In the four days leading up to the lynching of two ascetics and their driver in Palghar on April 16, WhatsApp groups in the area actively spread rumours and fuelled fear in villages in parts of the district. The rumour-mongering began on April 12 with a message about thieves and alleged organ-harvesters being spotted at a few villages, progressed to warnings about 500 Muslims being “let loose” across India to spread the Covid-19 virus and culminated in an announcement at 12.59 am on April 16 — if you catch a thief do not leave him alive. The three men were killed later that day as they happened to pass through these villages on their way to a funeral in Surat.
An analysis of five different WhatsApp groups of residents of Gadchinchle and its neighbouring villages in Palghar and the adjoining Union Territory of Dadra & Nagar Haveli, is part of the Maharashtra Criminal Investigation Department’s (CID) 5,291-page-long chargesheet filed earlier this month against 126 men for allegedly lynching ascetics Mahant Kalpavruksha Giri (70) and Sushilgiri Maharaj (35) and their driver Nilesh Telgade (30). The CID wrote in the chargesheet that the spread of rumours heightened tensions in Gadchinchle to the extent that villagers accused the travellers of being thieves in disguise.
Explained| Palghar lynching: A recap of what happened
The rumour-mongering had not gone unnoticed by the district administration which had convened a meeting at Gadchinchle at 5 pm on April 15, a day before the incident. Then Kasa police station in-charge, Assistant Police Inspector Anandrao Kale, Sub Inspector Sudhir Katare, Sarpanch Chitra Chaudhary and anti-superstition activists had pleaded with villagers not to believe in or act upon rumours and report any suspicious persons to the police.
To discourage large gatherings in public places, the authorities had also requested local boys not to play cricket in large groups and for men to refrain from selling toddy and playing cards in groups of 30-40. This message, sent by WhatsApp by Arun Kadam, a Panchayat Samiti member from Dahanu Taluka, also reminded Gadchinchle residents that 50 men who had accosted and attacked Thane-based Dr Vishwas Walvi, his colleague and their driver at Sarni Patilpada village on April 14 had been arrested by the police. It was shared in a WhatsApp group named Gadchinchle, which had as its display picture a doctor wearing a mask and cradling a map of India in her hands.
The CID has in particular flagged as suspicious the April 12 rumour about thieves being spotted at multiple locations which was posted on the following WhatsApp groups — Whatsapp Goo, AAL AADIVASI FRIEND and Group of Amboli.
Immediately after the attack on the doctors, images and videos of the incident and pictures of unidentified men being strangled and lying injured were circulated via WhatsApp. These images were found saved in the mobile phone of accused Prakash Chothe.
The CID also found a frantic exchange of text messages on group named Dudhani Jetty – a floating jetty on Dudhani Lake in Dadra & Nagar Haveli – in which locals claimed to have spotted and captured thieves at multiple villages, news clips about doctors in Dahanu testing positive for Covid-19, and warnings to watch out for Muslim men posing as beggars, grocers and butchers. There were messages on this group, exhorting women not to open doors of their homes after dark and a message claiming that two busloads of thieves had crossed over into Palghar from Khanvel in Dadra & Nagar Haveli.
Ignored between these frenetic messages was a press release issued by the Palghar Police on April 15 requesting citizens not to fall prey to rumours, to verify messages before forwarding them and the serious legal implications for those caught spreading fake news.
By the time a Group of Amboli member named Jay Adivasi sought to calm nerves frayed by constant rumours at 10.14 pm on April 16, the attack in Gadchinchle was underway. Pleading with his friends not to spread rumours and stay in touch, Jay Adivasi had written, “People stuck during the lockdown are travelling at night. Do not be afraid of them.” Less than half an hour later, photos and videos of the carnage at Gadchinchle flooded the group.
Sarpanch Chaudhary told the CID in her statement that while she was aware of the rumours persisting in her area, she had not seen any of them as she did not own a smartphone and did not use WhatsApp.
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