(Written by Rashmi Rajput in Dhule, Abhishek Saha in Guwahati, Sweety Kumari in Kolkata, Sreenivas Janyala in Hyderabad, Johnson TA in Bengaluru, Arun Janardhanan in Chennai, Prashant Pandey in Ranchi and Dipankar Ghose in Raipur)
Being an outsider, moving after sunset, taking an unfamiliar road, stopping to ask for directions, even offering a chocolate to a child on the way.
This is what led to the killing of 27 people in 15 cases of lynchings by frenzied mobs blinded by viral rumours of child-kidnappers on the prowl across nine states — from Assam to Tamil Nadu — in the last one year.
While the sudden burst of murderous rage may be spontaneous, an investigation by The Indian Express of the circumstances around each incident reveals distinct patterns — the demographics of the mob, its nature of mobilisation, the profile of accused, the way rumours spread, the response of police and the legal process.
One key finding of the investigation is this: proximity or distance of police from the scene of the crime doesn’t make a difference. In the 27 killings, the nearest station was 2-20 km from the spot — on an average, within 10 km. Yet, police were unable to reach in time. In the handful of cases that they did, they were heavily outnumbered.
Clearly, the rumour and the mob moves faster than the police. And rumour wins over fact — always. No previous case of kidnapping was recorded — or even suspected — in any of these lynching spots in the three months leading up to the attacks.
Significantly, in all these cases, The Indian Express found, the victims were not known to the accused and were merely passing through.
The latest black spot in the spate of killings — the lynching of five in Maharashtra’s Dhule on July 1 — prompted the central government to write to WhatsApp, which responded that it has introduced a series of measures, including labels on forwarded messages.
“But in the end, it’s down to the local police. How effective is their local intelligence in alerting them about tensions on the ground or an impending attack, how quickly they respond, how prepared they are in terms of arms and the number of personnel, what is the impact of their awareness measures. All these count, and have counted in the number of possible lynchings that have been prevented across the country due to timely intervention but have gone unreported,” a senior government official told The Indian Express.
In some cases, however, none of this worked. In Jharkhand, the victims were dragged out of a police jeep. And in Tripura, they sought refuge inside a police camp, which was stormed.
The Indian Express interviewed scores of senior police officers, accessed records in nine states to track the lynchings and came across a scar that cut across the country from the south to the west and up to the east:
Jharkhand: 7 killed
May 18, 2017
Location: Nagadih village, East Singhbhum.
Victims: Brothers Vikas Verma (25) and Gautam Verma (27),and their friend Gangesh Gupta (26). The Vermas had started a business of digging pits for toilets in rural areas, and were on their way back to Jugsalai in Jamshedpur around 8.30 pm on May 18 when they were lynched by a mob of 1,000.
Nearest police station: 4 km – police arrived as the attack started.
May 19, 2017
Location: Shobhapur village, Seraikela-Kharsawan.
Victims: Naim (25), Sheikh Sajju (26), Sheikh Siraj (26) and Sheikh Halim (28). They were residents of Haldipokhar village and allegedly involved in cattle trade. They were lynched by a mob of 600-700 people in the early hours of May 19.
Nearest police station: 20 km – police arrived in an hour.
Rumour: In both incidents, it started with a Hindi daily publishing reports that child-lifters were on the prowl in Potka, Asanboni and Musaboni areas near Jamshedpur. The reports were soon converted into Facebook posts and forwarded as WhatsApp messages.
Tamil Nadu: 1 killed
May 9, 2018
Location: Athimoor village, Tiruvannamalai
Victim: Rukmini (65). She was travelling with her relatives to a temple. En route, they stopped and asked villagers for directions. Rukmini offered chocolates to some children playing nearby. After they left, rumours spread that they had offered the chocolates to lure the children. They were attacked by a mob of 200 in Athimoor.
Nearest police station: 3 km — police arrived in 30 minutes.
Rumour: A video circulating in Tamil on WhatsApp, which said that a number of children had been abducted from villages in the area.
Karnataka: 1 killed
Location: Cottonpet, Bengaluru
Victim: Kalu Ram, 26, a migrant labourer from Rajasthan, was cornered around 1.30 pm and lynched by a mob of 50 whose suspicions were aroused by his dishevelled appearance.
Nearest police station: 2 km – police reached 10 minutes after receiving a call at 1.40 pm.
Rumour: Fake videos about child-lifters had been circulating for a long time on WhatsApp in the area, which is in an old part of the city.
READ | Why rumours love WhatsApp
Telangana: 1 killed
Location: Jiyapalli village, Nalgonda.
Victim: An autorickshaw driver N Balakrishna, 33, of Koremulla village, had gone to Jiyapalli 18 km away to visit a relative. He was lynched outside a toddy shop when he failed to convince a mob of around 50 that he was not a child-lifter.
