ON THIS winter night, when his village is plunged into darkness due to a power failure, Shakil Deshmukh is glad that the people he is responsible for are chatting beside bonfires and not chasing after their own shadows.
It’s been barely six months since swathes of rural Maharashtra witnessed a wave of mob violence — triggered by rumours and doctored videos circulated online of child kidnappers on the prowl — that left nine people dead across 12 districts within a month.
“June and July,” says Deshmukh. That was when Atali, the largest village in Buldhana’s Khamgaon taluka, teetered close to adding another statistic to the lynchings.
“It took two months of constant meetings and awareness programmes for things to become normal and for people to stop being afraid and suspecting their neighbours. But now, they aren’t paranoid anymore and don’t stay awake till midnight chasing after cats,” he says.
“There are five WhatsApp groups in the village and each household is part of them. Last year, people would post rumours of child-lifters they had received from relatives in Nashik and Nagpur. Whenever I saw those messages, I would immediately respond on the group to point out that they were false. Once the group admins were made responsible for keeping rumours in check, they began to remove irresponsible members from the groups,” he says.
In the rural districts of the state, where at times there is only one police station to serve as many as 50 villages, it is the Police Patils — civilian police representatives — who serve as vital sources of on-ground intelligence and help keep the peace.
A decade into the job, Deshmukh is the first Muslim Police Patil of this Hindu-majority village. And he has had his hands full since the lynchings began, reaching the spot in time on two occasions when tensions could have flared dangerously.
In July, a large crowd gathered around two men walking to the fields after dark to relieve themselves. Only after Deshmukh intervened were they were identified as locals.
Soon after Diwali, when thieves broke into ten houses and fled with Rs 50,000 in valuables, a group of men who had alighted from an SUV at the village bus stand was surrounded by a 50-strong mob. “If they hadn’t managed to drive away on time, anything could have happened,” says Deshmukh.
Dr Dilip Katole, 50, the local doctor and Sarpanch, says when the tension was at an all-time high, the rumours were the only thing anyone would talk about. “People would sit in groups of three and four to discuss the latest they had heard, instead of going to work. They were afraid, because those messages had gone viral,” he says.
Ratna Dikkar, 30, a panchayat samiti member, says after the lynchings, announcements were also made during meetings. “We had requested villagers to not fall for the rumours. After a couple of months, the WhatsApp messages stopped appearing,” she says.
When Deshmukh isn’t minding his own provisions store, the 40-year-old walks to the NH-548C nearby, scanning the road for new faces, usually salesmen or artisans who have set up shop temporarily. Police Patils are mandated to record names, addresses and phone numbers of each visitor in a “Musafir Register”.
“After the lynchings, a lot of tribals who set up camp near the village have approached me directly to register their details and seek protection,” he says. Deshmukh’s entries for 2018 shows that the most frequent visitors were blacksmiths and goldsmiths, a few astrologers and a couple of men who claimed to have been out doing “kasrat” (exercise).
“We have gone back to the basics of policing… Police Patils are required to submit monthly reports of each new musafir (traveller) in the village to the local police station. It wasn’t as though they weren’t reporting in the past, it wasn’t happening with the same diligence,” says Dilip Patil-Bhujbal, SP, Buldhana.
Inspector Rafiq Shaikh, of Khamgaon Rural police station, points to the high level of literacy as the reason for Atali not joining the list of villages in neighbouring districts that witnessed bloodshed.
But at the same time, warns Deshmukh, large-scale unemployment continues to make his village susceptible. “Half the population grows soybean on small fields and the rest who don’t own land work for daily wages. In each home, there is at least one person who is unemployed and that gives people a lot of free time,” he says.