THE rumours had been circulating for a month, prompting many parents to stop their children from stepping out in the afternoons or even going to school. They spread on WhatsApp, with pictures showing dead children and messages talking of ‘child lifters’. The administration took almost no notice, till Thursday night’s violence left seven dead and brought the state to the edge of a tribal vs non-tribal clash.
With no arrest made yet in the lynching cases, pitched battles were seen on Saturday in Muslim-dominated areas of Jamshedpur between protesters and police. Four of those lynched were Muslims, and the community held protests and announced a bandh. Police had to use teargas and lathicharge to control the mob.
According to local tribal leaders, for many days, tribals had been guarding villages with traditional bows and arrows and lathis. They were reacting to messages that circulated as authentic news, with dates and details of ‘child lifting’ incidents, and where all they had been spotted and how many held. The messages even gave details of sedatives “seized from the child lifters”, including injections, handkerchief etc used to administer them. Some others warned of ‘child lifters’ being dressed in black and speaking in “many languages”.
The first fallout of the tension was on May 12 when two people suspected to be child kidnappers were lynched in Jadugora, in almost the same circumstances as Thursday night. But even then police or the administration held no meetings to calm fears or dispel rumours.
In some areas, tribal villagers say, they even alerted police about the messages doing the rounds. “Tribal leaders said they also called in police before the situation went out of control in the two lynchings, but got no help,” said Sini Soren, the tribal mukhiya of Uttar Kamardi village.
After the killings, most tribal men in the villages near Shovapur and Goradi, where the lynchings took place, are absconding.
Kolhan DIG Prabhat Kumar said, “We are trying to trace who spread those messages and why. Only identifying the people who forwarded the messages will not do. We are trying to trace who started them. At the same time, awareness is also being created.”
Asked why police had not acted earlier, he said, “We acted when we got information.”
Soren said, “Police and administration should have been serious initially when villagers told them about the rumours and WhatsApp messages. Whenever we go to them, they ignore us. I also think public representatives like us should play a role, and I am going house to house talking to people.”
“We condemn such killings, but please look at the other side too. Tribals are too gullible to such rumours owing to their lack of education. In my area and most others, children have either stopped going to school or are being escorted by their parents. Even during afternoons mothers don’t want their children to play or loiter around,” she added.
Some tribal leaders suspect there could be a conspiracy in the way rumours have been spread. “The administration, intellectuals and political leaders should come forward and create awareness,” said Salkhan Murmu, former MP and a prominent tribal leader of Jharkhand.
Ramesh Hansda, a BJP state committee member and tribal leader, said while the administration role could be examined, what could not be overlooked was that the tribal attackers had also targeted police.
He called the violence “the curse of the social media”. “We are telling people not pay heed to rumours, not to resort to violence. I have spoken to Chief Minister Raghubar Das and I personally visited the affected areas.”
With the price of smartphones falling, and Internet rates becoming cheaper, WhatsApp and social media are becoming popular in the interior villages. “Most youths have a cellphone now and spend a long time on social media. But they lack maturity and believe whatever is circulated. When they saw messages about child lifters, they believed it. They were so real,” says Ramesh Murmu of Udada village.