranoia in India, a country where peoples’ confidence in the police and justice system has always been poor.
There is a cultural reason behind the incidents. ‘Child lifting’ is an old fear traditionally used in India to scare children into sleeping, with bogeys created out of a passing peddler with a sack or a mumbling old woman. This fear, implanted in childhood, remains in the sub-conscious mind.
To this primordial fear has been added a new one – that of organ harvesting, a racket in many parts of the world spawned by advances in medical technology.
Add to that the poor state of education and literacy, and access to modern technology – smart phones – and a social situation is created which is always in danger of exploding.
There is also a political explanation. Ever since the BJP came to power in 2014, a culture of hatred towards minorities, especially Muslims, Christians and Dalits (and leftists and liberals) has been deliberately unleashed by the party’s supporters and associated organizations.
These include the RSS, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal.
This culture of hatred at first found expression with the slogan of “cow protection”, with gangs of “Gau Rakshaks” lynching Muslims and Dalits for allegedly slaughtering cattle or eating beef.
The spate of cow protection lynching has now abated a bit, with only one of the recent murders attributed to cow slaughter. The new excuse for lynching is child lifting.
But, as The Telegraph newspaper of Kolkata pointed out in a recent editorial, “The cow protection lynchings offered an enabling condition: a way of expressing hatred collectively, acting out the rhetorical violence of trolls on social media. Trolling has helped create an atmosphere of suspicion and rage towards difference. ”
Cow protection lynchings are currently under the scrutiny of the Supreme Court of India, which on September 6, 2017, asserted that cow vigilantism is in actual fact mob violence, which is a crime, and has to be dealt with by the states as a law-and-order issue.
The Supreme Court had directed the State governments to appoint senior police officers to act as Nodal Agents to tackle cow vigilantism and check mobs from taking the law into their own hands by introducing prompt, efficient mechanisms.
But due to lack of effective action by the affected states, the Supreme Court had to reiterate its directives. It now has to deal with a new problem, child protection lynchings.
The negative role played by social media applications like WhatsApp and Facebook in propagating false and mischievous information which serve to inflame passions and instigate mob fury has also come under severe scrutiny.
On July 3, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) of the Government of India asked Facebook-owned WhatsApp to take urgent steps to prevent spread of “irresponsible and explosive messages” on its platform through application of appropriate technology.
“MEITY has taken serious note of these irresponsible messages and their circulation in such platforms. Deep disapproval of such developments has been conveyed to the senior management of WhatsApp and they have been advised that necessary remedial measures should be taken to prevent proliferation of these fake and motivated sensational messages,” an official statement said. It warned WhatsApp that the company “cannot evade accountability and responsibility.”
The Union Home Ministry is soon to convene a meeting with representatives of Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp to check circulation of false information and fake videos about “child-lifters.”
Meanwhile, in Assam, the furore created by the lynchings of Nilotpal Das and Abhijeet Nath has led to a new awareness of the dangers of false news on social media.
The State Police has announced the creation of a special “cyber patrol unit” to thwart any attempt to spread hatred or disseminate misinformation or rumors through social media platforms. It has also gone on a publicity overdrive campaign asking people to alert the authorities if they find anything “objectionable” on social media.
This had at least one positive fallout so far. On July 5, six “Sadhus ” from Uttar Pradesh were rescued from possible lynching in Dima Hasao district, adjoining Karbi Anglong, after members of the public alerted police and an Army unit that a mob had gathered and were about to assault the men, suspecting them to be child-lifters.