WHILE POLICE in Dhule scramble for clues to track the source of the rumours that led to the lynching of five persons on Sunday, data compiled from across Maharashtra point to an intriguing geographical pattern.
It shows that the spate of violence in the state, sparked by rumours on WhatsApp of child-lifting, is concentrated in three clusters, large chunks of which border Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Telangana and Chhattisgarh.
Compiled by Maharashtra Police, the data also shows that 14 cases of “strangers” being attacked were registered over the last 25 days in 12 districts in the north, west and northeast of the state, leading to 60 arrests.
Police have identified these clusters as Aurangabad Rural and City, Nandurbar, Dhule, Jalgaon and Nashik; Beed, Parbhani, Nanded and Latur; and, Gondia and Chandrapur.
Mapping these cases, senior officers also said that the rumours that led to nine deaths in districts including Dhule, Aurangabad City, Aurangabad Rural and Gondia fall into four broad categories.
“So far we have observed rumours being spread about men roaming in Toyota Innova cars, mentally challenged men being child-lifters, rumours of children being taken away to harvest their organs for illegal transplants and groups of men entering villages to commit thefts,” said a senior officer.
Analysing district-wise trends, police data shows that on June 8, a mob attacked a group of eight men in Chandgaon village in Aurangabad’s Vaijapur taluka. Police said the residents mistakenly believed that the men had entered the village to commit crimes. Two men were killed and one seriously injured in that incident.
Days later in Aurangabad City, one man was killed after being thrashed by a mob following rumours on WhatsApp of a man in disguise roaming the area to kidnap children. In Gondia, a group of 15-20 people beat a man to death believing that he had come to the area to kidnap children and harvest their kidneys, officers said.
Two weeks ago, police said, two incidents were reported in Nashik district after messages spread through social media and word of mouth that a man, accompanied by his wife and sister, had been spotted lifting children. In the other case, one policeman was hurt while attempting to save a group of victims being pelted with stones by villagers.
Beed district recorded three such incidents, police said. One man was attacked by a mob after being accused of kidnapping children, a mentally challenged man was chased away after villagers pelted him with stones. In the third instance, the police booked a man for spreading unverified rumours on WhatsApp.
Additionally, three men travelling in Nanded district two weeks ago were injured after being attacked by residents of a village following rumours of kidnappers roaming the area.
Similar instances were also reported in Chandrapur, Latur and Parbhani districts.
On Sunday, a mentally challenged boy was thrashed by a group of villagers in Jalgaon after rumours of him being a child-lifter spread, while villagers in Nandurbar district tried to set fire to a Toyota Innova car and attacked its occupant.
According to police, the men killed and hurt in Dhule and Malegaon Sunday belong to the Gosavi nomadic tribes, who are based in large numbers in Solapur and Parbhani districts. Each year, more than 300 members of the tribe split up in numerous groups and travel to all across the state visiting villages to beg for alms.
“We have instructed all field units to keep a watch on members of the tribe, sensitise local residents regarding their presence and report any instances of criminal activity,” a police officer said.
In the aftermath of Sunday’s incident, police have issued an advisory to commissioners and superintendents of all cities and districts to compile instances of mobs attacking individuals on the basis of rumours.
Police chiefs have been issued instructions to spread awareness against rumours “being spread by mischievous elements to create panic among masses”. The advisory warns that citizens who kill individuals in reaction to unverified rumours would be slapped with a case of murder and placed under arrest.
“We want people not to believe in rumours spread through social media and to approach police instead of taking the law into their own hands. The police will investigate these rumours,” Datta Padsalgikar, DGP, Maharashtra, said.