Nearest police station: 15 km — attack occurred around 6 pm, police were alerted only at 11.30 pm, reached half-an-hour later.
Rumour: Rumours of thieves and kidnappers were doing the rounds in the village since two weeks before. The first message arrived as a forward in a students’ WhatsApp group.
Assam: 2 killed
Location: Panjuri Kachari village, Karbi Anglong.
Victims: Abhijit Nath (30) and Nilotpal Das (29), hailing from Guwahati, were lynched around 7.30 pm by a mob of 500 who accused the two of being “child abductors”. Nath was a contractor in Guwahati while Das was a sound engineer in Goa. Nath was out on work and asked his friend to accompany him.
Nearest police station: 18 km – police reached at 9.10 pm, half-an-hour after alert.
Rumour: Rumours of child-lifters had started doing the rounds around one week before the lynching through Facebook posts and word of mouth.
West Bengal: 2 killed
Location: Bulbulchandi-Dubapara village, Malda.
Victim: A man in his mid-thirties believed to have been mentally unstable was lynched by a mob of 60.
Nearest police station: 8 km — police arrived in 30 minutes.
Location: Mathuri, East Midnapore.
Victim: Sanjay Chandra, a 36-year-old B.Com graduate, was out to meet a prospective employer, and had covered his face due to the morning heat. Local residents saw him talking to a minor girl and got suspicious. Soon, around 1,000 people attacked him.
Nearest police station: 8 km — 2-3 policemen at a checkpost reached within minutes.
Rumour: Rumours of child-lifters had spread in both the areas, mainly by word of mouth.
Chhattisgarh: 1 killed
Location: Mendrakala village, Surguja.
Victim: An unidentified man, who police say was “mentally challenged”, was lynched by a mob of 15 after he failed to establish his innocence.
Nearest police station: 12 km – police were alerted during the assault but could not reach in time.
Rumour: Rumours of a child kidnapping gang had been circulating in neighbouring Ambikapur district at least two months before the incident. The most viral WhatsApp message said that a team of “500” has spread across Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh to kidnap children and steal their kidneys.
Tripura: 3 killed
Location: Sidhai Mohanpur, West Tripura.
Victim: Zahir Khan, a 30-year-old hawker, was killed by a mob of 1,000 as he was travelling in a van with three assistants selling their wares.
Nearest police station: 8-10 km – the four sought refuge inside a local camp of the Tripura State Rifles where the jawans opened fire in the air but were heavily outnumbered.
Location: Kalachhara, South Tripura.
Victim: Sukanta Chakraborty, 33, an announcer hired by authorities to spread awareness against such rumours in Sabroom sub-division was killed at the Kalachhara market place by a mob of 2,000 around 3pm.
Nearest police station: 8-10 km – a few policemen were present but were outnumbered.
Location: Lakshmibil village, Sipahijala.
Victim: An unidentified woman was killed when she and another woman were attacked by a mob.
Nearest police station: 5-6 km.
Rumour: The source of rumours that spread over social media and word of mouth was the discovery of the body with cut marks of an 11-year-old boy in the Mohanpur area of West Tripura on the night of June 26. The injuries led to rumours that the boy’s kidneys were removed, which were later proved baseless by the post-mortem report.
Maharashtra: 9 killed
Location: Rainpada, Dhule
Victim: Dadarao Shankarao Bhosale (36) and his brother Bharat (45), Bharat Malve (45), Aagnu Srimant Ingole (20) and Raju Bhosale (47). The five, all related and members of the nomadic Gosavi community, were killed by a mob of over 3,500.
Nearest police station: An outpost 20 km away, Pimpalner station 40 km away – first call to Pimpalner at 11.10 am, police reached at 12.15 pm.
Rumour: Cocktail of many rumours spread over various media, including a 40-second video which shows disfigured bodies of young children lined up in rows and a Hindi voice-over claiming that they had been kidnapped. Another video shows a woman wearing a hijab and a voice-over claiming that people like her abduct children.
Four more men were lynched in three other incidents in Maharashtra within a week last month — 3 in Aurangabad and 1 in Gondia — all over similar rumours.
The Indian Express findings point to the pressing need for a more effective police response, as a first step in preventing such killings.
Local police in the nine states have already launched intense awareness programmes and adopted various measures, such as having a representative on many of these village WhatsApp groups.
But these lines from the FIR in the Dhule lynching illustrate the challenges they face. ASI Ravindra Randhir, states: “When we were trying to remove the bodies from the panchayat office, the mob threatened us… They said, “Set the bodies of the deceased on fire before us… let us confirm they are dead, otherwise we will put you and these bodies inside your jeep and set it on fire.”