Updated: September 8, 2019 7:19:23 am
Around noon on August 25, Choti Devi, a tailor, was hard at work on her sewing machine, rushing to finish pending orders. Her four children, the eldest nine years old and the youngest three, were sitting around in the one-room house, fiddling with their books and toys.
Just then, there was a knock on the door.
“I was suspicious… scared… My husband would return only in the evening,” says the 27-year-old. As she gingerly opened the door, she saw a woman in worn-out clothes and frazzled hair. “She told me, ‘Do you have children?… Give them these biscuits’.”
That was it — Devi’s worst fears had come true. “Bachche churane waali ab hamare gaon mein aa gayi (The child lifter had now come to our village). I began to scream and warned my children not to step out. All the WhatsApp messages I had been receiving for the past weeks had warned me against this. My children had not been going to school for at least a week. I didn’t want to lose them,” she says, standing outside her house, one of 38 rooms in a building at Echar village in Uttar Pradesh’s Greater Noida area that mostly houses security guards, labourers, tailors and their families. “And, this women particularly resembled one of the two women whose picture I had got recently,” says Devi, whose husband has a “company job”.
She then pulls out her Samsung smartphone, the one she bought for Rs 6,000 earlier this year, to show a picture her sister-in-law had sent her. It is a grainy selfie of two women, one in her 50s and the other in her late 30s. The older woman has her head covered with a dupatta, while the younger one has a thick line of vermillion on her head.
A message accompanied the picture: “Ye do ladies ke photos jitna ho sake share karo. Ye school, mohalle ke bahar se chote bachchon ko kidnap kar taskari karti hain (Share this picture as much as possible. They kidnap little children from neighbourhoods and schools and smuggle them).”
“The woman who came with the biscuits looked like the older one,” says Devi, over a week after the incident.
Later, the alleged child lifter was reportedly beaten up by residents and handed over to the police. “We just held on to her till the police came, we didn’t beat her… We were a group of 15-20 women, we were all crying,” says Devi.
However, when Sub-Inpector Naseem Ahmed from Echar Police Station investigated the case, it turned out that the ‘child lifter’ was in fact a “mentally unstable woman who had strayed from her family”. “The family is from Nepal but they worked in Ghaziabad. When we realised she was mentally unstable, I took her to the women’s cell in Meerut and put out her pictures in newspapers. That is how we tracked her family. They have returned to Nepal now,” he says. “No one has been kidnapped in the Greater Noida area,” he adds.
In the past month, fuelled by fake messages and morphed videos, photographs and undated newspaper clippings on WhatsApp and Facebook, rumours about child kidnappers have led to panic in pockets of Uttar Pradesh, the National Capital Region, and Delhi, and also led to incidents of mob violence in many cases. In almost all instances, no child has been found to be kidnapped.
On August 29, Director General of Uttar Pradesh Police O P Singh warned that the National Security Act would be invoked against rumour-mongers, 82 of whom have been arrested by the state police so far.
Gautam Buddha Nagar Superintendent of Police Vineet Jaiswal, under whose jurisdiction Noida-Greater Noida falls, admits the rumours have been a concern. “In all the cases that have been reported to us, no one’s child has been kidnapped. We have already started drives to spread awareness. We are using loudspeakers to inform residents that these are just rumours. We have also reached out to village heads. There have been arrests of rumour-mongers too,” he said. There have been at least 10 incidents of mob attacks and commotion over child-lifting rumours in the past fortnight in the Noida-Greater Noida region.
Most of the incidents have been reported from villages such as Dankaur, Bhatta, Hoshiarpur, Morna, Nagli Wazidpur and Bhooda — all settlements that supply manpower to plush neighbourhoods that have come up in the region in the past decade — where literacy rates are not very high, but almost everyone has access to a smartphone.
Like the other residents of Echar village, Devi’s fears took root many weeks ago, when she first saw a long Facebook post. “Gharelu mahilayon se anurodh hai ki kisi bhi ajnabi, jaise kabadi wala, feri waala, baba, ya bhikhari ke liye darwaza na kholein, aur galti se bhi na kahein, ‘Abhi koi ghar mein nahi hai’. Apne bachchon ka dhyaan rakhein… (Housewives are requested not to open their doors to strangers such as scrap collectors, vendors, godmen and beggars, and never say, ‘There is no one at home’. Protect your children).”
