A WEEK after a mob lynched a 65-year-old woman, Rukmini, at a village near Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu, mistaking her and four others for child traffickers, nearly a hundred men from the hamlets around have disappeared, fearing arrest. Police believe the killing, in Athimoor village, wasn’t premeditated and the men, poor peasant labourers and daily wage workers, acted out of suspicion and fear, triggered by rumours and messages circulated over mobile phones. Almost exactly a year ago, nine people had been beaten to death by mobs under similar circumstances in a series of attacks in tribal-dominated areas near Jamshedpur in Jharkhand.
“We have arrested 36 people, including three women, for their alleged role in the lynching. We are looking for 20 more,” R Ponni, the Superintendent of Police of Tiruvannamalai district, said.
Calling the murder “spontaneous”, the SP said, “I do not want to talk much about their motives as the probe is on, but definitely it was spontaneous. We have retrieved three videos of the incident and have identified the 20 people we are looking for. There may be many more.”
On May 9, Rukmini and four others, including her son-in-law Gajendran, brother-in-law Venkatesan, and relatives Chandrasekharan and Mohankumar, were on their way to a temple of their family deity, located near Athimoor village. An investigating officer, who did not want to be named, said that Chandrasekharan and Mohankumar had arrived from Malaysia a week earlier, and Rukmini, a mother of two, was taking them to the temple for a visit.
Rukmini and the others had visited the temple, located 200-odd km from Chennai, many years ago. According to the officer, they lost their way and stopped their car to ask villagers the route. “While asking for the route, Rukmani offered chocolates to the children who were playing nearby. That was the trigger. Soon after they had left the spot, the grandmother of one of the children raised suspicion regarding the identity of the five, mentioning stories that had been doing the rounds of groups kidnapping children after offering them chocolates. She alerted a few villagers, the news spread, and the car carrying Rukmini and the others was stopped at Athimoor village,” the officer said.
All the passengers were dragged out and attacked, while the vehicle was smashed. Rukmini died on the spot, while police shifted the four injured to Tiruvannamalai Government Medical College. Officials said all had severe injuries and internal bleeding, and continue to be hospitalised. Gajendran had to be later shifted to a private medical college in Vellore for advance treatment. Rukmini’s family members remain out of reach.
In one of the many videos shot by the villagers of the incident, police officers are seen trying to take away the injured as hundreds stand watching from roof tops around. Based on the videos which helped identify some of the people in the mob, police registered a case against over 50, under Sections 147 (rioting), 148 (using a weapon likely to cause death), 307 (attempt to murder), 302 (murder), 341 (wrongful restraint) and 294 B (singing or reciting obscene songs or words in public places).
While SP Ponni said they are yet to ascertain the exact reason that led to the mob attack, one of those arrested was 29-year-old Veeraraghavan from Cheyyar in Tiruvannamalai, who allegedly circulated a video in Tamil on WhatsApp on May 2, saying that a number of children had been abducted from villages in Cheyyar, Vandavasi, Anakkavoor and Kancheepuram.
One of the investigators said there were many such WhatsApp forwards doing the rounds. “We have opened a control room for public to contact and alert us if there are such efforts to spread rumours,” an officer said. The officer said that after police began searches in Athimoor and neighbouring hamlets for the faces in the mob, several men in the area fled. “Some may have gone to cities in Kerala or to Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh in search of work. Fearing arrest, they seem to have decided to stay away from the village for now. We are searching specifically for 20 people who were identified. But nearly a hundred people seem to have left the area,” the officer said.
SP Ponni noted that the lynching was not the first such incident reported in recent days from the area.
On the same day as Rukmini was killed, said an IG-rank officer studying such cases to recognise a pattern, a 40-year-old man was beaten to death at Pulicat near Chennai by a mob, also on the suspicion of being a child kidnapper. “The victim was reportedly a mentally unstable person who used to roam around in the area. He was tied to a pole and beaten to death,” the officer said. No arrest has been made in the case so far for lack of evidence.
On April 30, police say, a migrant labourer aged around 30 was beaten to death by a mob belonging to Gudiyatham town in Vellore district, that mistook him for a robber. Just two days earlier, another migrant was beaten to death in Kancheepuram reportedly on the same suspicion. Probe is on in both cases. The senior officer inspecting these cases said it’s too simplistic to blame social media alone. “Most of these lynchings happened in remote villages and the accused are people with basic phones or no phones at all. So how can we say WhatsApp or social media was the trigger? Also none of the accused had a criminal past,” the IG said.