DAYS after two Rajasthan youths attained national notoriety after a video showing them beating an elderly woman, asking her to spell out her religion, was shared widely on social media, the duo said that they lost their mind due to superstitious fear of a “baal-katni” rumoured to be moving around in their village in Nagaur district. “I had seen a photo circulating on WhatsApp – someone had shaved off the hair of one Purva Ram’s wife in Kantilasar village at night,” Prakash Meghwal, 25, told The Indian Express, when they were led by police to the spot by Nagaur-Bikaner national highway, where they assaulted the intellectually challenged (learning disability) woman late Tuesday afternoon.
“Darr mein vichar banae nahi banta, apne aap ban jata hai (you lose your mind when you are afraid, and you do not realise what you are doing),” he said. The police are yet to trace the woman, who locals claim appeared to be a vagabond. Kantilasar is not far from where Prakash and co-accused – his nephew Shrawan, 20 – come from: Kalanata ki dhani, a few hundred metres from the highway. No one knows whether Purva Ram is for real, and it is yet to be ascertained whether the image circulated of the woman’s tonsured head is authentic. But that’s how local rumours spread, said Ramprakash, head constable at Balaji police station, where the two are held since their arrest on Thursday, soon after the video went viral.
Explaining the fear – oftener than not “absurd and unfounded” – he said, “The local rumour is that a person, or a group, goes around (villages), indulging in sorcery. They apparently make people unconscious, and loot their belongings.” A constable at the police station, Bajrang, added, “People here are waiting for rains now. Until the monsoon arrives, they have nothing to do. So they add their bit to rumours and pass them on.” According to locals, the rumour got stronger over the last couple of weeks after some photos of people’s tonsured heads – apparently “victims” of bal-katnis (literally, one who cuts hair) – were circulated on social media, and apparently published in a local newspaper. According to Constable Harchand, who lodged the FIR, arrested the duo and is investigating the case, late Tuesday afternoon, the woman was going around asking for food in the small hamlet by the highway.
He said, “Part of the rumour was that sorcerers work in groups, so someone asked her whether there were others accompanying her. Being intellectually challenged, she nodded. That triggered panic, and the word spread through children.” Prakash and Shrawan soon caught up with her. “She was not speaking at all. We wanted her to speak,” Prakash said, when asked why they beat her. Shrawan added, “She was not right.” The video shows the two striking her repeatedly with a green telecom pipe, asking her to spell out her religion: “Bol Allah…Jai Shri Ram…Jai Hanuman”. “People around them were cheering them on,” said Subhash, who runs a small general store, which can be seen in the background in the video. Claiming to be remorseful now, Shrawan said, “We did not realise she had a mental disability. We will apologise if we see her.”
Prakash insisted that this is the first time they have been booked by the police – the two were booked under IPC Sections 341 (wrongful restraint), 323 (voluntarily causing hurt) and 354 (assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty). The police are still looking for the person who recorded the video. Back at Kalanata ki dhani, Prakash’s father Bhagirath Ram, 65, said, sitting outside their modest, non-plastered two-room house, “The media is portraying him like a dacoit but we are really simple people – you can see our home…. We love everyone: Hindus and Muslims…we love (people from) all castes. We have no political affiliation either.” His wife Chuni Devi said, “He is a good boy and minds his own business.” Bhagirath Ram agreed that what his son did was wrong. “He has embarrassed us before all. Some say he will not get bail; well, he used to eat roti at home, now he will eat roti there (in lockup),” he said.X