That message, says 46-year-old security guard Raju Kumar, was widely shared on WhatsApp later and went on to state that “a group of 500 men and women are out on the prowl for small children”. That is when, he says, most women stopped sending their children, at least the younger ones, to school. “I have now opted for night shifts so that I am home during the day,” says Kumar, who has two teenaged children.
His 15-year-old son Ankit Kumar promptly pulls put his phone to show a newspaper clipping that has a photograph of a godman with the headline: “Kasba Elam mein sadhu ke vesh mein aaye the apharankarta (In Elam hamlet, kidnappers had come dressed as godmen)”. “This message came two weeks ago. I shared it with everyone,” says the teenager, sitting on a parked bike and scrolling rapidly through his phone.
Devi, who is standing nearby, jumps at the mention of the message. “Hadn’t a similar man come to our building too?” she says. “I was washing clothes outside, and my children were alone in the room. A man dressed in saffron clothes kept knocking on our door. I rushed in and told him to leave… I also alerted everyone about him. Bachcha chor tha (He was a child lifter),” she says as the other residents, who have by now gathered around her, nod in agreement.
One of them is Chandrakala, 32, who has just picked up her child from school. As her son, a Class 1 student, hides behind her, she says, “Their school is close by. But for the past few weeks, I have been picking and dropping them. I made them stay at home for a few days, but for how long could I have done that?”
But Mohd Naushad Ali, 30, isn’t taking chances. He had got his daughter admitted to Nursery earlier this year, but recently withdrew her admission. “She can start the session next year. Mahaul bahut kharaab ho gaya hai abhi (The situation is very bad now). They are children, they get lured by toffees, biscuits. They don’t understand the danger,” he says, holding his four-year-old in his arm.
Apart from the videos and messages, what stoked Ali and Chandrakala’s fears was an audio message that they received on WhatsApp, which had a man narrating a kidnapping incident. “He also said that the kidnappers pulled out children’s organs and sold them,” says Chandrakala.
A few metres away, at the Chandrakanta School that has 450 students across Classes Nursery to 8, principal Saurabh Kumar says they have become more alert following the rumours. “When classes end, we get teachers to stand at the gates to ensure that no one apart from the parents speaks to the children. We have also asked all parents to pick and drop their children. If a parent fails to come, teachers drop the child home,” he says, sitting in his office in a run-down building.
While he admits there has been no case of kidnapping, he adds, “I can’t take a chance. We have told children, seedhe jao, seedhe aao (Come straight to school, and straight home).” “The other day I saw a beggar roaming near the school. I told her to leave. I knew she was not a kidnapper, but people could have mistaken her for one,” he says, while insisting that the incident “has not affected attendance much”.
Twenty-five kilometres away, in Bhatta village, Navjeet Singh, who stands in for his sarpanch wife Umesh Devi, has been struggling to quell the child-lifting rumours. Over the past week, his village WhatsApp group, ‘Jat Group’, has been flooded with videos and messages of child-lifting rumours. “Sab South se hee aa rahein hain (All these messages are coming from the south of India). We don’t know how to stop them,” he says.
Singh says some of the youth in his village are using the rumours to “trick their parents”. “The young men in the village don’t want to work in the fields. Recently, a 15-year-old son of a farm labourer consumed some drugs and passed out. When he woke up and went home, he lied to his family that two bearded men had forced him to inhale something and tried to kidnap him,” he says, adding, “There has not been a single case of kidnapping.”
Singh has another argument, “All the rumours are circulating in places where the poor live. But who wants to kidnap children of the poor? What will they get? If there were real kidnappers roaming around, they would have eyed the kids of the rich, wouldn’t they have?”
Back in Echar village, with rumours swirling, both online and offline, Devi’s children are nagging their mother to let them go out to play. “No way. Abhi nahin (Not now),” she says, ushering them back into her room.
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