“Don’t allow these persons in (the) red car to escape. They are child kidnappers.’’
That was the message sent, along with a video of four men distributing chocolates to schoolchildren, to WhatsApp groups in Murki and surrounding villages of Bidar district in Karnataka on Friday evening. Within half-an-hour, one of the men, a software engineer, was killed and the other three were seriously injured after they were attacked by villagers in Murki.
Police said they had traced the WhatApp message to Manoj Patil, a farmer from Handikera village in Aurad taluka. He is among the 30-odd people who have been arrested so far.
“Manoj Patil’s provocative message caused the lynching. Patil, a farmer who also does construction work, is the administrator of half-a-dozen WhatsApp groups. He sent this provocative message — that these men are child kidnappers and should not be spared — to WhatsApp groups in Murki and surrounding villages, which triggered the chase and the attack on the men. His message instigated the attack,’’ said Dilip Sagar, Circle Police Inspector (CPI) of Kamalnagar Circle.
The man who was killed was identified as Mohammed Azam Ahmed (32) of Malakpet in Hyderabad, a software engineer with Accenture who was working on a project at Google. While two of the injured, Noor Mohammed (30) and Mohammed Salman (20), are also from Hyderabad, the third is a Qatari national, Salham Eidal Kubaisi (38).
According to their relatives, the men had stopped for tea near a school at Handikera village in Aurad taluka at about 4.30 pm on Friday, when they saw some schoolchildren heading home. “Salham started handing out foreign chocolates, which he was carrying, to the students. However, someone raised an alarm that strangers were luring kids with chocolates and people started gathering immediately,” said Kubaisi’s wife Zaibunnisa.
She said the four men, sensing danger, fled in the vehicle they were travelling in but by that time some people had taken videos and photographs of them and circulated it on WhatsApp. The messages soon went viral.
The men were waylaid at Murki village, about 20 kms from Handikera, where villagers reportedly blocked the road with a felled tree. Their vehicle fell into a ditch, and the mob pulled out the men and beat them up. The attack, according to police, lasted for about 45 minutes.
In one video, Inspector Dilip Sagar is seen pleading with the mob to spare the lives of the men. “When we reached the spot, one person had already been beaten to death. The mob was raining stones and lathis on the other three persons after dragging them out of the car. Imagine a mob of 400-500 people throwing stones and sticks,” said Sagar.
He said 10 policemen, including himself, tried to form a ring around the victims, but the mob attacked them too. “The mob made the police their target for trying to save the victims. Some people attacked us with lathis. One ASI suffered a fracture on his leg, while five others suffered serious head injuries. We were outnumbered and could have easily opened fire on the mob, but that would have escalated the situation,” said Sagar.
“The mob was baying for blood and it was scary and unnerving for us too, as we feared for our lives. I begged and pleaded with the people to let them go. I explained they were not child-lifters but they were not in a mood to listen. They were in a frenzy and just wanted to kill them. Our priority was to evacuate the victims and rush them to hospital, so we tried to pacify the mob. We managed to save the remaining three men from being killed,’’ he said.
On Sunday, two days after the attack, there was tension in Murki and the surrounding areas. Villagers were angry that about 30 people had been arrested over the last two days. Two teams of policemen were going around the village, trying to identify more culprits. Police also carried out raids in surrounding areas, where some people were reported to be hiding.
Meanwhile, police rubbished the claim of some villagers that they attacked the men because their vehicle hit a villager on a motorcycle. “No such thing happened. The villagers put up roadblocks, using logs of wood and a table from a nearby hotel. The car was travelling at high speed as some people were already chasing them on motorcycles from Handikera village. While trying to avoid the roadblock, the driver lost control and the car overturned. There was no accident involving a motorcycle,’’ said a police officer.
In a series of reports from July 6 to July 9, The Indian Express investigated the killing of 27 people in 15 cases triggered by rumours of child-kidnappers on the prowl. One of the cases it tracked was of a similar lynching — of a 65-year-old woman at Athimoor village in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvannamalai district — on May 9.
The victim, Rukmini, was travelling with her relatives to a temple when they stopped on the way to ask for directions, and offered chocolates to some children playing nearby. But after they left, rumours spread that they had offered the chocolates to lure the children. They were attacked by a mob of around 200 in Athimoor, a few kilometres away.